Taylor Cowan • September 22, 2020
The Wen Family's Song Zhong
There’s a moment I like in dramatic stories (and some great horror movies) where, in a time of all-encompassing terror there’s an inkling of hope. I say inkling because, often, every thing but this tiny, foolish hope seems bleak. Maybe it’s an unlikely respite on the run, or a last moment shared between friends before they face certain doom. Maybe it’s a sacrifice: a character knows their story is ending, but that another will endure. These moments give us unlikely pause.
Every now and then a tea arrives on our table that astonishes us and leaves us to wonder. It’s lucky to have these experiences and important to honor them, because, as an importer who tastes dozens and dozens of new teas in a week, it’s easy to get numb to the marvelous nature of what we’re so very privileged to do. It is so important to fight back against the numbness of familiarity and find things that, even in their stark simplicity, invite us to be here and appreciate.
When this tea arrived, it seemed like a miracle. Admittedly, I was not the sourcer of this style (that would be my co-founder, Jordan). Like so many of our limited releases, it seemingly appeared on our shelves. I tasted it and the experience seemed impossible—that I was somehow being duped by someone. That’s how astonishingly good the Song Zhong is. This was months ago and having spent a good many steeping sessions with it since, I barely feel any closer to its luminous depths. But, the fact that this tea (like our Fragrant Consort and others) was an oolong done as a black tea process made it even better fit for this season’s selections.
Wudong and the Wens
Driving the misty roads that wind through the foothills of the Phoenix (Fenghuang) Mountains in Guangdong is an eerily beautiful and humbling experience. It’s a path (practically the same path) that has been tread for centuries, by all ilk of folk, into the solitude of the mountains. In May 2019, our team stopped in Fenghuang Township at the base of the mountain for a quick dumpling interlude—incidentally the same place we’d eaten that time last year. This was a part of our weeklong mission to source Phoenix Dancong oolongs in the region. After lunch, our producer, the elder Mr. Wen met us at the restaurant and invited us up the mountain. We began the bumpy hour-long serpentine journey through the grand gate and up into the deep gloom of mist. In the crags of the mountain range, you can find arbors of tea trees, with dirt paths and stone steps connecting the various groves. Each year, there is a festival for the ceremonial first pickings of single trees, a tradition that spans centuries. Once, the oldest living tree on Wudong was estimated at over eight-hundred years before an untimely snowstorm in 2008 (read: climate change) killed the already ailing tree.
Spring 2019 was, remarkably, a good weather year. To add to the ever-more-perilous dice roll, for true Wudong dancong there is only one harvest a year. Ms. Wen, the primary producer behind this tea, is the third generation of makers in her family. There are trees on the family grove that are centuries old, though the material for this tea is drawn from considerably younger trees. Though Ms. Wen grew up on the farm, she wasn’t always going to be a tea producer. “The reason I work in tea is no big mission or any ‘noble cause,’ it’s merely my passion for the drink and the pleasure and vitality it inspires,” she says, “I left Wudong when I was young and first realized the beauty of my home in secondary school, through the eyes of visitors and in little ways. I worked for a while [out of school] as a real estate agent but I decided to quit and follow in my father’s footsteps. I fell in love with tea naturally.”
In the thirteenth century Kublai Khan of the Mongol Empire sought to crush the Song Dynasty and create his own, unified China. The Song were no match and, after a grueling, two-decade campaign, defeated. The last Song Emperor Zhao Bing (7 years old at the time) fled for his life into the remote mountains of southern China. He was accompanied by three of his most loyal princes/retainers who refused to submit to the horde. One of them was a fierce warrior and general named Wen Tianxiang, “The Golden Marshall,” who raised in army in Chaoyang and mounted a heroic, but hopelessly outnumbered, defense of the region. He was defeated and, eventually, captured. According to legend, Wen was brought before Kublai Khan who, impressed with his martial prowess, showed Wen mercy and offered him a position as a commander if he told the remaining Song to surrender. Wen refused, saying "人生自古誰無死，留取丹心照汗青。" (All men are mortal, but my loyalty will be remembered by history.) He was imprisoned by Khan and put to a brutal death. To this day, he’s remembered for his iconic act of defiance and for his sacrifice.
Why this tangential story? This celebrated Wen Tianxiang is the ancestor of the Wen Family who make this tea. Their own family history goes back generations, and the oldest tree in their garden is about four hundred years old. This is remarkable because the oldest known Song Zhong tree is currently six hundred years old. Today, Song Zhong is an honorific bestowed to some of the oldest, most revered tea stocks of the Phoenix Mountain range .There are many legends about the style's origin, but what is probably the "true" story is when the Song Emperor was fleeing the Mongols in Guangdong, exhausted, defeated and horrified at the loss of so much in so little time, he drank this tea and it restored him with a moment of solace and peace. Henceforth, the tea style was named Song Zhong: the Song Dynasty Variety.
I tried this tea a variety of different ways and shared the results with our team. Overwhelmingly, this was the favorite recipe. It’s not dissimilar from the results we got with Mr. Yang’s Wild Mountain black. There’s just something about brewing (somewhat) elder black teas with a big amount of space, a morsel of time and good quality water. Because using a black tea process on erstwhile oolong and white tea cultivars is a recent movement (largely fueled by foreign demand) there aren’t necessarily established contexts on its brewing. This is exciting and invites a lot more trial and error. What better way to encounter new tea!
Not only does this spec showcase the bewitching florals and bramble-fruit quality of the leaves, it also leaves you so you’ll never be able to see Song Zhong Dancong oolong the same way either.
Song Zhong Standard Brewer:
- Pre-warm your teapot
- Dose tea at a rate of 1g tea leaves to 50g of water into vessel.
- Pour 200F water in circular motion over leaves.
- Steep for 2 minutes.
- Let cool. This is one of the most essential steps, the tea gains clarity and sweetness the longer it cools.
- Sip and enjoy!
- For each successive infusion, add an additional thirty seconds.