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.

Thinking about oolongs

Of all the families of teas out there, oolongs are probably by far the most versatile and varied in appearance, aroma, and taste.  Situated between green and black, oolongs, by definition, are semi-oxidized teas that can be almost as green as green teas (very light baozhongs come to mind) or very dark, almost black tea like (oriental beauty).  By virtue of the variations possible, oolongs are complex and interesting teas that often bear little resemblance to each other, but offer the drinkers a wide range of possibilities.  Making sense of all this can be difficult; I’m going to try to at least systematically lay out what these various issues are, and what I have learned so far.

There are I think three different factors that go into the growth of oolongs that we, as consumers, need to consider.  Those are, in no particular order, terroir, varietal, and season.  Then, in the processing from raw leaf to the finish product, there are additional variables that a tea farmer/maker can manipulate to change how the tea comes out, and those variables can include oxidation, rolling, roasting, and in some cases, aging.  I’m going to just try to talk about the first set of things and worry about the second set later.

When dealing with terroir, to borrow a wine term, we are really talking about the soil, climate, and other environmental factors that go into the growth of the tea, which in this case would also include altitude.  I think we can talk roughly about large geographic areas, but also small microclimates.  For example, teas from Taiwan tend to share a similar set of taste profiles, especially in the aftertaste of the tea.  They could be from different varietals, using different techniques, and grown in different areas of Taiwan, but many Taiwanese teas end up tasting similar in some fashion, and are often easily identifiable as Taiwanese.  Likewise, Wuyi yancha can (and to many, should) have a similar taste, especially that fabled yanyun, which roughly translates into “rock aftertaste”.  Even when Taiwanese tea farmers make teas using Wuyi varietal and methods, they can’t achieve the same results.  That’s terroir for you.

Location matters though, so whether or not the tea you’re having is from a hilly slope or flat ground, high up or down low, moist or dry, well lit or not, and shaded or otherwise all have to do with how the tea comes out in the end.  So while we can talk about large swathes of land when discussing tea, we can also talk about smaller areas.  Anxi tieguanyin costs more than teas from nearby counties, and not all Dongding teas are created equal, as anyone who’s tried a number of them can tell you.  Things like that are hard to control, and often for the end buyer, relatively meaningless, because we rarely know exactly which farm a particular tea came from.  When we can find out, however, it often tells you something about what you’re drinking, and accumulating experiences in telling apart various kinds of growing conditions is a true mark of a tea expert.

Varietals obviously also play a role here, and the most famous of these is perhaps tieguanyin and all its imitators.  A maoxie or huangjingui might look and taste somewhat like a tieguanyin, but it never is one, and those who drink a lot of tieguanyin can generally tell you right away if the stuff is real or not.  Likewise, we all know the story of the original dahongpao, and all the generations that the originals have spawned.  Varietal matters, and also changes the way the tea taste in a fundamental way.  Unlike terroir, for the consumer, varietal is difficult; it requires a great deal of experience to be able to tell apart different kinds of oolong trees and their leaves.  Whether that is a jinxuan or a siji or a ruanzi or a taicha #18, is not something that a tea novice can do easily.  If you don’t drink it often, chances are you are entirely at the mercy of the vendor, who is often at the mercy of the maker.  I think this is why finding reliable and trustworthy vendors is so important — not only that you can trust them to not lie to you, but you need to be able to rely on the vendors to do the due diligence and basically fact check the maker of the tea.  There are many out there who merely parrot the story told to them when they bought the tea — that’s sometimes a recipe for disaster.

The season in which the tea is picked is the final big variable for those of us trying to drink oolong.  A spring tea is inevitably different from a fall tea, and mostly on Taiwan, you often see a winter crop as well that is yet again different.  In my personal experience, spring teas tend to be floral while fall teas often have more body, and winter teas have a unique fragrance and sweetness that is quite distinctive.  You rarely see anyone advertising summer tea, and there’s a good reason for it — slower growing tea tend to be better tea, and summer is usually when the tree undergoes a growth spurt, leaving relatively thin and uninteresting leaves for you to consume.

Already, we’re dealing with a dizzying array of possibilities that can significantly impact the teas we drink.  Puerh-heads spend a lot of time worrying about these issues all the time — where the tea’s from, what season it’s picked in, etc, but oolong drinkers tend to obsess a little less about these.  I think a big reason for this is simple: the lack of clear and obvious ways to tell different sorts of teas apart, and the importance of post-processing that creates the final tea.  Those are serious mitigating factors to everything I’ve just talked about, and can change the tea in drastic ways.  Not having an easy way to tell apart different kinds of teas sold under different names is obviously a difficult issue as well.  Just witness the number of teas out there that are advertised as tieguanyin or dahongpao — surely, they can’t be making that much of these teas.  Something obviously has to give, which means that there is a fair amount of false advertising out there.  Since it is virtually impossible for the regular consumer to compare two of the same sorts of teas from two vendors easily, it is all the more important to at least educate ourselves with regards to what may be out there, and in doing so, become a more discerning drinker.

To be continued…

Troubles with a bush

Recently there’s been some discussion of the nature of dancong online at various places, and one of the topics of discussion was the proper nomenclature of dancong itself.  I was not too convinced by what was being said, simply because some didn’t sound right, so I went and investigated.

The discussion centers around the word “cong” and which character should be used and what it should mean.  I first went to my trusted source, the Hanyu Da Cidian, which is a 12 volume monstrosity and is the Chinese equivalent of the OED.  I first looked up 叢.  Its basic meaning is “group”, and can also mean “a bunch of plants growing together”.  No surprise there.

Then I looked up 欉, which, to my surprise, is NOT in the Hanyu Da Cidian.

Now, of course, since 叢 simplifies into 丛, one would assume that 欉 simplifies into 枞, and it is extremely common to see 单枞 being used as the phrase for the tea we know as dancong.

However, there is a problem, because 枞 is also (or perhaps, only) a simplification of the word 樅, which means fir.  When you search for 枞 in the dictionary, you’re going to find the definition “fir”, but that’s because you’re actually looking up the word 樅, not 欉, which is what you should actually be looking for.  People write 枞 for 欉 because they assume that’s what it is, and indeed it might, but they are two distinct characters and when you search for words using simplified characters, you always run the risk of it returning erronous results because there are multiple “source” words for one simplified character.

Since the Hanyu Da Cidian doesn’t have 欉, I thought I’d look up 單欉 or 單叢, but it seems like the editors of Hanyu Da Cidian are not tea drinkers, and they are not in the dictionary.

So I went to another useful resource for weird words — the Kangxi Zidian, which was edited in the 1710s.  Here, we do find a reference to 欉, and the definition given is quite simple — In Jiangdong (an area roughly corresponding to the region around Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, etc), a group of plants growing together is called 欉.  The word, interestingly enough, is recorded as 4th tone in the Kangxi Zidian.  As for its definition for 叢, it is essentially the same as the Hanyu Da Cidian.  There’s no difference, basically.

I think what is clear is the following:

欉 has absolutely nothing to do with the fir tree.  We can strike that from the conversation.

欉 or 叢 have essentially the same meaning.  叢 has a wider range of meanings, but they are unrelated to plants.  For the definition that has anything to do with plants, they are synonyms.  In that sense, you can probably see 欉 as a variant of 叢.

There is absolutely nothing in the definition that implies anything growing from the same root or coming from the same plant.  The only definition given has to do with growth in groups and bunches.  One tree cannot be a 叢 because it is not part of a group, especially if it’s a taller tree that’s growing by itself.  It must be a number of plants, or a bush.

So to get back to our problem then — what exactly does dancong mean?  Aside from the very great possibility that it is simply some romantic, nice sounding name, as is so often the case in Chinese teas, we have the characters to work with.  “Dan” generally means lonesome, single, but can in some cases also mean thin.  Normally, we translate dancong to mean “single bush”.  Perhaps owing to the relatively rocky nature of the growing areas, dancong, as originally harvested, was indeed a collection of leaves from lonely bushes growing on their own.  That, to me, seems like a better explaination than some “single origin” theory, mostly because plants don’t work like that, nor do farmers who plant these crops.  So, instead of translating it as “single bush”, perhaps an alternative would be “lonely bush”, denoting the way the trees grow in the rocky setting.  Unlike tea farms in some other places, dancong trees don’t grow quite so closely and densely.

Will’s sample D

Back on the sample train — this time another sample (it does seem like they’re endless, aren’t they?) from Will. Sample D. I opened it and saw dancong leaves

So it must be dancong! Light fired, from what I can tell by the smell and look. And indeed it is

I think it’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of light fired oolongs in general, and dancongs in particular. I don’t find them interesting, and more often than not, they make me feel unwell. With that in mind, I brewed this tea fairly lightly, using only minimal amounts of leaves (pot maybe 1/5 to 1/4 full of dry leaves) and fairly quick infusions. The result is quite pleasant — it’s a nice tea, even though it’s not really my kind of thing. My fiance, however, really liked it, and said this tea “smells like a man”. It’s a mixture of “good natural clean scent and some sort of cologne”. No, I don’t wear cologne.

Obviously, such subtle aromas elided me. I only tasted a fruity medium (not quite low) roast dancong, processed fairly well so that the bitterness is not very evident, and has qi and tenacity. It lasted quite a few infusions, despite the fact that it’s a dancong — which generally don’t last as long. Perhaps this is one of Tea Habitat’s patrician level dancongs? Or one of Will’s many other hidden gems? Only he knows the answer.

This is certainly the best dancong sample among the ones that Will sent me, and gave me a good reason to use my severely underused dancong pot. I still remember once upon a time when I was drinking that sort of thing everyday. That no longer happens…

Mystery aged oolong

The tea I had today is something nobody has been able to identify definitively

This tea I got in Beijing, from a store that only sold dancong. The guy is from the Fenghuang shan area. He said this tea is something that was sitting in his home (or a neighbour’s) for years, and he took it out and tried to sell it. Didn’t really move very fast, since this isn’t stuff that Beijingers have any real interest in.

The tea is odd. The first few cups taste a bit puerh-esque. It doesn’t have the same bite that the “wet stored” tieguanyin has. Instead, it is a more subtle spicy flavour that lingers. Today the tea actually came out better than previous renditions. Maybe it’s the pot. Maybe it’s the water, but it came out full bodied, whereas usually it is rather thin and bland.

I am inclined to think it’s something they really produced locally, perhaps a lower grade shuixian from the area. It does have that green kick to it, near the end of the session, but it’s very subtle and hard to pinpoint. Toki thought this could be a liu’an, but I’m not sure what kind of liu’an looks like tihs (liu’an guapian?). The stuff was rather cheap, and I probably should’ve bought a little more. As it is, however, it provides a nice diversion and is always a good tea to use to stump people :)

Sample C

More samples from Will.

Sample C, it says. Looks like dancong, smells like dancong, it’s probably a dancong, so I used my dancong pot.

Trying a new set up here, without using a tray and instead have a bowl to catch all the run off water with a wooden tray holding everything — which is just the bowl and the cup, as you can see here…

And then using a separate bowl to hold all the useless water (picture maybe tomorrow?). Maybe I can water plants with the run off tea.

How’s the tea though?

When I wrote to Will after drinking the tea, asking him what it is, I commented “seems rather bland — nothing too exciting”, and I think that basically captures what I think about the tea. It’s a dancong all right. Fragrant, not much bitterness unless you overbrew it (a plus), and overall decent, but it didn’t really stay in my mouth, nor did it give me a lingering sense of sweetness or throatiness. It’s basically a taste, and then it’s gone. That’s fine for a regular cup of tea, but I will get bored of such things quite quickly. It needed longish steeps quite soon to get more out of it, as I discovered. That’s fine, as it had a reasonable amount to give. That’s one good thing about this tea that’s obvious — it lasts quite a while and yields many steeps.

What surprised me was that this tea is one of the most expensive dancongs on offer at Tea Habitat at a whooping $75/oz. I was thinking to myself that this price seems rather high for not much tea, and not a terribly impressive one at that. Good teas cost money, there’s no doubt about that, but I also believe that truly good teas should not be too tempermental to make, as Will suggested this tea could be. I personally don’t really want to spend $25 or $50 just trying to figure out how to make this tea right. Per gram, it’s on par with some 20 years old puerh. For $75 I can buy half a kilo of some of my aged oolongs, and those are not tempermental to brew and fairly consistent. Half a kilo versus 28g…. I’m not sure if there’s much competition there.

I still remember going through my dancong phase once upon a time, early during the life of this blog actually. Then I quickly burned out, because after a while, they tend to taste sort of similar. I remember buying the second best dancong at the Best Tea House, and not the best one, because the best one cost double and the marginal difference between the two was slight. I think the same law should apply here — the marginal benefits of this tea is probably not enough to cover the marginal cost. Maybe there’s too much of the economist left in me, but as we all know, money talks.

Fenghuang Shuixian

I think there’s a law for tea bloggers — samples will always come in faster than you can finish them. I have been away for a long time, and so have lots of these unfinished samples that I ought to go through. Today’s is one such sample.

The bag is characteristic of one of the members of the SF drinkers. I suspect this is from Psychopuncture… it says “Fenghuang shuixian — from Jing” on the bag. I don’t see a Fenghuang shuixian on their website, but seeing that this sample is at least a year old, I’m not too surprised if they ran out of stock.

The leaves are long, big, and sturdy. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but they are actually of a greenish hue. Seeing that, I didn’t put in that much leaves, figuring it might be a bit on the light side. I was right.

It has a honey-like aroma and taste, and a lot of “tea” taste underlying it all. It’s got a clear Phoenix Mountain tea sort of flavour profile and really doesn’t share a ton of similarity with shuixians from the Wuyi region. Processing obviously has something to do with it, as Wuyi stuff tend to be heavier fired/oxidized, and I think on the whole, I prefer teas from Wuyi than from Phoenix Mountain. The light processing keeps a healthy dose of bitter in the tea, and I personally am no big fan of that…. despite the high fragrance.

You can see just how green the leaves are

The tea is not bad, it’s just not my cup. I do wonder why it is that I decided I no longer like this sort of thing. I remember I used to really love teas like this.

Tea gathering

Today I had two tea guests over, and together we drank four different teas. As is generally the case at these meetings, everybody has way more tea than we can possibly drink in one session, and we really only got to drink a fraction of the stuff that we actually had.

The first was a very light dancong, unroasted. The tea is quite nice, subtle, and sweet, although I think I probably could’ve made it a little stronger and make it better. I usually am not a big fan of light dancongs, although this one I could handle. Sometimes they are just too fragrant… taste almost fake.

The second was an oddball of a tea… the Eiabora King Tea Biscuit from Dadugang. Now, the name of the tea itself is a little odd, but in this case, the smell was even odder. It has been sitting in a plastic bag, as far as I can tell, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Instead, it seems as though something is happening with the tea. When I sniffed the dry leaves, it smelled funny with an undescribable smell. Then, when brewed, it somehow came out even stronger.. a nasty smell that is rather unpleasant. One of my guests commented that this is rather like that of a rotten fruit smell… which is probably pretty close to what it is. We had two infusions of this before deciding to give it up. There’s a possibility that this is just spoiling instead of aging — it’s turning into something bad. The tea just didn’t taste right at all and had some very odd flavours to it… entirely unpleasant.

Then, to wash it out a bit, I offered to make my Yiwu maocha, which I now increasingly think is a mixed Yiwu and Menghai area teas. While it has a hint of that Yiwu taste, it also has that smell that I seem to find in a lot of Menghai area teas. The tea is still nice… it’s just not exactly what it claims to be.

We didn’t have a lot of time today to drink a lot of tea, so we ended up with my broken Guangyungong bits as a finish. While it took only about an hour to drink the three previous teas, we spent probably just as much, if not more, time on this puerh. Before my guests left, it was at least at infusion 12 or 13. The tea keeps giving, and I can just let it drag out longer and longer in infusion time and still get a cup that, while losing the woody and thick aromas, retain just enough to make it much more interesting than drinking water. It is sweet and smooth, and leaves very little doubt that this is an aged tea — the longevity is not matched by your usual cooked puerh.

It’s too bad that I’m leaving soon, because otherwise we could have another such session. Alas, I must go back to China soon to keep doing my work there.

Tea Gallery

Today was a total loss for tea, spent traveling, etc…

Yesterday, however, was not. I went in the afternoon to the Tea Gallery in NYC. Many of you have probably heard about this place. If you haven’t, it’s basically… the best place to go for tea if you want Chinese tea in New York City, as far as I am aware anyway.

They apparently have regular Tuesday gatherings there, and I met, again, Toki, but also another friend whom I’ve only corresponded with on RFDT. When I walked in, they were already drinking — four teas from different cakes of a private production, but somehow all tasting quite different. The first was smokey, the second a little more bland and weak, the third and fourth tasting more like Yiwu, but different in their own ways. All were different and with varying degrees of bitterness and thickness. It would be rather difficult to believe they were all from the same production if I wasn’t told, even though the dry leaves don’t immediately look different. The colour of the wet leaves are also different…. some were darker, some lighter. The variation is simply quite striking. I think at least part of it has to do with a slightly uneven production process — not all the cakes were made/pressed at the same time or using the exact same batch of leaves.

Then we tried a dancong I brought over. This is a gift from somebody in China, supposedly of some pretty decent quality leaves. The tea is very sweet, with a nice hint of something like apricot, but the taste is a little on the light side. I need to try brewing it with my own pot and experiment with it. I might go back and buy a little more if the price is right.

We also drank a very nice, fragrant, and deep shuixian. I’m not sure where it’s from, and neither does Michael, the owner of the Tea Gallery. He got it from somebody in Taiwan, and it is, from what I gather, a gift. It was nice drinking though.

There were people coming in and out of the place while I was there. It was pretty busy. We all had fun and it was particularly interesting drinking those four rather strong puerhs.

All in all, a good day, and finally got the chance to meet somebody I’ve been corresponding with but not met. It’s really a rare thing to have in the States to be able to sit at a teahouse and chat for hours on end about various things related (or unrelated) to tea. It is also a great thing to meet like minded people. If only we had such a place in Boston….

Or maybe it’s a good thing there isn’t one here. I know I won’t get work done if it exists!

Revisiting Best Tea House dancong

I haven’t had this tea in almost a year. Last time I had it was probably sometime in May 2006 or so.

This is actually the last bit of the tea I have left. I probably should’ve bought some in Hong Kong, but then, I can always go back and buy some more. This is their second most expensive selection. In terms of price/quality ratio, I find this to be a better deal than the Song Zhong Dancong, which is slightly too expensive for my tastes. This is half the price for more than half the quality. I’ll take it.

With this tea… it’s the same honey like fragrance, without the nasty greeness of an unroasted dancong that I find a little unattractive. The roasting gives it a good balance between the sweetness of the tea and the fragrance, without feeling like it’s been tempered with by the addition of artificial flavours. When drinking those non-roasted dancongs, I always feel like they are somehow unnatural…. too fragrant.

The only downside to this tea is that it doesn’t last too many infusions. After about 4-5 it starts dying, and since dancong tend to have a slightly bitter edge to them, it decreases the appeal of the tea significantly after that. Of course, today’s was especially bad because there were lots of broken bits of leaves in the tea — what always happens when it’s down to the last brew. As you can see….