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.

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…

Qingxiang tieguanyin

I haven’t had a proper Qingxiang tieguanyin in ages.  I can’t remember last time drinking it — it must have been at least a few months ago when a guest came, if not more.

It’s one of those teas that come in little pouches, which are handy for people like me who go through their tieguanyin in years, not months or days.  A zhuni pot seems appropriate, especially since it’s roomy enough for the tea to expand and brew.  When you drink a tea very infrequently, you often come across notes or tastes that are not always obvious when you drink it frequently, and it happened here as well.  Once again, I’m gravitated to what I mentioned as the “true” taste of tea, noticing how it was very strong underneath the veneer of fragrance that you get with this type of tieguanyin.  In fact, I started wondering if it might be time for me to revisit some of these lighter teas, since my normal diet of tea consists of aged oolongs and wet stored puerh, with some younger puerh thrown into the mix.  At least I didn’t get dizzy drinking this.

Home stored tea

As I said yesterday, I was going to use the bigger tea caddy for a tieguanyin that I’ve been meaning to open for a while. Well, the day is today. This tea is something I bought maybe three or four years ago in Hong Kong. It’s been in its bag ever since I got it.

I bought it at the time having tried it at the store and knowing it was already aged for about 10 years. I checked again today, and the tea is actually 13 years old this year. The bag doesn’t look too good, although the leaves are still surprisingly intact.


(sorry, shaky hands today for some reason, maybe too excited)

The 150g bag of tea fit just right into the tea caddy with just a little room to spare. I then put it back in the box and left it. I don’t think I’ll want to drink this tea much — I’d rather let it age a little more. I do, however, intend on tasting it now that my ability to judge a tea has, I think, improved a little over the past three or four years.

This tea is not highly roasted. In fact, I’d say that when it was young, it was probably quite lightly roasted. The leaves are still green, even when dry (the lighting was a bit funny today too). When tasted, it yields a very orthodox tieguanyin flavour, with a strong yinyun (tieguanyin aftertaste, basically) and a very strong qi. I don’t think I’ve had tea with this strong a qi for a while, but it was a pleasant qi, not something that is particularly overpowering or uncomfortable. Rather, it was the sort that kept you buzzing a little, with a definite sensation of energy moving around your body that leaves you sweating a bit. If anybody ever asks me what a tea with qi feels like, I might just have to pull this one out.

The tea is definitely still youngish, but shows signs of aging in that there’s a hint of fruitiness showing through that is different from the floral fragrance of a young tieguanyin. Bitterness has also receeded, but it’s still there. I don’t think the tea is quite ready to drink yet, in the sense that it is a bit neither here nor there. If it were reroasted over time, it would taste older, but I think it would have also lost some of that power. It does taste a bit similar to the tea that Toki sent me, at least in its very core. That makes sense, because both these teas are tieguanyin, although their level of roast make them very different on the surface. The aftertaste, however, are quite similar, which I find to be a fairly remarkable thing.

The spent leaves are thick and solid, yet soft. I think I now have at least a little idea of how to properly identify a good tieguanyin, versus stuff that are mixed with all sorts of lower grade teas.

Jing teashop 1983 tieguanyin

I picked up a sample of Jing’s 1983 aged tieguanyin on my swing to Boston — one of the persons I met gave me a session’s worth of tea.

The leaves look like an old tieguanyin — not rolled tightly, dark, a bit brittle. Smells somewhat sour.

The colour of the tea, when brewed, is also consistent with an aged oolong

The taste…. this is always the test, isn’t it? The tea is not too bad, with a nice throatiness and good sweetness. One problem though — it’s sour. I don’t know whether or not this is a product of the storage that it went through in my friend’s house, or whether it came like this or not, but since they mentioned “slightly acid aftertaste” in the product description, I’m going to guess that it was at least partly present already when it came.

Sourness, unfortunately, is the bane of aged oolongs, and sometimes it can thoroughly ruin a tea. I think there’s always going to be a hint of sourness in an aged oolong, but it’s a matter of how heavy and how presistent it is. There’s a certain tradeoff in having a sour tea and a heavily roasted one. The heavier the roast, the less likely it is going to be sour (especially when re-roasted). However, when reroasting there is inevitably something that is changed in the tea. The very best aged oolongs I’ve had to date are obviously very lightly or not at all reroasted over time. They give me the most complexity and flavour, and to boot, are only very slightly tart. They are rare.

The sour stuff… you can reroast them and they get less sour, but they develop in a different way over time, and I’m personally not sure if I like that stuff more. Some will tell you that that’s the only way to age oolongs; I beg to differ.

Still, for $21/100g, the tea isn’t too expensive. I do think they might actually be able to re-roast it again and hope it will improve a little more. Then again, trying to keep a tea like this under control in a place like Guangzhou is going to be an uphill battle all the way.

Benshan

As promised…

Benshan, otherwise known as fake tieguanyin, or at least, it’s often mixed into tieguanyin and sold as such. It’s very cheap — my 100g bag cost 10 RMB, which comes to around $1.20. And this is the good stuff — there’s stuff that’s about half the price.

I used my tieguanyin pot to make it

Yum

It’s really quite interesting. The tea isn’t terrible. It’s got a familiar taste — I KNOW I’ve had this tea before, or at least something quite similar. I recognize the aroma, and the aftertaste. It’s even got a nice aftertaste, although for all I know, it’s some chemical they sprayed onto the thing. I am quite confident that this can be sold easily as tieguanyin here for 30 cents a gram and nobody would notice. Mix in a little tieguanyin, and it’s probably even harder to notice.

That’s what they do in China, anyway, so a guy selling tieguanyin here might actually be selling you benshan, and he doesn’t even know it.

I really haven’t had tieguanyin often enough these days to discern all the minor differences between this tea and the real deal. All I can say is this was a little thin, the huigan and the yun a little slow in coming, and a little grassy at the end. All in all… acceptable, but since I don’t like drinking things like this anymore these days, it mattered little.

The wet leaves

Do they look familiar? I hope not. I was told that one way to tell Benshan is that the stem of the leaves tend to look a little like bamboo — with little indents on them. They also don’t tear apart cleanly — when you pull them apart, they don’t have a clean cut, whereas a tieguanyin would. Differences in stem structure, I suppose, although I have never tried verifying this for sure. Maybe somebody can do that test for me.

Tea gallery aged tieguanyin

As I think I’ve stated before — the first law of a tea blogger is that the rate at which samples are sent to the blogger is always going to be higher than the rate at which the samples are consumed.

It gets harder when you get gift tea along with it, as I did recently from Toki.

These are two packs of 1991 tieguanyin from, I think, the Tea Gallery in New York.

The leaves are highly rolled, and smells a little roasted. The smell is more obvious when it hits the warmed teapot. The tea brews a rich brown liquor

It’s obviously thick. The tea is surprisingly still a bit bitter, and the roasty taste is quite present. Tastes a bit like a Best Tea House tieguanyin…. the tea is rounder and smoother than a new tieguanyin, but I think this was probably stored in more air-tight conditions (I know the Best Tea House usually stores theirs in extremely well sealed containers). The character that develops under this sort of condition is not the same as those that I found in Taiwan when they were more exposed to the elements. It’s obvious that this was a good tea when it was first made — all the right characteristics are there. My fiance had a lot of fun drinking this tea while eating chocolates. She said it went really well together, perhaps because of the strong roasty flavour plus the heavy body combining to bring out the best in the chocolates. I wouldn’t know, since I didn’t try.

There’s something funny about the wet leaves though — notice the difference in tones in the leaves? While most of them are dark brown/green, a few are a very light yellowish brown. How come?

Aged tieguanyin

This is an aged tieguanyin that I picked up along with the aged shuixian I had yesterday

No indication of when this was, other than that the loosely rolled style signifies something from at least probably 10 years ago — nowadays tieguanyin are mostly tightly rolled, Taiwan style. I haven’t seen many tieguanyins that are new that are loose like this.

The tea smells musty when water first hits it. I thought puerh. In fact, the wash and first infusion smelled so much like puerh, for a little bit I wondered if she gave me a puerh instead.

Doesn’t it look right?

When I sipped it, it tastes almost just like the Yetang aged Dongding that I have. There are subtle differences — this one is a little less floral (it’s orchid like), and a bit thicker — perhaps because it is a tieguanyin and not a Taiwan oolong. The finish is also different, with this one being obviously stronger. Yet, the similarities are stirking.

The tea lasted many infusions — mostly keeping to the orchid like quality, but at times something else shows, a different kind of aroma than what I got from the Dongding… I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s unique to this tea. It also cools the throat a bit, like a puerh sometimes will. Doesn’t happen too much with tieguanyins though.

And to think this is only about 1/3 of the price of the Dongding, ugh.

The leaves are quite robust

Much better than the shuixian yesterday. Costs more, but not that much more. Between the two, there’s no competition. I’m surprised this tea isn’t sour at all, but it isn’t. It’s really quite a nice find, I think. Now I have one more tea left from this store — I have high hopes now, given how the last two have turned out. I wonder why it’s kept so well?

Passing the year

Today’s the final day of the year of the dog, and tomorrow (in about an hour) we usher in the year of the pig. In China people would be lighting firecrackers like crazy at midnight, and sleeping might be difficult for a few hours. In Hong Kong, no such things are allowed (all firecrackers/fireworks are outlawed — too dangerous in a place with such a high concentration of population). Nevertheless, people celebrate, mostly by eating dinner at home or outside, but definitely with family. This is about the equivilent of the Thanksgiving Dinner in the US, where families try their best to gather together and have a long dinner. We just finished ours.

During the day today, as you can imagine, it was rather quiet outside, but a little gathering was going on in the Best Tea House. It was, surprisingly, an exceptionally busy day for them. I stopped there earlier with my cousin, but it was so crowded with (mostly Japanese) tourists that we had to take a walk. When we came back, I saw somebody unexpected — sjschen of the LJ Community. He is in town visiting, and by chance found the Best Tea House a few days ago. We ended up chatting a good bit about the teas they had, and started brewing some.

Among the teas we drank was a somewhat wet stored cake, which tasted like a 10-15 years old tea and was still a little sour/green in the undertones, but generally starting to taste like aged teas. Then it was a loose tea from, supposedly, the Menghai area. It’s starting to taste like a real old tea, with a shadow of the Red Labels I’ve had. It’s not quite as strong in the qi, but the taste is very similar. It’s sometimes quite interesting to see these changes in puerh.

Then we tried the puerh I bought for Rosa, which I personally now think is good value for the money. It’s not a great tea now, but it has some signs of a good one to come. The chaqi is strong and the tea is generally good. Rosa was happy with the purchase.

We finished with a high fired tieguanyin. Always nice to drink such things after a bunch of puerh. We didn’t get to the one cake I recommended sjschen to try, but oh well, what can you do. Maybe they went back to the store after dinner? I’m not sure. Either way, we had to leave and so we all left. It was nice meeting another tea friend in person, and it reminds me again of the real benefits I get from this blog — I get to meet all sorts of people from all over the world, people who I would have never met otherwise, all because we share one common interest.

I wish you all xinnian kuaile (Happy New Year), gongxi facai (wishing you to be prosperous – standard Cantonese new year’s greeting), and most importantly, xinnian he haocha (drink good tea in the New Year!)