Ming Tao Xuan in Montréal, where I purchased this tea in 2011 has labeled it as “Phoenix Ku Fu Cha (Chinese Red Tea)”, which is confusing in many ways. Its mystery, however, can still be unraveled with some careful tasting. And the process can be so rewarding.
My taste buds tell me that this is definitely an Oolong and not a Red tea (what we call Black tea in the West) although it definitely has a decent amount of oxidation, putting it near enough to Red tea territory. The fact that it’s a twisted leaf with a high oxidation and a plum-like sweetness puts it squarely in the Feng Huang (凤凰单丛) category.
Feng Huang, or Phoenix oolongs, are produced around the Wuyi shan region of Guandong province in southern China. Not as roasty as their Da Hong Pao and Shui Xian cousins, Feng Huang tea has dark twisted leaves but an amber infusion with a fruity aroma. The more of them I taste, the more I learn that the style has quite a range of flavor and strength (like all teas, really).
The kind that is most familiar to me is the Mi Lan Xiang or “honey orchid scent” style. It’s not uncommon to mistake a Phoenix for a tea with added flavors because of their strong fruity aroma (usually plum or apricot), and the Mi Lan style adds a sweet honey taste to that. After some experience you can tell the difference, though, because added scents are cloying and overflow the taste when it hits your palette. Real Phoenix is just sweet enough, but the underlying “rock tea” (another name for leaves grown in the Wuyi region) is still present.
In the cup, I’m getting the fruit aroma, but the taste isn’t filled with honey. I get sweetness, but it’s more of a candy sweet, like a subtle sugarcane. The roast gives it a decidedly Shui Xian leaning, making it less smooth in the aftertaste than I expect. I’m not certain what style of Phoenix to call this “Ku Fu” tea, because from what I can tell, “Ku Fu” doesn’t really mean anything. My best guess is that it’s supposed to be “Kung Fu”, a.k.a: Gong Fu Cha, a method of brewing but also a title given to tea of a particularly high quality (at least in the eyes of its seller).
So let’s rename this tea to “Feng Huang Gong Fu Cha (Chinese Dark Oolong Tea)”. I think that fits better. Surprisingly it is still delicious after more than a year in my tea cabinet. If you’re going to keep an oolong for more than a year, make sure that it’s darkly roasted like this one. The lighter styles can develop off flavors so easily, but more heavily toasted leaves tend, in my experience, to retain their taste longer.
As always, if you infuse an oolong like this for too long, you’ll get a real punch of the tannins when they hit your tongue. In this case I started with about 1.5 minutes and it was too much. The rule here is to experiment! After a shorter, perhaps 40 second infusion, I was very pleased with the taste. Don’t be afraid to try tea you think is past its prime, but remember to give it more than once chance and you may discover a treasure like this!