As I write this, it is the 3rd week of March (2014); spring has officially arrived and I hear of the first teas coming out from southwestern China. However, this cream of the cream of the crop has prohibitively high prices, I must wait a bit longer to see samples from the early spring plucking. Meanwhile,….
True Milk Oolong from Taiwan
My description of this True Cream Golden Buds Oolong falls neatly under three alliterative headings:
ELUSIVE: I’ve been sourcing a solid, affordable batch of this tea from Taiwan for some years. Finding the tea exhibiting this unexpected flavor was not the challenge; pricing was sometimes formidable, high enough to prevent more people from learning about this tea, which can initiate thought-provoking questions about the marvels of the tea plant.
EPHEMERAL: There are a handful of teas from the Jin Xuan cultivar (“golden buds”) that yield the familiar yet surprising cream aroma, but often this is a very brief sensory moment, and the detectable/discernible milk fragrance and taste vanish shortly after lifting the lid or after the first few sips. This may not diminish the pleasure of such a cup, but one wishes the tea had more staying power.
ETHEREAL: Beyond its good flavor, I find this tea remarkable because of the disconnect: dairy flavor from something green ( ! ), a feature the leaves hold almost in hiding, as their own secret, only coaxed out when all conditions in the micro growing environment come together in proper alignment.
Why do some batches Jin Xuan tea lack this quality and why do some batches surprise and delight us in this manner? The grower attributes this to the weather conditions during the growing season, during plucking, and during processing:
These two phrases can be summed up as “proper timing at the right place, weather conditions, and proper processing.”
There are a couple of hundred compounds found naturally in tea leaves; we usually pay attention to antioxidant polyphenols. In this instance, the lactones come forth and yield this unexpected flavor, with no essences added.
The first whiff when the lid is lifted can be quite astonishing if this is the first time encountering this tea.
We are more accustomed to tea leaves giving up floral notes, even when no flowers have been added, or to evocations of dried fruit and roasted grains when none has been added, but milk is more startling. When cooperative weather and ambient conditions all come together, this is a great example of the range of flavors tea plants have to offer, with nothing added that was not already in the leaf. Mouthfeel is smooth and buttery (of course!), supple and velvety, with no bite.
The brewed cup went quickly.
As a side-note: at the recent NATC (a tea competition), one tea submitted to the (straight) Oolong category was in fact a flavored milk Oolong. The giveaway was immediate because the dry leaves gave off a stronger fragrance than any unflavored Oolong ever could. I am not dismissing flavored Oolongs; we sell these too. What was surprising that such a tea (flavored) was submitted in the wrong category by a tea purveyor who obviously considered the entry competition-worthy.
Back to the natural tea after which the flavored version was modeled: this Jin Xuan is from that bountiful tea area in Nantou, Taiwan, growing at an elevation of between 400-500 m., and is from the winter harvest. The grower recommends 5 grams to 5 oz of water; I suggest using 4 grams of tea to try first. Each sip still manages to startle or dazzle a little, as I marvel at the very unexpected pairing of milk and tea, all from the leaf, and the floral finish at the back of the throat provides a more familiar ending.