Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Floral, Friendly Oolongs

The last post considered Oolongs that had some roasted flavor, teas that had been oxidized a bit longer and fired a bit longer than the green Oolongs that have become so popular in recent years.  These delicate Oolongs brew up a pale to medium gold in the cup, and the plumeria aroma make them winning teas.  In the cup, they look like a Green tea but on the palate, they are more flavorful than most Green teas, a winning combination of features.

Yet even among those friendly, floral Oolongs, there is variation, a gradation in the balance of sweet/green/floral that shows up in various teas.  Not all of the teas in this sub-category taste the same.
This lightly oxidized style of Oolongs refers to a method of processing, a method that is applied to different varietals, so this yields even more variety. There are “green” Oolongs made from Hairy Crab, from the qing xing and four Seasons cultivars from Taiwan, and Ti Kuan YIn, to name the better known types.
We just received two such “green” Ti Kuan Yin (TKY) teas from different producers and tasted them alongside a Jade Oolong from Taiwan, which wasn’t put there intentionally for another purpose, but the three made a nice trio.

Ti Kuan Yin #1: note the green in this style of Oolong

We were surprised at how different the two green TKY’s tasted.  The immediate visual contrast was in the brew colors.  One was far lighter, showing a pale celadon ( #2 ) while the other yielded a more standard green-gold hue.  I’ll refer to this latter one as tea #1.

Ti Kuan Yin #2; both #1 & #2 are Special Grade TKY teas.

#2was soft, pleasing and had a gentle cleansing quality, very refreshing when cold, and spoke of early spring, with its delicate floral quality.  There was sweetness, even in this very light iteration.

Leaves of TKY #2 after the first infusion

After the first infusion the leaves were very open, many were quite flat. The very ragged edges are evidence of bruising that leaves undergo for Oolong, but the rolling reflects processing quite different from traditional TKY teas, which are rolled (in tight bundles) several times.  This is why after just the first infusion, the leaves are almost all fully open.

From TKY #2 -- very pale in the cup; hard to believe this is an Oolong !

Compare the appearance of the wet leaves from Tea #1 and the color of cup #1, and one can expect that tea #1 is more likely to produce more infusions (flavorful ones) than tea #2.  But to jump back a bit, Tea #1 possessed a deeper quality, as if more grams had been used to brew the cup.  There was a noticeable feature that this had something “green” to it, a slight and pleasing edge that the softer #1 did not have.  I would not go so far as to name this as astringency, but that little bit of a fresh nudge was there.

Infused leaves from TKY #1: not quite as open and flat; retaining more of the rolling

The wet leaves from Tea #2 tell us tht they were probably allowed to oxidize just a bit longer than what happened in making Tea #1, and the rolling was more extensive, and the gradual unfurling in the 2nd and 3rd infusions will coax out flavor as the leaves continue to expand.
The prices of these two teas are very comparable, and of course they come from the same area, Anxi, the TKY region in Fujian.  It would be hard to blame someone for thinking these to be Green teas: they certainly bear no resemblance to the ubiquitous reddish-brown Oolong most people encounter at Chinese restaurants.

The bolder, deeper TKY #1 on the left and the more delicate #2 on the right; quite a difference in brew color.

Context always matters, and going to the 3rd tea in this session, the Taiwan Jade Oolong, showed how different this tea was.  Instead of lumping these lightly oxidized, “green” Oolongs together, this brief exercise pointed to fine variation among them.

Jade Oolong from Taiwan; from the dry tea, it isn't easy to tell these 3 teas apart.

This deeply gold cup offered a richer, fuller taste, leaving a mellow, round sensation. There was more in the mouth for the palate, and unlike the other two teas, this Jade Oolong, although not a ti KuanYin, gave a hint of roasting, just the slightest suggestion that fire that played a part in the processing.

Jade Oolong: very flat and open leaves; leaves aren't as ragged at the edges as the two Ti Kuan Yin teas.

This 3rd tea is about 1/3 more expensive than the two floral TKY teas.  I attribute this more to labor costs in the producing areas, for even machine-cut teas in Taiwan cost more than comparable teas plucked by hand in China.

Taiwan's Jade Oolong (Cui Yu) in the cup

Even though the processing of this green style of Oolong is less laborious than making traditional Oolongs, they are not cheaper than the latter, more roasted, more heavily rolled teas.  I attribute this to the continuing popularity of floral Oolongs; this is what consumers want; it is considered in all probability a newer tea, one that appeals to a younger audience now discovering what may once was thought to be a traditional beverage that their elders enjoyed.
When the teas were completely cold, I returned to them and found all of them still delicious, and the 2nd and 3rd even bracing, and could imagine how quaffable they would be on a warm summer day.  I doubt that many people drink such teas this way (cold but without ice to dilute), but I would recommend trying this.

Left to right: TKY#1, the lighter TKY #2, and the Jade Oolong

Because such teas are lightly oxidized, they should be stored in the refrigerator to preserve freshness.  It is winter as I write this, and finishing these 3 cups to the last drops made me look ahead to late spring.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung