Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Three Truly Memorable Teas

A silver trimmed gong-fu teaset

Gong-fu teasets and accessories (trays, tea stones) are hard to resist, and gifts of tea paraphernalia are always appreciated, such as the set shown above.  I confess, however, that I ought to use the sets more often.  We are already well into a new year, but going by the lunar calendar, there is another new year to celebrate on Feb. 10th this year with festive foods that call for good teas.

A traditional vegetarian dish for New Year: this one had an assortment of mushrooms, gingko nuts, bamboo all wrapped in tofu skin.

With teas from even the earliest spring pluckings are still weeks away, I am still thinking about teas from the year just ended.

Chinese New Year flowers: narcissus from Fujian and quince blossoms from the backyard.

As we move into a new year, which means organizing and storing the past year’s samples, I was reminded of a few personal favorites and that each is eminently suited for actually using these teasets, as opposed to just collecting them.

At the top of my list is a Honey Oolong from Taiwan.

Honey Oolong (Taiwan)

This tea virtually shimmers with layers of aromatic, honeysuckle notes with a long finish that makes me wonder each time how the simple tea bush can yield so much. 

Unfortunately, this hand-plucked tea (many fine quality Taiwan Oolongs are machine cut) is expensive, retailing between $200-300/lb.  The tea is not from a dramatic elevation, as is the case with Li Shan tea, but this Honey Oolong has an unusual feature about which I am only beginning to learn.  From the little research I’ve done so far, another famous Taiwan tea, Silver Tip Oolong, shares this curious trait.

The following tidbit comes from a paper published by several researchers from the College of Food Science, Hunan Agricultural University, wherein the authors write about the varietal that is made into Silver Tip Oolong as well as the Honey Oolong teas:  “[it] is a cultivar grown without pesticides to encourage a common insect, the tea green leafhopper (Jacobiasca formosana) to fee on the leaves, stems and buds.  These insects such the juices of the tea stems and leaves, producing monoterpene diol and hotrienol which give the tea its unique flavor….The insect bites start the oxidation of the leaves and tips and add a sweet note to the tea.” The authors go on to say that beyond the “muscatel” flavor of the tea, the essential amino acids and nutrients of these teas are higher than other “ordinary” teas.  In fact, this process initiated by the leafhopper has inspired makers of other types of tea, such as Dong Ding Oolong in Hualien and Taitung counties in Taiwan to withhold pesticides in order to replicate this process in other teas.

I had heard about the leafhopper in the context of these teas but have not gotten much detail from the producers.  I have written to an entomologist and am waiting to hear back.  The intrusion of the leaf-hopper may be alarming at first, but its presence also signifies the absence of pesticide use.

Fascinating as this tidbit may be, the Honey Oolong I have in mind is strong on its own, no back-story needed.  Putting this particular alongside other Oolongs does a disservice to the latter, admirable as many of those were.

If I were asked to name another favorite from the past year, it would be a Green from Nepal, and I am looking forward to March when the new tea will be available again.

A Green tea from Nepal

I recognize where my own preferences lie (1st flush Darjeelings, Oolongs, fine Greens) and it is not surprising that this one was so memorable, because not only does it come just a few kilometers away from the Darjeeling district, but the process crosses traditional tea category boundaries.

Honey Himalayan Green

Here is a tea labeled as Green but which has undergone some slight oxidation, resulting in flavor richer than standard Greens, with the oxidation coaxing more from the leaf than the minimalist Green tea method might have.

I have yet to learn how the process came about; what prompted the tea makers to take the added step, a bold one at that, of allowing the leaves – intended for a Green — to oxidize a bit? What was the experimentation process like?  The same gardens produce Black and teas labeled as Oolongs, and also White teas (another story there), so why were certain batches of what would have been non-oxidized teas taken a step beyond the standard?  A parallel case that springs to mind are a couple of Yellow teas from China sampled in 2012.  Yellow teas are usually considered a sub-group of Greens, but in these few instances, the leaves had also undergone some slight oxidation, resulting in an exceptionally aromatic cup.

Last week I had occasion to taste a Yunnan Gold Buds I had not seen for some time.

Yunnan Golden Buds, a Black tea

If you think of what Silver Needles White tea is, i.e., all buds, this is the Black tea version.

Even after steeping, the buds remain intact.

The cost had gone up considerably; several years ago the tea might have gone for about $75-90/lb retail.   Based on the quote I just saw, that would now jump to $200-$235/lb, which is not all that exorbitant when one considers that the tea is comprised entirely of buds, plump and golden.  No argument that the cup was delicious, softly sweet and round, very smooth on the palate.  Yet the price had me thinking of which teas I would rather be drinking, and a Single Trunk Oolong (Dan Cong) came readily to mind.  For pure flavor the batches brought in this year were astonishing: full of bright dried-fruit (longan) notes in the aroma and which played out with a long finish in the mouth.

Single Trunk Oolong (tea from trees)

Later in the week a customer requested a photo of this tea from a tree, and not wanting to waste the tea, I brewed 4 cups from the same 3 grams that day, and even the last cup had more to offer than many teas in their first infusion.  Even cooled, the Single Trunk was satisfying and I could see making up a pitcher for warmer days.

Dan Cong/Single Trunk Oolong: layers of flavor, deep and concentrated.

The oxidized Green from Nepal and the Single Trunk Oolong probably retail between $100-150/lb, which seems like a lot.  But consider the cost per cup: 3 to 4 grams of leaves per cup with one pound being 454 grams, this works out to a gentler number, of about $1 or less per cup.  And each of these teas will yield a flavorful 2nd or 3rd infusion.   There is no need for most consumers to buy a pound at a time unless you knjow your purveyor is apt to run out, and set against a nice bottle wine, tea can still be a bargain.

We often make lists in threes, and so here are my three memorable teas from the past year.  I recognize now what they share: each is very expressive and identified with a particular locale (one growing area in Taiwan, Nepal, and a corner of Guangdong near its Fujian border).  Each comes from a specific varietal that may not do as well if transplanted, and each was handcrafted.  It is not so much the processing by hand, although small batches matter, but the monitoring and crafting that are imperatively bound to and reliant on deep experience that count.

Such teas will not ever be mass-market products, simply because so little is produced and the prices so high in the larger context of teas.

Quantities for premium teas may be modest compared with other standards that come in container-load quantities (shown here), but they are worth seeking out.

And there are many teas costing less that provide much drinking pleasure.  The three described here demonstrate the good fortune of having the opportunity to sample many teas and still being able to be surprised and awed by ones yet to be discovered.

These vibrant, very special teas are a long way from the staple teas of the industry, but lest we dismiss those too quickly, we would do well to remember that even these lowly teas are authentic.

A restaurant grade Green: these teas come in container-load quantities and are at the low end of the price ladder.

They may have been machine-cut and processed in large batches, but the leaves had nothing added to them.  The ingredient list for true teas is an easy one to make: there is but one, and in the case of a naturally scented tea such as Jasmine, there are two.  Therein lies the fascination of tea.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung