Taobao lottery: Baxian special grade dahongpao

With my new magic card, I think I need to start a new running series called “Taobao lottery” where I chronicle my misadventures in buying tea blind, online.

A recent purchase, in collaboration with Brandon, is a bunch of yancha.

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I’ve actually never bought any tea that isn’t puerh on Taobao. There are, as of right now, over 800k listings in tea, with about 175k listings in oolongs, 85k listings in green tea, 64k listings in black tea, 125k in flower teas (jasmine, chrysanthemum, etc), 205k in puerh, 24k in Fu bricks and other heicha, 8k in white tea, and 1294 listings in yellow tea. The rest are random fruit, herbals, etc. In other words, there are a lot of teas on Taobao.

The problem with all this selection is that it is virtually impossible to know whether what you’re getting is great or crap. Tea is impossible to shop for visually – a great looking tea can turn out to be crap, whereas the most ugly tea can sometimes be great. Without trying it, buying blind is highly risky.

This means that the wisest course is 1) buy samples, if they exist, and 2) buy cheap stuff that you won’t regret. With this purchase of yancha, the cheap route seems to make the most sense. I browsed a bunch of yancha shops on Taobao, and settled on this one called Baxian (eight immortals) mostly because they are relatively cheap, and have a high number of good reviews.

Cheap it was too – with three 250g bags of dahongpao, shuixian, and rougui (one each) the total cost only came to about $50 USD, plus a free bag of black tieguanyin (more on that another day). So this is all for about 850g, or almost two pounds of tea. It’s really a pretty cheap affair, when considering how much yancha costs online, for example, or even in Hong Kong.

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So far I’ve only had the dahongpao, and the results are encouraging. It’s what I would call a medium roast – the tea has the distinct smell of charcoal roasted oolong, with a solid mouthfeel and a nice cooling effect, with plenty of the “rock aftertaste”. It’s way better, for example, than the Sea Dyke dahongpao that I sometimes quaff at work, grandpa style. It’s also probably better than most yancha that can be easily purchased online. This does make me want to see if I can buy other things on Taobao that might turn out to be quite ok though, for prices that are really pretty low. For those of you who are adventurous enough to shop on Taobao, throwing in a small order or two of non-puerh might not be a bad way to experiment.

Taiwan in Yunnan

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Someone recently gave me this box, containing 5 packs of 10g each of a tea that I’ve never heard of before. The tea is called Jibian Wulongcha, which literally means “Extreme border oolong tea”. Jibian, in this case, is a brand name, and if you look at the back of the box, you’ll find that they say the tea is made from qingxin wulong, also sometimes known as ruanzhi wulong (and misspelled as luanze, from what I can tell), but the location of production is Yunnan province of China. These are, in other words, Taiwanese tea trees transplanted in Yunnan. In fact, the little red thing next to the logo tells you it’s from Tengchong gaoshan, not too far from Gaoligongshan and other high mountains of the Southwest. Someone, probably a Taiwanese investor, has obviously got the idea of making Taiwanese oolongs in Yunnan province.

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The pictures’ colours are a little off – it’s difficult to get the white balance just right. However, I can tell you that it is almost impossible to distinguish this tea from any run of the mill regular Taiwanese gaoshan oolong. Certainly the leaves are slightly less rolled than the typical Taiwanese oolong these days, but right from the get go, when you open the little pack, you can smell that distinct Taiwanese oolong scent. The tea itself also tastes slightly off – something is a little different, with a bit of a spicy finish, something you don’t normally find in a Taiwanese tea. However, if I wasn’t warned that this tea is not from Taiwan, there’s basically no way I would have guessed that this is tea from Yunnan. It’s not bad, it’s just different.

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There has been a lot of talk in recent years about how there are farms in Vietnam, for example, that were started by Taiwanese merchants selling these teas back to Taiwan as gaoshancha. They can be quite authentic tasting, at least initially, and only reveal their true colours upon closer inspection. There’s also Zealong, which is the same thing, basically, but in New Zealand, with a really clean finish and a fairly bright taste, although at a hefty price. What this tea here does is the same, except they’re making it to probably sell to the Mainland China market.

One of the things this tea shows though is that much of what you drink and taste, in terms of scent, mouthfeel, etc, are very easily manipulated and that people who know what they’re doing, with the right technology and skills, can easily replicate a tea that you think is unique to one region. While there are subtle differences that can be distinguished if you pay close attention, if this tea were sold without packaging, in loose form, in a store in Taiwan, I’d be hard pressed to say I can tell that it is not from Taiwan.

This is why it is almost futile to try to identify teas based mostly on scent and taste. So much of it can be fudged that there is actually very little that one can rely on with any type of precision. It is true that it is possible, for example, to try to use those factors to help identify whether or not a tea is from a certain area or not, but when something comes out of left field, such as Yunnan tea trying to imitate Taiwan tea, it is actually quite difficult to tell what it is, and all kinds of clues can lead you astray. When people use teas from other areas to imitate Yiwu, for example, they are also imitating the processing techniques prevalent in the Yiwu region that give the tea there its taste and scent. The same can be said of other locales, and in this day and age, there isn’t a lot that is secret in terms of tea processing techniques, unless it’s a new invention that hasn’t been widely disseminated yet.

Just because a tea is from the right area doesn’t mean it’s going to be better either. There are plenty of terrible Taiwanese oolongs out there, and many good ones too. This Tengchong area tea might still need some work, but Zealong, for example, can beat many Taiwanese oolongs out there, although not necessarily at that price. The point is, it is much more important to chase after good teas than it is to chase after good regions – the former is tangible, real, and get to the point. The latter is just a label. As we all know, never judge a book by its cover.

Changing tastes

One of the most profound changes in the drinking of teas in Southern China in the past few decades has been the gradual shift from darker, heavier roasted oolongs to lighter, more floral and less roasted teas. The former can be anything from completely carbonized, black as charcoal teas to ones that are more orange than brown. The range of colours of roasted teas can be seen in this post of mine from a little while back, when I tried three different teas with varying levels of roasting and blending. These are not representative, but at least give you a sense of what can be out there.

Such roasted teas, however, are increasingly hard to find, at least ones that are done well. Farmers and vendors in mainland China tend not to carry any such teas, and when they do, they are either very expensive and sold as specialty items, or very bad, or both. Instead, most of the time you find oolongs that are completely unroasted, that are somewhere between lime green and nuclear green in colour, either dry or brewed, and which are extremely fragrant. Some are so “fresh” they need to be kept in fridges, which makes you wonder what people used to do before fridges were possible.

Now, all of this is partly because of newer technology, new ability to process teas, and the shifting of tastes that make these light, floral oolongs so popular. The advent of vacuum packing for teas means that even teas with high moisture content can be kept fresh for far longer than possible in the old days, so roasting becomes less necessary. The teas themselves also went through changes, with the leaves being rolled much more tightly than before due to the use of machines rather than hand, and stems now tend to be kept with the leaves (as you always see on gaoshan oolong) rather than clipped off the way they used to. All these changes are a result of technological innovations that took place since the 1970s, and allowed for the change in consumption pattern and preferences among the tea drinking public to take place.

Of course, the people drinking the tea also changed this as well – it is much more attractive, for example, to drink a tea that is extremely fragrant. A fresh tasting oolong, whether it is gaoshan oolong from Taiwan or a spring pick tieguanyin from Fujian, tend to be very up front and immediate these days. They assault your senses, especially the nose, and they are very approachable. The fragrance lures people in, and is very popular with those who don’t drink tea very seriously. They are also easier to create – you can basically skip all the steps of roasting and re-roasting, which also means less cost for the farmer. Less work for more money? Sounds like a great deal.

Consequently, the number of places that do proper roasted teas are slowly dwindling, and places that still use charcoal to roast are even less common. Some of that is due to cost and regulations – in Hong Kong, for example, it is pretty much impossible to charcoal roast anymore, because of both fire-code restrictions and also the cost of land and labour. In Taiwan such practices are still possible, whether in weird oven arrangements like I blogged about a few days ago, or oftentimes done in farmhouses up in the hills. However, in general, it’s hard, backbreaking work. In the summer the heat itself will kill you. The few places that still do roasting in Hong Kong tend to use electric roasting techniques, which carry a slightly different fragrance and can taste a little metallic. For the most part though, such skills are dying.

At the same time, recently there’s been a little bit of a revival in the taste of the consumers, with roasted teas seeing a little more press time and also interest than before. One of the things with the super-green type of oolong is that over the long run, they can be very harsh to drink. They are also, relatively speaking, rather boring – once you get past the first few infusions, the tea generally doesn’t hold much interest, and for those who are into tea, such single-dimensional taste can be quite boring. Roasted teas, on the other hand, can be much more soothing to drink and tend to have longer-lasting tastes. They are not quite an acquired taste like puerh, but are certainly less immediately alluring than floral oolongs. At the same time, they do tend to attract those who have spent some time with tea.

One of the shops that I frequent in Hong Kong had some interview done recently in a local food and drink magazine, and since then, he said that business has picked up considerably. In the article, they talked about how roasted teas is their traditional method of making the teas, and that before the roasting is done it is not really considered a “finished product”. I can personally see this pickup in business, as more people come by buying tea that obviously look like they are coming for the first time. Even expats, who used to only buy things like jasmine and light, floral oolongs, are now opting for the darker stuff. The issue is that aside from some places, many such roasted teas are quite inferior in quality. Some cater to a very specific taste that might turn people off to this genre entirely, such as the pitch-black, carbonized shuixians that are mainly sold to Southeast Asia. There is, however, a balance between the two ends, and I think perhaps slowly but surely, the pendulum might swing back just enough so that the roasted teas once again see some popularity among the drinkers. After all, if there’s a market demand for this stuff, then there will be those who make them. I recently tried a somewhat roasted baozhong that is out of this world, but the price of such teas are also quite astounding. I suppose if the market will bear it, there will be those who will be willing to put in the work and effort to make such teas. Let’s hope it doesn’t disappear entirely, because the technique of roasting teas properly for drinking goes very far back in tea consumption history. Its loss will be a great one for all tea aficionados.

Two Wuyi yancha

I often get offers of samples, ranging from friends who want me to try something, to companies that want me to taste teas and then write about them.  I often reject the latter, because I don’t have that much time drinking random samples, and also because a lot of them fall into the “butterscotch vanilla cucumber raspberry rooibos” category, of which I’m definitely not knowledgeable and cannot give any decent, encompassing review.

Once in a while, though, I get offers that I’ll take up. Recently, I was contacted by the folks who run this company called Vicony Teas, which I have never heard of but looks interesting enough. They seem to be a wholesaler of sorts, based in China, that deals in relatively large quantities. The website is not exactly the most user friendly, but then, if you’re in the market for kilos of teas, then you’re probably not going to be daunted by the trouble.

The teas I was sent were two Wuyi teas, which, from what I was told, they do not produce themselves. Since they’re located in the Huangshan area in Anhui province, they’re really in green tea country. The Wuyi teas are, therefore, sourced from somewhere else, and sold through them. The teas I got were a rougui (WYA53) and a shuixian (WYA21). I tried both twice – once as a standalone tasting, and once together in competition cups.

I first tried the rougui, using a pretty generous amount of leaves and my usual setup.

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The tea is actually quite nice – a little bitter, but otherwise potent and clean tasting. It’s not highly roasted – I’d call it a medium roast, with a decent amount of activity and fragrance. More importantly, you do get a bit of that “spice” taste that rougui is supposed to give you.

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The next day I tried the shuixian. Shuixian runs the gamut from really cheap crap to really high end, nice tasting tea. However, generally shuixian tend to be thinner/weaker than proper Wuyi teas of other types.  It’s not really the fault of the tea – just the way it is.

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This tea, however, came out a little worse in comparison with the rougui – I found it to contain more “off” flavours, especially sourness. It has a sour edge to it that the rougui does not have. It’s not bad in that it is too sour, but I suspect it got moist/damp at some point, and the sourness crept in. If I had to pick, I’d drink the rougui.

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Since they gave me enough tea for another tasting, I used my competition cups and tried them side by side. I think my initial feelings are largely confirmed – I like the rougui more, for its roundness and its fullness. The shuixian is more edgy, and not in a particularly good way. Both teas, you can tell, are among the better Wuyi teas out there – clean, nice fragrance, full mouthfull, etc, but one’s just better than the other.

So it was with some surprise that when I asked for the prices, it turned out that the shuixian is more expensive than the rougui. The rougui is at 180 USD/kg, and the shuixian at 220. At that point, the choice becomes pretty clear – if I want either, I’d take the rougui. The price is not outrageous – after all, you’re buying kilos, so the cost does get lower. If kept well, I’d imagine they will store well. You might want someone to split the order with you though, if you were to try to buy some.

Revisiting the dahongpao

I went back to the same graduation dahongpao yesterday to try it again, since the last session was really not all that inspiring.  I wondered what brewing it in a single person pot at home would be like, versus a much larger pot for multiple people.  So, I opened up the bag that The Mandarin carefully sealed for me (thanks!) and took some leaves out.

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Normally speaking I think the optimal ratio for yancha is about 3/4 full of dry leaves.  In other words, for the empty vessel the leaves should fill about 3/4 of the space, after shaking and settling.  Less, and the result is often somewhat insipid and the true essence of yancha doesn’t show up.  For this purpose, a flatter pot is generally preferred for ease of pouring in the leaves, if nothing else.

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I was tempted to say that the colour of the tea coming out is darker, but I don’t think that’s actually true.  For one, I fill my cup with a whole pot of tea, since the pot is small.  Because the cup is relatively tall, teas often appear darker here.  When I was in New York the cups we used were the tiny ones that held about two sips.  They are really not that comparable.  Colour, in fact, is one of the most useless indicators of quality of tea, because it is affected by so many different variables, from the type of water used to the shape of the cup.  There are exceptions to this rule, such as the hue of the tea, which could tell you certain things about stored, aged teas, but that doesn’t apply here.

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Many infusions later

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The tea seems thicker this time around, and not as thin.  My water probably has a lot to do with that.  It also seems to have more complexity, owing to the same issue of water source.  I am also a believer that smaller pots always beat larger pots in terms of the quality of the brew – it is both easier to control and also, if you believe in such things, retains the qi of the tea better.  One of the Qing period tracts I’ve read talks about how the optimal size is really a one person pot, and everyone should bring their own to a gathering.  There’s some truth to that, I believe.

The most startling thing about this tasting though is the colour of the wet leaves.

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They somehow seem a shade darker than when I brewed them in New York.  This is pretty much impossible, I think, but nevertheless it seems that way.  Perhaps it’s because the leaves haven’t unfurled as much as they did in New York, owing to the smallness of the pot, and therefore lending more credence to the theory that there’s something that changes from large to small pot.  I’m not sure.  You can see though that the leaves are actually not very heavily roasted — many are still a dark olive green, rather than brown or even black.

Contrary to the colour of the liquor, the appearance of wet leaves tell you all sorts of information about the tea itself, and to this day I see very few vendors showing wet leaves consistently.  Reading tea leaves is actually possible, and can be highly valuable as a skill in buying teas online.

Graduation

In 2004 I bought myself a box of Dahongpao from the Best Tea House.  I told myself that this was going to be a tea that I will keep for the duration of my graduate studies, and that, when done, I’ll celebrate by opening it and drinking it.  The original plan was that I will leave it sealed until then, aging it for five or six years, and have something nice to drink at the end of it.  Since my school’s official colour is crimson, I thought it’s the most fitting tea, in many ways.  I ended up opening the box for MadameN‘s graduation two years ago, but finally, after many years of sweat and toil, I have a reason of my own to do so.

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Now, owing to administrative silliness, I actually got my degree in November last year, but since it’s rather impractical to have three occasions a year that has people dressed in large, crimson coloured bags, everyone does it in May.

Likewise, the actual tea drinking didn’t happen the day of the ceremony.  Rather, it took place two days later, when I was in New York visiting the Mandarin’s Tearoom and friends.  It’s been two years since I took this tea out, and even when I was opening it, I was quite aware that I no longer hold this tea in as high regard as I used to – I don’t think it is that great anymore, certainly not for the price.  Whereas many years ago, when I bought it, it was something that I thought was truly good, now the tea seems merely decent.  The brewing confirmed it.  The tea still has nice qi, I think, which warms, but the mouthfeel is a little flat, and the taste slightly muted.  While I didn’t pack the pot to the hilt, it was enough leaves to make a decent cup.  Yet what came out seemed a little flat.

This, then, is also a graduation of some sort.  We all have moments like this at some point in our tea drinking career.  Teas that, when we were younger, we thought were great, full, and flavourful will almost always appear less interesting, less full over the years.  Some of us got started drinking flavoured teas but have long since swore off such things.  Others may occasionally return to the qingxiang oolongs or green teas that got us into tea in the first place, but find far more pleasure drinking different types.  Still others will turn to cooked puerh from time to time, but would much prefer aged teas, even though cooked puerh may very well have been the “gateway drug.”  The same can be said of vendors too.  Vendors who, early on, seem to offer great selections would often, upon closer inspection and more experience, look like overpriced teas for mediocre quality.  Drinking this dahongpao this time, some of these thoughts definitely crossed my mind.

While I don’t think I will buy another box of this dahongpao from the Best Tea House anymore, it doesn’t mean I will toss this tea — certainly not.  It’s still good tea, just not great, and factoring in the price, there are better options.  There is one more calculation involved though.  Even though it may not be the best tea, it was what I wanted myself to have all those years ago as a graduation celebration.  I have kept it all these years, hauling it around with me while I moved from place to place, and that sentimental value is not something that a far better dahongpao can replace.  Perhaps I’m overly sentimental, but even if someone offers me some dahongpao from the original three trees in exchange of what’s left in this box, I don’t think I’ll take that trade.  This is why many of us, even when we already have shelves full of teas of dubious quality aging, still have a hard time parting with them.  They are pieces of personal history and memory that, once gone, can never truly be replaced.

Three oolongs in comparison

I felt inspired to do a comparative tasting today, something which I haven’t done for quite some time.  This past March when I went back to Hong Kong I renewed my interest in tieguanyin, which for the past few years have been in the doghouse, so to speak, because most of the stuff you can buy in the US or in mainland China are so unspeakably bad.  They are, generally speaking, of the “nuclear green” variety where they are almost greener than green teas.  While some people like the fragrance of those teas, I personally find them awful.  Give me any traditional style tieguanyin anyday.

Having gone to a few stores that sold such things in Hong Kong this past break, including a great experience with a relatively cheap tieguanyin at the incredible Tim’s Kitchen (yes, restaurant tea can be good!) I was quite inspired.  So, I bought a bunch of things, and started trying some that I have leftover at home in comparison.  Today’s is one such tasting.

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The identity of the teas are not terribly important.  The one on the left is a highly roasted, slightly aged (my own storage) oolong that I bought a few years ago.  It’s electric roasted.  The one in the middle is a recent purchase on this past trip, with the vendor roasting using charcoal roast and blending the end product.  The one on the right is what I think of as a typical green tieguanyin these days, still not as green as can be, but pretty green nonetheless.  I tend not to drink such things these days.

Closeups of each of the three:

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You can see the blending in the middle tea – various colours are present in the dry leaves.  I brewed them in competition cups for five minutes each, and this is the result

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Competition style really brings out all kinds of stuff you don’t necessarily notice if you were brewing them normally.  The middle tea ended up being the darkest, and the nose has a distinct charcoal smell that the other two don’t have.  The right one is obviously the most immediately fragrant, with a strong vanilla note.  The left one is in some ways the most subdued, but has a nice roasted fragrance.

In the mouth though is where they really differ.  I think with competition style, especially if you drink one right after the other, it is sometimes difficult to tell which one is giving you the strong, everlasting aftertaste, because you are drinking them in such quick succession.  However, it is possible to distinguish notes and especially body and mouthfeel very easily with this method.  Drinking it this way, it is obvious that the middle cup is in some ways the fullest — it has the most full bodied brew among the three.  It also has flaws, specifically it has a harsh and sour note, the harshness from the charcoal roast, the sourness from probably some improper storage.  The tea on the left is the most pleasant to drink for me, probably because it’s been aged slightly.  It has the beginning of an aged taste to it, and will develop it further if I were to leave it alone.  However, it is also in some ways the most boring, because the tea is more or less one-note, and is a bit hollow in the mouth.  The one on the right is clearly a different beast, and caters to an entirely different market.

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The wet leaves also yield some stories.  You can see the mixed nature of the tea for the middle one, as there are leaves of varying shades and stiffness, whereas the other two are more uniform in their appearance.  The leaves on the left are a bit thin in comparison to the other two, perhaps accounting for some of the thinness that I’m noticing in the cup.

It is difficult to find teas like the two left ones in the US, at least, and in China, even.  In a big tea market in a major city, you may find one or two outfits that have some stuff that might be somewhat roasted, but by and large, if you walk into a tieguanyin store you’re going to find various shades of nuclear green.  The reason for this is simple.  It’s both easier and cheaper to make really green tieguanyin — less work, less processing, and they sell for more in China, where the taste is predominantly for lighter tieguanyins.  The same, I think, can be said of the US, and it is usually only serious teaheads who drink the roasted ones, which make them a difficult thing to sell.  In places in Southern China like Guangdong province, the tradition of drinking roasted tea is a bit deeper, so you will find more of these types of tea there, but even then you have to look for them, because otherwise it is very easy to end up with inferior roasted teas.

I like the tea in the middle when I drink it normally — the sourness is quite manageable, as evidenced by my session with friends this past weekend.  This is the other thing about competition brewing — you want to start with a tea that is both strong and has a good body/mouthfeel.  Particular flavours that may be unpleasant are entirely manageable through brewing techniques, but it’s easier for skills to manage bad traits than to concoct a drink out of a bland and boring tea.  Likewise, it makes me wonder about the usefulness of drinking single estate teas for any genre — blending requires skills and is an art, and I’m not sure if there are really that many people now who can do it right.  I turned down the offer to buy some unblended tieguanyin from the same shop, I should go back next time to do that for comparison.

Roasting

Tea wise, I’ve spent more time in old Hong Kong shops this trip than anywhere else. This time I was actively looking at various options for roasted teas — suixian, yancha, tieguanyin, and the like.  It’s always interesting talking to these folks who run these stores, because each of them give you something new that you don’t know, and when you see where they have contradictions, you can then start figuring out what’s market-speak, and what’s truth.

For example, I only found one shop that insists that they only do charcoal roast.  In fact, the owner told me that “some charcoal just arrived — we’re going to start up the fires in a few days”.  The others have all pretty much moved on to electric roasting, both because of space and cost, as well as, I suspect, the erosion of skill and the lack of people willing to spend two weeks in sweltering heat in a closed warehouse with lots of smouldering charcoal.  I think it is indeed possible to taste the electric vs charcoal firing, having now tried a whole bunch of teas from different places, and I think it’s hard to say one’s definitely superior to the other.  It is clear though that there is a lot more to roasting than just putting your tea over heat and hope for the best.  Different people have mentioned the variations in temperature during the roasting of each tea needing to be refined so that you start and finish the right way.  If you’re using charcoal, you also need to figure out when your tea is going in and coming out — apparently, different days of the charcoal have different characteristics, and the roaster needs to pay attention to that.

All these are probably best left to the pros.  They have decades of experience and know how to do it.  One mentioned to me how, when he was transitioning from charcoal to electric, the first few electric roasts he did were terrible — the timing was all wrong, and the tea was burnt.  The same happened when teas got tighter in their rolling – it became more difficult.  Those people with lots of experience can quickly adapt.  DIY roasting is, I think, best avoided.

Tea with friends

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It seems almost frivolous to talk about tea when Japan has suffered one of the biggest earthquake in recorded history.  I was on my way from LAX to Hong Kong while it happened, and when it struck I think I just got in the air, eventually flying through Tohoku, completely unaware that 35,000 ft below me was death and destruction on a scale that is hardly imaginable.

Traveling with me was some teaware.  I have virtually nothing here in Hong Kong to make tea with, and so I transported a few things so that it will be possible for me to host a few friends for some tea.  It is always difficult to devise a course of teas for people who have varying levels of experience.  In the group of five (not counting me) was one MadameN, a serious tea friend, and three relative novices.  Left to our own devices, the serious tea friend and I will probably drink a parade of young and old puerh.  MadameN normally humours my habit, to a reasonable limit.  Then you have the novices, who may or may not react well to any or all of the teas, and it’s always a bit of a crapshoot because of that uncertainty.  I settled on a menu of a green tieguanyin, a slightly aged baozhong, traditionally stored Guangyungong bits, and in the end, an impromptu Golden Needle White Lotus, courtesy of said tea friend.

It is always fun to drink tea with people you’ve never done so before, especially if they’re encountering something for the first time, or have very little experience with what they’re drinking, because all of a sudden you hear all sorts of new perspective on the drink that you’re so familiar with, and end up learning more about it in the process.  The green tieguanyin is the most familiar to all, I believe, and goes over as well as one would expect such things to do.  The aged baozhong received mixed reviews, not least because the tea itself is odd — aged, but not too much so, and the liquor was a nice reddish colour.  It is slightly sour, with that vaguely chemical smell that sometimes accompanies aged oolongs.  It was likened to paint thinners as well as meicai (preserved Chinese vegetables), which is quite apt, I think.

The Guangyungong bits elicited some interesting comments, ranging from a certain hollowness, to varying responses on the bitter/sweet balance in the tea, and the earthiness of the brew.  Some were very attuned to the aftertaste that both the baozhong and the GYG present, while others were less aware of their existence.  What I always find most interesting though is that what tea drinkers see as good tea is often not necessarily considered good by others.  Sometimes there’s a lot of navel gazing when tea drinkers talk to each other about teas, and forget that for most people, none of the teas we drink are actually good (i.e. taste good, in a juicy, flavourful way), but perhaps merely interesting.  The Golden Needle White Lotus, for example, does well up front, but when stressed to a slightly longer (1.5 minutes) steep alongside the GYG, it’s obvious that the GYG is sweeter and better.

What’s most important though is that everyone had, I think, a good time.  Tea is best drunk with friends, and if I could, I would do this every day.

Thinking about oolongs, part two

Although the natural environment in which teas grow obviously affect how they taste, processing, for oolongs at least, is king.  The sheer number of variables is astounding, and the range of tastes that are possible, from the really light and floral baozhongs to the really dark and heavy wuyis are what make oolongs so much fun (and why so many people drink them).

I’ll try to proceed in the order in which these things happen in the production process: oxidation, rolling, roasting, aging.

Oxidation is the first step in oolong production that makes it distinct from green teas, and it really happens immediately after the tea leaves are plucked.  When leaves get harvested, they usually go through a withering stage, and then they are bruised so that the cell structure breaks down, so that the enzymes can get to work and oxidation can begin. How much bruising, how much time for oxidation, under what conditions, etc, are the kinds of things that create particular flavours in a tea and are also the domain of a master tea maker. I suspect, for example, that darjeeling oolongs have generally turned out to be similar to their first flush is because they haven’t quite gotten the hang of the oxidation process yet, so everything still taste sort of vaguely similar.  I have talked to folks who tell me that they have to control for everything from weather, to time of day, to moisture level in the air, etc, and they know when to stop the oxidation process and start the kill-green by the way the leaves look and smell.  That’s stuff that I think I will only be able to learn if I become a tea farmer and work on it for thirty years.

The kill-green stops the oxidation process, and then you have to roll the tea — literally rolling them in the old days, in cloth bags with the farmer’s feet doing the rolling.  These days, that’s more often than not done with a rolling machine.  The purpose of rolling here is more or less like the purpose of rolling for puerh — squeezing out liquids, and basically allowing a lot of the dissolvable materials to stick on the surface of the leaves rather than remaining inside.  The rolling process can take a while, and depending on the area in which this is happening, rolling will also determine, to a large extent, the final shape in which the tea takes.  Just look at any dancong and compare it to a Taiwanese gaoshan oolong and you’ll know what I mean.

The drying and roasting process is then the step in which tea becomes tea — drinkable, brewable leaves.  This can be done in different ways, but generally speaking, this is mostly done through machines again.  At what temperature and for how long is really a matter of the craft of the teamaker again, because the retained moisture at the end of this process affects how the tea will taste by the time it gets to you.  Even though leaves look dry, there’s always some moisture in them, and the amount of drying/roasting that it goes through affects this value, which then changes the way it keeps and the way it ages through time.  That’s why, for example, vacuum sealed packs of somewhat wet leaves don’t keep too long and need to be left alone in the fridge — they go bad, fast.

Generally speaking, the drier the leaves, the longer/better they keep.  Roasting is a process through which moisture gets taken out of the leaves, and re-roasting, which was done often, was something that tea merchants would routinely do themselves in order to refresh a stock of leaves — reigniting (and changing) the aromas of a tea, and to take out excess moisture that usually ends up imparting a sour flavour on the leaves.  Oolongs can go from virtually no roasting to really heavy, pitch black roasting, and the skill of the roaster in handling this again has a direct and immediate effect on the way the teas come out.  There is also a regional preference here, with Wuyi teas generally being of higher roast, for example, and modern day tieguanyin from the mainland are increasingly little to no roast — nuclear green, in other words, which I personally find terrible to drink. There’s literally something for everyone here, depending on one’s likes and dislikes.

Then there’s the question of aging, which I have written plenty about before.  I don’t think all oolongs will age well — only a select few do.  Badly aged oolongs are usually sour and pretty disgusting, and sometimes re-roasting them will fix the problem.  However, there are lots of fake aged oolongs out there that are simply heavily roasted teas pretending to be aged teas.  They can be nice, but they’re not necessarily very old.  I personally find aged teas to be most fascinating, and since I don’t drink nearly as fast as I buy tea, I end up having some teas that I age myself without really having intended to do so — such as the cup of 2006 Beidou that I’m drinking right now.  Over time, a properly aged oolong should have a reddish appearance in both the leaves and especially the liquor, and the taste should be sweet and aromatic.  Then they eventually acquire the type of taste that all aged teas get — hard to explain, but you know one when you see one.

The interesting thing here is that the permutations of various factors – location, processing, aging – combine to form all types of flavours and aromas that you can get from oolongs.  I can safely say that almost no two oolongs are the same, and every time I go to a store in China that specialize in some type of oolong or another, each batch that I try are going to be different in some way or another.  Because so much of it also depends on post-processing and storage, even after the same batch of tea left the factory, the ultimate result in your cup may still differ.  I suppose that’s what makes it fun.