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Hairy Crab Oolong

by Lydia Kung

As noted earlier, jasmine scenting basically concludes at September’s end, and oolongs come to the fore. Oolongs can be a confusing category for consumers, who most likely encounter their first cup in a Chinese restaurant. This can be a low grade Shui Hsien (if the restaurant is generous) or a caramel colored cup with some aroma but not much flavor. Oolongs occupy a fascinating and wide part of the tea spectrum in terms of oxidation, offering cups that are light gold to deep amber.

Here is one way to approach and conceptualize this category:

  • Know the cultivar;
  • Consider the processing method, the intent, the style;
  • Consider the grade of the tea.

I will use Hairy Crab Oolong as one example. I am partial to this cultivar because its unusual (for tea) name refers to a culinary specialty.

The Chinese mitten crab has distinctive hairy claws and is a delicacy in the fall, especially in Shanghai. During the season, special dinners are planned, and one can see workers tying up these freshwater crustaceans so the claws are secure and can’t do any damage to shoppers surveying the size and gender. The prized roe or crab butter is labor intensive to extract and makes a rich sauce for silken tofu or tiny freshwater baby shrimp.

With such a moniker, it is hard to resist looking into Hairy Crab Oolong, one of Fujian’s better known oolong varietals. The name of other cultivars tend to refer to places (Ben Shan) or characterize the tea’s flavor and aroma (Huang Jin Kwei, “Orchid” Oolong).

Hairy Crab oolong dates from the Qing dynasty and is native to the area around DaPing (town) in Anxi County, Fujian. (Anxi, of course, is the place associated with that other famous cultivar, Tie Guan Yin.)

In brief, processing proceeds as follows:

  • Plucking: one bud with 2 leaves, and/or one bud with 3 leaves (special and 1st grade teas)
  • Withering: outdoors in the sun if weather permits, followed by indoor withering
  • Bruising to initiate oxidation is standard, with resting times in between, followed by pan firing to “kill the green” and halt enzymes from further oxidation.
  • Rolling, shaping, and drying follow. For medium to high roast teas, there will be a final step of post-manufacture baking.

There are generally two styles of the finished Hairy Crab tea: a light/floral style with lower oxidation of between 25-40%, and a medium roast tea that underwent 35-50% oxidation.

From withering to primary tea, about 28 hours will have elapsed, and then there is inspection and sorting, before another round of drying.

As is true of most other Oolongs, the spring crop is described as having good flavor and a long finish. Teas made from the autumn crop are characterized as yielding high aroma. Leaves from the fall tea contain less moisture; the weather is cooler and drier, and the bigger drop in evening temperatures all contribute to a cup that differs slightly from the spring version.

Finally, the results within this group will vary depending on the quality of the plucking, the finished grade.

Hairy Crab oolong is a balled tea, and the work to turn the leaves (fairly large budsets) shown below into the balled dry leaves is pretty impressive. The greener style gives a floral cup, and as one would expect, the roasted tea has dried fruit or toasted grain notes.