Friday, May 25, 2012


Do you ever wonder:  where's the tea amidst the roast?

Why do some aged oolongs resemble carbonized fragments left in the wake of a fire?

Dominic Point Fire, July 2010
It is my understanding that many folks periodically re-roast old oolongs to keep moisture out of the leaves.  If oolong sits around exposed to humidity, bad things can happen.  I've never experimented with long-term oolong storage, but I have soured my share of teas because I could not drink them fast enough and failed to protect them from the air.  Where does the sourness come from?  And why does this not happen with puerh which seems to require a modicum of humidity and air to age properly?

Some old, roasted oolongs retain something of their original essence and are quite complex and soothing like this 1994 Muzha Tie Guan Yin:



Time has been good to this tea.   I'm not sure if it was roasted more than once, but it was obviously handled well.  The roast is mildly noticeable and the tea is still intact.

On the other hand, this 1996 Ali Shan has been eclipsed by the roaster's hand.  The leaves hardly open, even after many infusions:


I am curious.  Why do some aged teas get over-roasted?  Is it because they were not very good to begin with and a heavy roast is an attempt to mitigate their mediocrity?  Did the roaster over-do it on accident?  Do some people like tea that tastes like charcoal?  Am I sometimes drinking teas that have been too recently re-roasted and which have not had time to settle?  My guess is that most of these hold true.  But my suspicion is that the primary issue is that it takes great care to age oolong in such a way that multiple roastings are not required.  Such oolongs, those that were high quality to begin with and that have been stored carefully and roasted with restraint, tend to be difficult and expensive to acquire.  One gets lucky now and again.  My guess is that a lot of the great tea from the past that was put aside for storage was kept for personal consumption and never sold.  

I welcome comments and thoughts about this phenomenon.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

On Using Enough Leaf: More Hong Shui Oolongs

When first starting to brew tea with attention, I had the tendency to shoot for maximum potency in brews.  Something about wanting the tea to make a grand impression on my senses, something about not being at all subtle.  I quickly learned to be more conservative when starting to experiment with young sheng puerh.  After a few nausea-inducing sessions, I changed my whole approach to tea and erred on the side of leaving plenty of open space in the pot for the leaves to relax and unfurl.  Insipid brews encouraged longer steeping times. 

But each tea requires its own peculiar parameters to coax it into giving up its best.  In the case of two more Hong Shui oolongs from the Lugu environs, a thicker brew proves better.  I acquired both teas from Stephane of Teamasters blog.        

One is a winter 2010 high mountain oolong from Feng Huang.  I had a few sessions with this tea and the finest was when I added a little extra leaf to the pot.  (Covering the bottom plus a small heap more)  The more leaf-laden brews yielded a bright fruit taste during the first few infusions that was either non-existent or subdued in more judicious leaf-to-water ratios.  Being over-generous with leaves might ravage the mouth and throat- as is the case with certain potent Bulang bings sourced by the Essence of Tea folks- then again one might just uncover something that was hidden before by pushing things a bit.

Here's this Feng Huang oolong with it's pretty winter-gold stems:

The other Hong Shui oolong was grown at lower elevations on Yi Guang Shan, which Stephane writes is halfway between the heights of Shan Lin Shi and the lower reaches of Zhu Shan.  This tea is quite affordable (half the price of the Feng Huang), and very smooth and pure.  I often dislike the lower elevation Taiwan oolongs.  More often than not they seem a bit empty of anything other than a candy-sweet quality that I find unpleasant.  Not so with this tea. While it lacks the content of the Feng Huang and the Shan Lin Shi that I wrote about earlier, it has a soothing honeyed fruit flavor that is greatly enhanced when a decent amount of leaf is used.

Yi Guang Shan
 Thanks to Stephane and the farmers for the abundance of pleasure they have provided through the years.

ALOT of strawberry plants grown with garlic to ward off insects in Zhunan, Miaoli CO.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Shan Lin Shi

In the early spring of 2010, we had the good fortune to stay with the Chang family in Lugu, Nantou County, Taiwan.  We met the family through WWOOF Taiwan, a branch of the well-known organization that links organic farmers with folks interested in working in the dirt in exchange for room and board.  The Chang family has a plantation on Shan Lin Shi and a small organic oolong grove near their place in Lugu.  We were early for the tea harvest (and probably wouldn't have been much help anyway with our clumsy laowai picking fingers), but the Changs kindly invited us to visit for a couple of days anyway.  We shared some delicious meals and fabulous tea sessions and we deeply enjoyed the company--especially that of the hilarious and mischievous Miss Chang.

On a bright morning we drove out of the dewy valley where Lugu perches and entered the crystalline realm of Shan Lin Shi.  

Those spindly forms among the tea shrubs are ginkgo trees said to be planted at the behest of the Taiwanese government to mitigate erosion.  Our tea friend and guide, Miss Chang, told us that farmers plant ginkgos because they grow slowly and therefore do not compete with the tea plants.
Shan Lin Shi is one of Taiwan's major high mountain oolong production areas and tea farms are tucked into the folds and contours of the mountain.  The tea plants were dark green, waxy and sleeping.  At the Chang's quiet processing center, we saw where fresh stem-and-leaf sets are sun-withered.  Lines above the withering area held a transparent awning that could be drawn to shield the tea in case the sun's rays become too piercing.   

           Indoor withering room where leaves are stirred and rested after outdoor wilting.
Indoor Wilting Baskets
I do not recall the intricacies of the wilting, drying, rolling and roasting process these tender leaves are put through.  I do know that creating a fresh tea with the proper oxidation level and moisture content is not a simple endeavor.  We also got a look at ovens that remove moisture from the leaves.
Drying ovens 
How do they get those leaves and stems into such tight little balls?  

Rolling press
While in Taiwan, we got the sense that large-scale high mountain oolong agriculture can be hard on the land.  (Like industrial agriculture in the central United States and elsewhere) It depends upon the approach of the grower.  Some farmers apply a lot of pesticides to their tea plants and have installed permanent structures that hold applicator tubing.  

Wish I had a better photo of it.  The  line dangling between two poles on the top right of the knoll is a hose that carries chemicals.
We spent a week with another WWOOF family in Zhunan (Miaoli CO) and our host, farmer Lin, a dedicated coffee drinker and skilled roaster, relayed his reservations with the gao shan oolong industry.  (He did so over a pot of Alishan)  Since Taiwan's mountainous core is so steep, he said, the pesticides used on high-grown tea wash downslope and contaminate the island's streams, valleys and the densely populated outer lowlands.  Add to this an increased tendency to erosion brought about by replacing native vegetation with relatively shallow-rooted young tea plants, and it is easy to see that many of the fresh teas I love to drink come with a cost.  Farmer Lin's notion seemed quite plausible to me, especially after taking a bus from Chiayi to the interior and seeing the effects of the August 2009 typhoon that sent mountains sliding everywhere.  

Farmer Lin's artfully rendered and conscientiously sourced oolong alternative.

Where does that leave the helpless gao shan oolong addict?  Trapped between the leaf and his conscience?  As a North American and a denizen of a region most suited to growing wheat, hay and black cherries I consider it a luxury to have access to Shan Lin Shi tea.  I am far from perfect in this department, but after visiting Taiwan and China, I feel compelled to try and support tea vendors who pay attention to how the tea they sell is grown.

In addition to stunningly delicious teas, the flanks of Shan Lin Shi produce other, equally scrumptious fruits of the soil.

Bamboo shoots!
Miss Chang's grandmother digging shoots on the mountainside.
Thanks to the Chang family for such fine days.