Taiwanese Oolong Tea Class at Teance

Friday, Jun 17. 7 PM.

Twice a year, Camellia sinensis is harvested to make oolong, but the spring yield is usually more floral than the fall.

Winnie started the class with a taste test: between two oolongs, can we tell which one is from China and which one from Taiwan? The oxidation levels of these two teas are roughly the same, but the terroir factors into the taste. After you’ve had many types of Taiwanese oolongs for a while, you recognize the “gan” of Taiwanese oolongs: the transitional taste that starts bitter, then shifts into a sweet note at the end. Different descriptions were voiced among the audience about the floral note, the smoky hint, the diffusion and lingering of flavors in the nasal cavity.

Oolongs take the oxidation range between green tea (completely unoxidized) and black tea (completely oxidized), which means oolongs can be anywhere between 10-15% oxidized to 80-85% oxidized. The oxidation of tea leaves is just like the oxidation of a fruit: you leave a piece of apple out, it turns brown. The chemicals deep inside the veins of the leaf come to the surface, and release their flavors. The tea farmers induce that oxidation by bruising the leaves to a desired level, then freeze the flavors there at the surface by applying heat (roasting, frying, baking, etc.)

The first tea of the lesson was Charcoal-Fire-Roasted Tung Ting (Tanpei Tung Ting), popular among tea-drinkers for its hint of smokiness, and a smell that turns more dark chocolatey as you let the aroma cup sits longer. I had it once before and found it way too burnt, but this time I’ve come to appreciate its direct strength. Winnie told us, though, that the good tea should never be as smokey as BBQ smoke. A hint is right, anything more than that is wrong. Unfortunately, the American drinkers like smokiness, so some producers who want to appeal to that palate give up on the principle and run their finished tea through a smoking room.

Winnie then proceeded to give us simultaneously a High Mountain Light Roast and a High Mountain Dark Roast. Both teas were grown at the same elevation of 2000 meters (~ 6000 ft), both have whole leaves (no cutting), both are produced by the same tea master, one of the very few women who excels in the process of making tea that requires much strength and endurance. There’s a slight difference in the oxidation level (light for the Light Roast and medium for the Dark Roast), but as the names indicate, the main difference is in the roasting. Drinking them side by side, everyone would be able to tell which is which.

The conversation now flows into the direction of the tea making paradox. Teas are grown on high mountains, the higher the mountain, the better the tea; but high mountain means two things: shortage of land and abundance of fog. On one hand, there is barely enough land to grow tea, so there isn’t land to make a processing facility on the mountain, but transporting the harvested leaves down to a facility takes at least a few hours, the taste would change. On the other hand, oxidation needs sunlight, but leaving the leaves out to get sunlight is equivalent to soaking them in the fog. Before too long, the Taiwanese farmers resolve these two problems. For the first one, they build the facility at the edge of the higher terrace with some kind of supporting structure from the lower terrace; from Winnie’s hand motion I’m picturing the building attached to the slope like a canopy attached to a wall. For the second problem, they give the building a glass roof and moving net system to catch the sunlight but not the fog. The brilliance of humans in working with nature.

The third tea was my reason for attending this class: the Dayuling, a rare premium-grade oolong that one can only purchase from the tea masters after many years of acquaintance and an almost-auction-like competition with other tea buyers. There’s not much of it because it’s grown at 2500 meters on a nearly vertical slope of Li Shan (Pear Mountain) in the far east side of the island. The tea gives a distinctive smoothness that reminds one of Bao Chong but overall the strength of Tung Ting, on and off I also perceived a faint toasted almond note towards the end. This spring, Teance had four 2-oz bags of Dayuling. One of them is now on my shelf. The other three have also gone home with the tea class attendants last night. (Every now and then, I feel like I’m in a secret club dealing secret products.)

Just as any meal must end with dessert, Winnie ended the class with a tea that carries a dominant sweet note akin to honey, hence its name: Honey Jia Long. Unlike other teas, the Honey Jia Long have its leaves slightly twisted instead of rolled, and they are almost fully oxidized using a secret anaerobic technique (without oxygen). The Honey Jia Long is grown at lower elevation than other high mountain teas, but its unique processing method yields such unique flavor that its value increases. The sweetness does not linger for hours like the ginseng oolong, but the aroma diffuses more vigorously than any other tea tonight: Winnie opened the lid after she rinses it, and immediately I smelled the root-like fragrance of mature teas.

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