Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Taiwan & Nepal: Distant Gardens, Similar Teas

Recently I brought in a new tea from Nepal: I named this an Oolong because it was partially oxidized, and used the descriptive term “floral” because the tea exhibits this feature nicely.   If you have followed my occasional posts, you know that my personal favorites run toward 1/F Darjeelings and Oolongs.  Years ago when I tasted an Oolong type tea from Nepal, I was happy to discover a tea that combines the best of these components: floral, complex, fresh, sweet.

A partially oxidized tea from Nepal, autumnal.

This is different from our Himalayan Honey Oolong and at a friendlier price.  It is hand-crafted, and like the fussy, complicated to make oolongs of China,  oxidation is fixed not by a timer but by the senses: aroma, feel,  and appearance.  Nepal of course is known for its peaks, and even for this country, the bushes come from selected high elevation sections .  The methods may be described as rudimentary, as would apply to Dan Cong – - processing housed in rustic simple structures rather than gleaming factories (although plenty of fine oolongs come from these places too).  Most of the processing is done by hand, fulfilling the term artisanal in the true sense.

A floral Oolong from Nepal.

Withering, followed by hand rolling, initiates oxidation; hand rolling keeps the leaf more intact than would the actions of a mechanical roller that would result in more breakage.  Oxidation  proceeds more slowly this way w/hand rolled (as opposed to machine rolled) leaves.  Level of oxidation varies from season to season, with lower oxidation for spring teas; for this autumnal flush, the oxidation is up to 60%, although there is no hint of fire or high roast in the cup.  The firing, however, is not prolonged, as too much firing would reduce the soft character of the tea. The rather dramatic drop in price between the spring and autumnal teas makes this an excellent buy.

A cup of floral oolong from Nepal

When I tried out this tea on friends, most found a lichee note.  The flowery aroma and sweet taste are due to the clones selected for making the tea, growing under stressed conditions: high altitude, less rainfall.  In the spring teas, the plants have been dormant for at least three months, yielding in that early harvest a nice honey note. By autumn, temperatures are dropping and the growth of new shoots is stunted, yet this seems to produce fine flavors from the leaves.

The infused leaves gave a bouquet that was woodsy, evoking fresh air on a walk in a damp forest. The cup yields spice and a floral note that is also woodsy rather than perfumey.  The finish has a bit of an edge, reminding me that the leaves were taken not too far from their green, unoxidized state.

Picking up that reference of 60% oxidation in a tea that is not overly fired, I turn now to Silver Tip Oolong, one of the classics from Taiwan.

Silver Tip Oolong from Taiwan, aka Oriental Beauty Oolong

The tea’s name is Bai Hao Oolong; “bai” as in white (White Mutan) and “hao” as in sprouting ( as in Yin Hao Jasmine), and is also commonly known as Oriental Beauty, but this seems to be falling out of favor lately.  (One version explaining the source of the name:  the tea was presented to Queen Victoria by a British tea merchant;  the queen praised the tea for its apricot- amber color and mellow sweet flavor. Knowing it came from the Far East, the name Oriental Beauty was bestowed.)

[This is a good point to move up the page and view the Nepal tea, in dry and wet form, to see its resemblance to the Taiwan Silver Tip Oolong.]

Bao Hao, or White Sprouting, says more about this distinctive Oolong because the silver-white tips do pop against the darker brown of the leaves and this feature is distinctive to this Oolong.  (Really don’t see this in other Oolongs.)  Very young buds with pekoe (bai hao) show up as silver tips in the finished tea, making this Oolong easy to recognize.

A closer look at the leaves (Taiwan Silver Tip oolong)

This is not the ball shaped Oolongs of southern Fujian (such as Se Chungs) nor the darker, thicker leaves that characterize more fired Oolongs of northern Fujian, such as Shui Hsien.  The more open leaf and lighter shadings in this Silver Tip Oolong are quite unusual for the category.

Origin: the gardens are in the mountains of Hsinchu county in northern Taiwan and are situated at about 1000 m in elevation.  This is a summer crop tea, with plucking beginning in late April and ending in July; therefore, production is quite limited.  Budsets are plucked (this accounts for the silver-white tips), and the varietal itself is the Da Man Chung Oolong (literally, “big slow type”).

Even with one rolling, this tea can yield multiple flavorful infusions.

There is indoor and outdoor withering, depending on conditions during plucking days; total withering time is about 10 – 14 hours, when the leaves soften and give up some of the moisture.  As is standard for Oolong processing, the leaves are shaken to bruise the edges so oxidation will start.  Oxidation is about 65-80% for this tea, and it is all the more surprising that the finish is still quite bright and floral; we don’t detect strong fired notes.

Taiwan Silver Tip Oolong in the cup

This is a costly tea not only because of limited output (one season/year) but also because the shaking and rolling are done by hand.  Some Oolongs are rolled very tightly (e.g., Ti Kuan Yin); this Silver Tip Oolong is rolled gently and only once; hence, the rather open leaf in the finished tea.  There is no post-processing baking.

The producer recommends using 6 grams (0.2 oz) to 250 cc water (about 8.5 oz) at 95 degrees C.  We suggest using somewhat less tea, perhaps 5 grams.  Steep one minute, enjoy the aroma from the lid, and the 1st infusion is ready.  Immediately pour hot water for the 2nd infusion, and so forth.

Silver Tip Oolong is sometimes described has having an orchid aroma; personally, I don’t pick this up.  What I enjoy is the honeyed, peachy note; the aroma is of dried fruit mingled with toasted grain, and these features are attributable to the particular varietal used, along with the gentle processing and somewhat curtailed (relatively so for Oolongs) methods, such as one rolling.  As with the Floral Oolong from Nepal, this pair give hints of umami in the finish, quite remarkable from a beverage made from only one ingredient.

To me, the similarity between this tea from an island off China’s coast (Taiwan) and a tea from the peaks of the world (Nepal) is astounding and sums up so much that is alluring in teas.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung