A Quick Primer on Balled Oolong Teasby Lydia Kung
In order to provide some information about the various styles of Oolongs we see in balled form, a quick primer might be useful. The scheme outlined below is a shorthand way of organizing Oolong information.
Anxi County in the Fujian province of China and the Nantou region in Taiwan are prominent producers of some great Oolongs. You will sometimes see the term “WuYi” affixed to teas from Taiwan, and we should remember that Wuyi is situated in northern Fujian. (Our Organic Wuyi Oolong originates from this Chinese province.) In these instances, the term is perhaps best taken as a descriptive term, not of origin. Southern and Northern Fujian produce markedly different styles of Oolong teas, with the crinkled rolled teas representing the south and the long, dark leaves from the north.
One of our new Oolongs from Taiwan – Taiwan Mountain Oolong, Baked – is from the qing-xin cultivar, widely found in Taiwan. This is not the Ti Kuan Yin cultivar of Anxi or Fujian, even though the cups sometimes taste similar. Any cuttings taken from TiKuanYin varietals are valuable and can fetch lofty prices.
The Baozhong cultivar is also the qing xin, but has a suffix of “small leaf” (xiao yeh zhong). This can be confusing since the Baozhong infused leaves actually are quite hefty. In addition, there are other cultivars from northern Fujian such as Da Hong Pao and Shui Hsien.
This is where the subject becomes more complicated and we can understand why the tea makers consider Oolong a fussy category.
The different styles of Ti Kuan Yin come from the same tea bush. The shaking, rolling, and oxidation time of our traditional Ti Kuan Yin is longer and the temperature used to dry the tea is higher than is the case for a Light/Fragrant (qing xiang) Ti Kuan Yin such as our Floral Ti Kwan Yin. A medium roast Ti Kuan Yin undergoes about four hours of drying under 100°C; high roasted Ti Kuan Yin needs about six hours.
Light/Fragrant Ti Kuan Yins are understandably popular due to the vibrant, lively, floral notes; this style was developed in the 1980s in Anxi. An example of Oolongs at the opposite end of the spectrum would be the deep amber Ti Kuan Yins that are still the preferred tea choice in Southeast Asia.
Drying of the raw tea and refined tea Baking are two different processing techniques. The Light/Fragrant style of Ti Kuan Yin, for example, only undergoes the raw tea drying. There is no Baking step that follows. For example, for two of our Taiwanese Oolongs (Four Seasons Oolong, Roasted and Taiwan Mountain Oolong, Baked), there are three rounds of drying after the leaves are rolled, which take about three hours. This step is then followed by Baking. High quality leaves are selected for teas that will be baked. As one producer explained to me, they would not use, say, an Orchid Oolong (Huang Jin Kwei), – which is actually a pretty nice tea – to make a Baked tea.
When speaking of the baking technique (hong pei), you might hear the terms “light fire” (qing huo), “medium fire” (chung huo), and “high fire” (gao huo). The light-fire technique should not be confused with Light/Fragrant Oolongs, since as just noted, Light/Fragrant Ti Kuan Yins are not baked.
After the primary tea is finished, light fire baking refers to lower temperature drying. The same tea from the same varietal can be finished with light fire or medium fire, and the two resulting cups will taste quite different, each technique coaxing out components in the leaves in a different way. Four Seasons Oolong, Roasted is an example of a lighter touch in the baking (light fire), and Taiwan Mountain Oolong, Baked shows the medium fire baking technique (and the cultivars are distinct in these instances). The 2nd and 3rd infusions are usually considered to be the optimum cups of baked Oolongs, when the fragrance and flavor reach their peak.
Since Baked Oolongs are returning into favor with tea drinkers, it bears mentioning that some producers have been known to take a short-cut by aging the primary tea, instead of baking the tea with the proper techniques. This product, however, is not considered a “live or living” tea.
Light/Fragrant styles of Oolong (such as our Taiwanese Jade Oolong, Cold Summit Tung Ting and Tung Ting Premium) still dominate in market share, but for deep, focused flavor, the more roasted oolongs and baked oolongs are sturdier teas. These teas, undergoing more steps in processing that require expertise, are more complex: they make you want to sip again and again and you may find different notes, and are also more complete, showing more features in the delivery, from sip to finish.
The above are rolled Oolongs, and I am reminded of a recent query about the meaning of “fine pluck” from someone planning to start a tea business:
“Many sources suggest that a fine pluck is two leaves and a bud. Is there disagreement about this in the tea community?”
It is helpful in this context to remember that the very attractive sounding term “budset” does not mean the same thing when applied to Oolongs. A bud and a leaf or even two leaves are hardly enough tea material for the extensive processing, specifically rolling, that oolong manufacture involves. So we should not assume that a plucking of 5 leaves and somewhat lower on the bush necessarily means inferior quality.