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Autumn (at last)

by Lydia Kung

Green teas from spring and oolongs from autumn: the brew colors seem in synch with the colors of the seasons.

Back in “Tea 101” class, I expect most of us learned about various tea categories and how these are defined. Another way to conceptualize teas is to visualize them on a continuum based on oxidation, instead of thinking of them in neat, discrete categories. Along this spectrum, White teas would be on one end, and black teas on the far opposite end. In such a scheme, oolongs take up the broadest span, with teas that are quite “green” and some that are very dark in leaf and in the cup, and plenty more in between.

We’ve all learned that green teas are minimally processed, yet we find the largest range of leaf shapes in this category: wiry and curled, semi-balled pearls, needles, spears, downy and short, long and twisted, and so on, with colors ranging from green to deep grey. Not much may be done to the leaves, but it seems much thought went into the manipulation of the leaves — manipulation that is directed towards achieving a certain desired result in the finished tea.

Oolongs show basically just two leaf styles, semi-balled leaves and long/ thick leaves (with one exception being the Silver Tip Oolong (“Oriental Beauty”) from Taiwan which has an open style leaf). Yet Oolongs are the most complex to manufacture and offer the greatest complexity in flavor.

In terms of origin, Oolongs have a narrow range: Fujian, a pocket in Guangdong adjacent to Fujian, and Taiwan. (Historical continuity here: in the village in northern Taiwan where I spent a year and where tea is grown, the ancestral halls hold records of their forebears, tracing them back to villages in Fujian.) Other provinces in China may produce or export Oolongs, but they are likely to have come from Fujian or do not really measure up. Oolongs are not only very expressive of place, but are liquid expressions of all that the leaf has to offer, with notes ranging from the floral, to toasted grain or dried fruit, and at their best, deep honeyed finishes.

At left, Orchid Oolong cultivar/garden (Huang Jin Kwei)

With an overview of the range of Oolong flavors, one can’t help but marvel at the myriad techniques that have been developed and honed to draw out all the features inhering in certain cultivars.

At left: Ben Shan cultivar, which appears in a lightly oxidized and medium roast styles.

Withering

Sun withering, photo by Lydia KungOn paper, processing seems straightforward enough: withering, shaking to bruise the leaves and thereby initiate oxidation, halting oxidation, rolling, roasting and drying. Sun withering is show in photo above.

Oxidation

What is easiest to spot is the extent of oxidation. Some semi-balled teas have a greenish hue while others are medium to dark brown.

Shaking by hand to initiate oxidation, alternating between light and more vigorous tossing, with rest periods in between. photo by Lydia KungShaking by hand is done to initiate oxidation, alternating between light and more vigorous tossing, with rest periods in between:

Bruising the leaves mechanically, photo by Lydia Kungor bruising the leaves mechanically.

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Roasting and Drying

Roasting tea leaves, photo by Lydia KungMore opaque is the roasting process, a topic where it’s hard to tease out much information since the skill set here is often considered proprietary. For some oolongs, the key to finished value is not only the cultivar or extent of oxidation, but lies in the roasting process.

Roasters / driers, photo by Lydia KungTwo teas may have a similar degree of oxidation, but the firing can produce very different results. The duration and alternating application of high and low temperatures are important contributing factors in the quality of the finished product. Here are some roasters and driers.

Why are autumnal China oolongs considered to be more aromatic?

With less precipitation in the fall, the climate is relatively dry, with moisture at lower levels in the soil and in the air. Under these conditions, the tea leaves can maintain aroma to the greatest extent during the growth period. Because processing is also done at a time when the air is dry and temperatures cool, moisture in the leaves is lower to begin with and when further reduced, more of the inherent aroma comes forth.

In Nepal, where the temperature drop in autumn is more extreme, the same cultivar that produced a tippy black teas in spring yields a very different flavor profile in the fall. The much lower temperatures in Sept-Oct make the leaves “harder” than those from spring, and tea makers must apply hard withering, longer oxidation, and higher drying settings, resulting in a cup that is deeper in flavor and body than cups from the lighter spring tea.

Back to Fujian: TieGuanYin is perhaps the most acclaimed of the autumn oolongs. In the Chinese domestic market, the lightly oxidized style (Jade Guan Yin) remains popular, especially among younger tea drinkers, although its sales have dropped a little while the traditional style is regaining some of its former prominence. (At right, the hills near Anxi where Tie Guan Yin is grown; here is a tea that truly evokes its origin.)

One often mentioned reason for the partiality for the “greener” TGY is that in addition to the friendly floral taste, many younger consumers prefer to use a simpler, more straightforward method of brewing. The traditional style, on the other hand, is best appreciated over a series of infusions, allowing the bloom of the tea to develop from cup to cup. However pleasurable this experience might be, this brewing method does require hot water at hand, and time to pour in small increments and sip, and pour and sip again. More time needed but rewarding.

Medium or more highly oxidized TieGuanYin oolongs made during fall hold their flavor longer. In this context, cooler temperatures are only a partial factor. Think of how traditional TGY is produced: several repeated rolling steps form the tightly curled leaves – so compact that it takes 3 or 4 infusions to see a traditional TGY unfurl completely, thereby creating a vibrant dynamic that is not sensed in many other teas.

At left: Leaves rolled inside a cloth, repeated several times, so that the leaves become more compact.

At left: After each round of kneading, the leaves have to be separated, then wrapped up again for more rolling.

At left: With each round of kneading, the ball of leaves will be come smaller, with more of the juices coating each leaf, and when tightly rolled and dried, these are the leaves that will offer multiple flavorful infusions.

The natural floral quality of less oxidized, greener TGY may be their most attractive feature, but without undergoing the intense rolling and roasting, the lighter TGY should be enjoyed soon after purchasing. The “iron” in Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong is more aptly applied to the traditional style.

At another extreme are the oolongs subjected to post-manufacture aging and/or baking. This additional step (actually a laborious sequence that increases the cost significantly) enhances aroma and aging (with re-roasting each year) tends to soften the taste.

In the middle range is a tea such as Fern Stream Oolong from northern Taiwan. Neither green nor heavily fired, this is an exemplary, well balanced tea, with high aroma and layers of flavor brought out by roasting skills. Introduced in our line-up two years ago, this oolong brings a comforting warmth and enough complexity to make each sip sumptuous. A new batch finished in late October is expected to arrive next week. Li Shan (Pear Mtn) in Taiwan may boast of gardens at 2000+ m, but its price also reaches near summit heights. Grown at a much lower elevation Fern Stream oolong is not only a better value but offers up a cornucopia of aromatic dried fruit nuances.

My understanding of the current domestic market is that many small producers are putting out variations of Wuyi Rock teas, complicating a category that already demonstrates many styles from several cultivars. One example of an authentic Wuyi rare tea is Golden Key oolong, not very well known until recently, despite a history going back 100 years, and very expensive due to limited production.

From the perspective of established tea companies, this situation may confuse consumers looking for good value and render it difficult to recognize authentic (origin) teas from knockoffs. So…lots of small yields and at high prices. Rou Gui and old-bush Shui Hsien are two of the top Wuyi teas now.

It seems fitting to note here that high-end Oolongs in China tend to be the darker types from Wuyi, whereas the comparably pricey Oolongs from Taiwan are the very delicate, pale golden cups from high elevation gardens (Li Shan, Dayuling, etc.). Seems the taste preferences of these deep-pocketed tea drinkers are polar opposites!

November 14, 2018