The Tea Detective
Uncovering and Exploring the Facts About Tea
Making High Quality Taiwan Oolong Teas
A Proud Tradition Continues
It's fair to say that Taiwan makes some of the best, most aromatic, flavorful,
delicious and rare oolong teas in the world.  Taiwan has a larger variety of leaf
styles and oxidation levels than their Chinese mentors, with a larger range of
choices to sample and explore.
Called "wulong" or "black
dragon" in traditional Chinese
tea shops, it's named after the dark, heavily fired
leaves of traditional strip-style oolongs.  As many
of
China's teas are named after myths, mystical
animals, or poetic images, so too is oolong tea
with its dark, twisted leaf silhouette reminiscent of
a noble, and powerful black dragon.

Oolong teas are some of the most difficult to pro-
duce.  It's a tea that requires many steps, where
timing is everything
and entails long hours
of hard, arduous work.

This is because oolong
teas are partially oxi-
dized, made in a range of 12 to 80% oxidation which varies by style
and tea maker.  It can take anywhere from 36-40 hours to process a
batch of oolong tea.  

                                           The reward for the labor intensive and difficult work is a tea like no
                                           other.  A flavorful complex tea with a range of aromas from light and
                                           flowery orchids and gardenias to deep and earthy wood and leath-
                                           er, to fresh, ripe melons, apricots, and peaches.

                                           There are three wide categories of oolong tea; open-leaf style,
                                           semi-ball rolled, and strip-style oolong, which is unique to China.

                                           Some examples of
Taiwan open-leaf style oolongs are BaoZhong (or
Wenshan BaoZhong), which is lightly oxidized and
Bai Hao (Oriental Beauty) which receives
medium oxidation.

Wenshan BaoZhong is called one of the
"greenest" oolongs for its minimal oxida-
tion.  It is a light green color, with floral
flavors of
jasmine and gardenia.  The
leaves plucked for BaoZhong are tender,
larger than most green teas, but smaller
and not as tough as for most oolongs.

After harvesting, the leaves receive a short
wither in the sun for 15-20 minutes, where
they begin to wilt and develop some of their
aromas.  The leaf is then brought indoors to
wither for another half day before being
placed in a heated tumbler (resembles a
clothes dryer) where the leaves are almost
completely fixed, keeping their green color.

                                               Next, the partially fix-
                                               ed leaves are rolled.  
                                               Since BaoZhong
                                               leaves are more tender they're unable to withstand the heavy
                                               pressure of ball-rolling and instead are rolled into tight coiled
                                               twists.  The leaves are left to oxidize for a short time to about
                                               10-20%, and lastly fired to stop oxidation and dry the tea to
                                               preserve it.

Bai Hao has a similar processing, but receives a medium oxidation to about 35-40%, with the re-
sult a lovely honeyed, peachy flavor.  The biggest difference between Bai Hao isn't in the amount
of oxidation or that it's ball-rolled, but what happens to it before it's even harvested.

Bai Hao is made from leaf plucked in mid to late summer, from July
to October.  The reason plucking is delayed is because farmers wait
for the tea bushes to be inhabited by little parasitic green leaf
hoppers (Jacobiasca formosana) which chews the edges of the tea
leaves, turning them white.  The chomping provokes the plant's
defenses, starting an enzyme process inside the leaf that is essen-
tial to developing the character and
flavor of Bai Hao.

                                  Bai Hao is also called Pingfang tea, and has been available in the
U.S. for
                                  about 18 years, sometimes marketed as Champagne oolong in the West.

                                  Ti Kuan Yin is also a medium oxidized tea, made with large, loose semi-
                                  ball rolled leaves.  It is made from the same cultivars as China's Wuyi
                                  Shan tieguayin oolongs.

                                  Next are
Alishan oolongs that come from their namesake, the famous
                                  Alishan Mountains.  Alishan
oolong grows at about 7,200 feet, the high-
                                  est tea-growing altitude in Taiwan.

High mountain gao shan oolongs grow more slowly in the cool mountain air, allowing for only two
plucks a year.  Like their
China cousins they're called "cloud and mist" teas for the near constant
mist filled air surrounding them.  Alishan oolong and Li Shan, its newest competition, and other
high altitude gao shan oolongs have a heavy, creamy body, like a thick layer of heavy cream
coating the mouth, but with light floral flavors and aroma.

No one is sure why this occurs in high mountain teas.  It's believ-
ed the cooler climate and reduced sun in the high, misty mountains
may stunt the growth of the leaf, concentrating the flavors.
Harvesting high mountain oolongs means hand-plucking on steep inclines with large tea
baskets, all while enduring blasts of hard rain and hot sun.  If the weather allows, the
tea leaves are placed on a tarp in the sun where it develops the lovely
floral aromas of jasmine, geranium and rose.

                                 Ever so often the tarp is folded and unfolded to lightly bruise the leaves and trigger oxidation.
                                 After about 30 minutes the leaf is transferred indoors onto large bamboo trays to wither
                                 another eight hours.  Next comes rolling, where the leaves are shaped into balls, an arduous,
                                 lengthy process that takes six to eight hours, but deepens the floral aroma and flavors.

                                 Next the tea leaves are placed in a canvas bag, cinched tight and placed in a machine with two
                                 rotating disks.  The turning action of the disks forces the leaves to ball up and initiates oxida-
                                 tion.  After only a few minutes the bag is removed from the machine and the leaves placed in a
                                 large rotating drum to slow oxidation.  After a few minutes the leaves are removed from the
                                 drum and placed back in the bag and the process is repeated for up to 30 times in the next six
                                 to eight hours.

The end result are tightly rolled pellets of tea the size of peas, oxidized only 25% and fully dry,
with an extraordinary citrusy scent, floral sweetness, and fresh light citrusy flavors.

Last comes
Tung Ting (or Dong Ding), Taiwan's most beloved oolong.  Although it's not considered
a high mountain gao shan tea, as it grows in the lower elevations, over the last twenty plus years
its tea makers have begun to process it in a similar fashion.  They're making Tung Ting lighter, oxi-
dizing and firing for less time.  The result is a creamy, lemony oolong, a bit darker than Alishan or
Li Shan, with a darker infusion and similar, but more subdued floral and citrus flavors.  
Enjoy.
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