Last time I was here in Wuyishan was about twenty years ago. I had only just started drinking tea more seriously back then, and it was also a much calmer place than now. This time, I know a little more about tea, and the place is a lot busier – it’s like a giant tea mall now, with almost every single shop in town selling yancha of some kind.

On some level, most tea producing regions are the same in East Asia. They mostly work on a small farmer model, where individual farmer has a smallish holding of land with a limited production capacity. Calling them “plantation” would, for the most part, be a misnomer. These are family held farms, and most people here produce tea for their own sales.

This is, however, also a big tourist attraction because of its nature, so there are a fair number of stores in town that have nothing to do with any farm – their trade is the tourist one, and they’re here to make some money selling people tea. Well, everyone’s here to make money selling tea, but in these cases they’re traders. Nothing wrong with that, although, as per the Longjing rule, one ought to remember that just because someone’s in the production area, it doesn’t mean they’re here making tea or have direct access to teas.

I’m here to do research for my project. Thankfully, I have some contacts here through friends, and I’ve been to some tea farms and factories. Like I said, some things are about the same no matter what area you’re in. The Wuyishan area though has some unique properties.

The thing is, Wuyi tea is divided roughly into three areas – zhengyan (proper rock, literally), banyan (half rock), and zhoucha (island tea). The names don’t make a lot of sense in translation. Zhengyan means teas in the proper Wuyi areas – inside the valleys and hills of the Wuyi mountains national park area. Banyan are the stuff right around the area – like the photo above, basically on the outskirts of the national park. Then you have zhoucha, which is now a term generally meaning stuff all around even further away. Zhoucha is regional stuff made in the style of Wuyi teas, whereas zhengyan stuff is the “real deal”. Prices, of course, are according to these regions. Run of the mill zhengyan stuff will easily run over a couple thousand RMB for 500g, more of course if you’re buying from someone who sourced it and is selling to the Western market. Better stuff would be multiples of that.

Then there are these so called “special” areas – Niulan keng, Huiyuan keng, etc. There’s a lot of hype here, typical of the Chinese tea market these days. Prices can be sky high for some of these teas – like 20k USD a jin (500g) for some really special ones, even though these are sort of one of a kind trades. The more “regular” stuff can still run above ten thousand RMB a jin. It’s frankly pretty silly. Can the difference really be that great? Yes, I suppose, but in general, once you go above a certain price point… the incremental improvement in your experience is going to be marginal.

Then of course there are the fakes – cheaper stuff faking to be better ones, usually. Nobody would believe you if you sell a non Wuyi tea as a top grade one, but a banyan being sold as zhengyan? If you’ve never had a bunch of both, you probably can’t tell the difference. Banyan is still good tea, but you’ll pretty much never see people advertise it as that, unfortunately. As always, tea is pretty anonymous, and it’s quite easy to try to dress up a tea as something else.

It’s raining cats and dogs outside, and it’s 2:40am. Time for bed. Hopefully the rain stops and so I can go see some more teas tomorrow deeper into the park.

Traditional tieguanyin

I remember when I first started drinking tea seriously about twenty years ago, tieguanyin was really wonderful. They were tasty – really good stuff. I’m sure people still older will tell me that I know nothing of even better tea from earlier times, but I still remember that in the 90s it was entirely normal to get tieguanyin with real red borders on the leaf, with a green center, and a lovely fragrance and especially aftertaste that is only there when you try tieguanyin and nothing else. The tea has a reason to be famous, after all.

Then something happened, and all of the tea on the market became these really horrible nuclear green stuff that taste like they were glorified perfume in a leaf with no depth. This is now the main trend of tieguanyin – really green, but lacking body and having little rebrew value. The teas don’t have that deep aftertaste that made tieguanyin great. You no longer see leaves that have a red border – in fact, when you look at unrolled leaves, you rarely see any kind of evidence of oxidation at all. The leaves also look like they were mutilated by some sadistic tea-abuser. The edges are jagged – broken, really, and not in the normal way. I’ve heard stories about how they do it partly to remove the redness, because if they keep any of the edge the tea will brew a little redder and that will lower the value of the tea in the market. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but it’s pretty clear that any sign of oxidation, well, it’s gone. They are expensive too, even though the quality, at least in my eyes have worsened, and I know I’m not alone in holding this opinion.

In the last couple years though I’m starting to see some encouraging signs that people are once again taking seriously the idea that an oolong should at least be somewhat oxidized, and maybe even roasted too. I have begun seeing producers who try to make tieguanyin in more traditional method, with a taste that is a bit closer to (but still not quite) what I have come to like in the past. This is a move in the right direction, and I hope the taste for more traditional style tieguanyin will make a comeback, which can only be a good thing. In the meantime though, Wuyi tea is increasingly green. You win some, you lose some I guess?

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.



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.

Buying the packaging

Every tea mall in China has at least a few stores that only sell packaging.  They sell bags, boxes, tins — you name it, they’ve got it, and in the past few years the packaging has gotten more and more elaborate.  They range from simple foil bags these days to ceramic jars inside a ginormous box.  Generally speaking, teas sold in such packaging tend to be poor quality and overpriced.  My friend L’s shop once did a business with some guy who wanted 100 cakes of very regular cooked puerh, and who wanted them to buy the best packaging, because it’s for gifts.  L charged him double the cost.  That guy, in turn, sold the tea for about 10x profit.

So, when you get boxes like this, be cautious, very cautious


This is some dahongpao, with individual foil bags inside for one serving each.  At least the foil bags aren’t too small, so that I don’t have a problem with the serving size.  Teas packaged like this, however, are rarely any good.  My parents got this as a gift, and when it’s a cooked puerh, I’ll usually reject it.  Since it’s a yancha, I figured I’d give it a try.


Mercifully, the tea is actually a medium roast, unlike many of the newer yancha made in the Mainland these days which are light roast, and thus absolute abominations.  The tea already emits a nice smell when it hit the still-warm teapot.  The leaves are a dark colour, almost black, but not quite.


Not nearly as bad as I feared.  The tea is ok – has a decent body and fragrance, even a little qi.  Not the greatest, but not the worst.  I’ll skip the box next time though.

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.


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.


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.


Many infusions later


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.


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.


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.


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.

Mingcong aged oolong

A very generous friend, S, from Malaysia sent me a bunch of teas recently, and among the samples (and a full cake too) is this, a little gem from the past.  I’m not entirely sure how old this is, but from the packaging it looks to be at least 20 years or more.  It’s a small packet of Wuyi tea.



The name on the front is Mingcong (famous bush) while on the back it just says, very helpfully, China oolong tea.  The bag is very stained from the years of rest it’s taken.  When I opened it up, I can clearly smell the aged-ness of the tea — slightly sour, with that distinctive aged oolong fragrance that can’t be faked.

The dry leaves are quite broken.  The tea was well roasted when it came out.


From the taste of the tea, it seems like it’s some sort of shuixian.  The initial two infusions are slightly sour, but not enough to make it unpleasant.  The sourness, as it should, goes away, and a nice, deep aged Wuyi taste lingers.  This is pretty decent tea.  Just judging by the looks, it looks like some dark cooked puerh.


Stuff like this are always a treat, as they are mellow and easy to drink.  I’m a big fan of good aged oolong for a reason; they are tasty and don’t cost nearly as much as aged puerh does these days.  They also last quite a while, if the tea is good.  I wonder how much this tea was.


The leaves are dark, but still flexible.  Good tea — thanks S!

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…