Leaves during indoor rack withering.
Oolong tea is traditionally from Taiwan and China. These are partially oxidized teas that range in flavor from mild and floral to bold and toasty. Their leaf and liquor also ranges from light green/yellow to dark brown.
After being picked, the leaves are withered for 8 hours or more, depending on the moisture content at plucking and the weather conditions at the time of plucking and processing. During withering, the moisture content in the leaf is reduced and the leaf becomes soft and pliable. Without withering, the leaves would break apart during processing. As the moisture content in the leaves reaches certain levels, different processes can be used to produce different styles of oolong. The tea master looks, touches, and smells the leaves to determine when and how to process the leaves.
The leaves are then lightly bruised by tumbling and shaking to encourage oxidation to take place on the leaf's edge - a reason why many oolong tea leaves have a red edge. This process breaks the cell walls, exposing the oxidase enzymes to oxygen in the air to start the oxidation process. Oxidation is a chemical process by which an atom give one or more electron to an atom of a different element. The atom that lost its electron now tries to fill its empty spot by taking one from another atom, starting a chain reaction until something occurs to stop the process. We are most familiar with this process in apples. When we cut into an apple, the broken cells release enzymes that react with oxygen and the flesh quickly turns brown. However, if the apple is baked, heat deactivates the enzymes and halts the oxidation process. In tea, this enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (PPO) is responsible for this reaction.
The rolling process
The degree of oxidation is carefully controlled as firing is used to stabilize the leaves by stopping the oxidation process. Firing is also used to further reduce moisture content to protect against molding. It can also be used to improve a poor production batch, but can also ruin a great production batch. Often rolling and firing and interspersed for a unique slow, partial oxidation process.
Some oolongs are given a final baking at the end of processing which you can find in our Roasted Oolong Collection.
Today we had a new batch of Oriental Beauty come in that we wanted to compare with a previous batch, so we brought out our cupping sets and had a quick tasting session.
As professional tea growers and sellers, it's important for us to judge the quality and flavor of our teas on a more rigorous scale than drinking tea for pleasure. Whenever we have a new batch of teas come in, we compare, or cup, it against similar teas to analyze its properties. We look at 3 categories tallied on a 100pt scale.
Dry Leaf 20pts
When evaluating the dry leaf we look at the shape (to assure the leaf has been properly plucked, dried, and rolled) and the color (to check the control of withering and oxidization). The preferred color of the dry leaf is also often determined by the market. Currently in Taiwan consumers prefer a greener tea.
Liquor Color 20pts
The liquor should be bright and clear. A cloudy liquor can indicate deficiencies in the drying process. Each type of oolong also has its own standard for color that is determined by the market. In some markets a bright, golden liquor is preferred. At other times, a pale yellow liquor is wanted.
Aroma, Taste, & Mouthfeel 60pts
This category makes up the bulk of the points. Even within this category, preference is given to mouthfeel, then to taste, and finally to aroma.
How to Cup Tea
Tea is a highly delicate art. As we mentioned in our two previous posts (Brewing the Perfect Cup of Oolong Tea & The Science of Taste), even miniscule changes in water temperature, volume of tea, steep time, and even the size of the cup you drink from can affect your brewed tea in major ways. A proper tea master can even make an average lot of tea taste amazing with the right technique.
Because we'd like to limit the number of variables and compare only the tea itself, we try to control for the major ones. Tea ultimately is a matter of the leaf, water, time, temperature, and brewing & serving vessel. We account for these variables by providing a standard by which to evaluate our teas. We control for the amount of leaf, the amount and temperature of water, the time allowed for infusion, and the cup we brew and drink from.
A professional cupping set consisting of a GaiBei (lidded cup) and ChaWan (tea bowl). This set allows for consistency during the cupping process as each set is built to the same standard factoring in size as well as color of the porcelain.
For our rolled oolongs, we generally will use 4 grams of tea steeped in 6 ounces of water at 100C for 3 minutes. Ultimately it doesn't matter what quantity you use or what time, what's important is that you consistently use the same variables every time you cup a certain type of tea.
First we prewarm our cups using boiling water. A cold cup disperses heat very quickly; pouring hot water into a cold cup can drop water temperatures by up to 10C.
Carefully measure out the same volume of tea. An electronic scale will help. We did 3 grams of the Oriental Beauty.
Discard the water from the cup and pour in the tea.
The warm cup will aromatize the tea. Quickly smell the fragrance of the warmed tea leaves and take note.
We brewed our Oriental Beauty at 85C.
And steep. We timed ours for 3 minutes.
Decant into your bowls.
Dip a spoon into the liquor and smell the aroma and take note. We use porcelain soup spoons.
Taste and take note.
Keep a journal of your tea tasting adventures. You're on your way to becoming a tea connoisseur!
Definition of Tea
Tea has two definitions:
The Five Basic Types of Tea in the US
There are five basic types of tea - white, green, oolong, black, and dark. All types of tea start as leaves on the Camellia sinensis bush. The leaves can be made into any type of tea, but tea producers have found that certain cultivars and growing conditions produce a better black tea (or green, white, or oolong tea) than anything else. Ultimately how the leaf is processed determines the type of tea it becomes. (The Chinese also count a sixth type of tea - Yellow tea - which we'll discuss later.)
Three Factors that Determine the Characteristics of the Final Tea Product
The three most significant factors that bear on the characteristics that ultimately appear in the cup are:
Five Traditional Countries of Origin
There are five traditional countries of origin of specialty tea: China, Japan, India, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka
Though it is mainly associated with green teas, China can be considered the birthplace of all teas. Japan learned how to make steamed green teas from China. The British produced black teas in India and Sri Lanka. And Taiwan is famous for its oolongs. Many Chinese tea makers emigrated to Taiwan and brought their plants and techniques with them.
Although these five countries are best known for their particular tea types, tea types and leaf styles are fluid and migrate from grower to grower and country to country due to economic forces. Just like with any other industry, the tea industry bows to the demands of the marketplace. Today's gardens in India and Sri Lanka produce white, green, and oolong teas as well. China produces sencha and Taiwan-style oolongs. Japan has even developed black tea production for domestic consumption. However, although tea types and leaf styles can be reproduced, the flavor and aroma profiles are uniquely tied to a garden's terroir - the unalterable differences in soil, climate, cultivar, and cultural influences.
The majority of tea is cultivated on estates, or gardens. Gardens range in size from a family growing on less than an acre to plantations with hundreds of acres and workers. For commercial production, saplings are planted close together to maximize yield and efficiency, resulting in 1500-5500 plants per acre. Saplings reach maturity in 3-4 years and can indeed be cultivated for over 100 years, but the golden age of a tea plant is from 4-8 years old.
Tea bushes are repeatedly pruned to stimulate leaf growth, inhibit flowering, and maintain a convenient height for harvesting, rarely exceeding 36 inches high. One pound of processed tea requires around 4-5 pounds of freshly-picked, raw tea leaf (about 2500 shoots). 1000-2000 pounds per acre is considered a high yield.
Tea plants are cultivated in two ways. They can be grown from seed, but more commonly they're grown from a process called vegetative propagation or clonal planting where a branch is cut from a mother bush, planted in the soil, and takes root. Clonal planting is preferred over seed growing because of the higher level of control it tends toward. Cross pollination risk is eliminated and bushes are more uniform is character.
The term terroir refers to, not only the climate and soil of where the teas was grown, but also the weather 7-10 days prior to the leaf's being harvested. The traditions of the tea's country of origin also factor into the terroir since they influence the way the leaf will be processed.
As we mentioned, cultivation practices and conditions have to be specifically adapted for varieties and cultivars as certain leaves tend towards a particular style. Each variety and cultivar is influenced by its genetics that will determine how the plant responds to factors in its environment.
This oolong-tea-poached pear dish was inspired by an O Magazine recipe. Made with our Oriental Beauty, this is an amazing dessert that pairs great with vanilla ice cream.