Of all the teas that we serve at the Tea House our carefully selected Oolong teas have captured peoples imagination the most. This seems to both be down to the Gong Fu style of brewing [small teapots, sipping cups and multiple infusions] and also the wide variation in flavours between and within each particular type.
At this point I should rewind slightly and just define what an Oolong tea is. Simply put an Oolong is a partially oxidised tea, black tea being totally oxidised and green and white teas not oxidised at all. Oxidation is what gives a black tea its dark colour and more bitter flavour.
On my recent trip to Taiwan my mission was to taste as many Oolongs as possible and learn as much as I could about the intricate differences between the many examples. I came away feeling that I had taken positive steps in this direction and certainly felt immersed in this class of tea but what excites me is how much there is still to learn, taste and explore. I continue to learn everyday through cupping, sampling & experimenting in the Tea House but in this blog I will summarise the key reasons why I think Comins Oolong collection is gaining such a good following.
Firstly we need a few more details on this amazing type of tea. In Taiwan there has been a recent push by TRES [a government backed scientific research body] to categorise oolong using the colour of the liquid created. This starts with Jade oolong, such as our Alishan and Lishan Spring, which are lightly oxidised (around 10%), and are light, floral and sweet. The next is Amber oolong, which covers our Dong DIng and Yilan. These are around 50-60% oxidised and also baked giving stronger, deeper flavours. The final colour is Brandy. Our Ruby 18 oolong falls into this category being around 90% oxidised and giving a deep, malty, almost black flavour.
There are many, many more that fit into each category each with their own differences and traits. Here lies one of the reasons behind the appeal of this class of tea - there is such a wide range that it is a constant journey of discovery. Each area gives different flavours through soil and rock type, environmental conditions and altitude, whilst each producer adds their own stamp through their differering production methods. On top of this is the wide flavour profile for each oolong. I personally find them far more complex than other teas, with the taste changing as you drink and after it has been drunk. The temperature also plays a role. An oolong at is typically brewed at 90C. Enjoyed straight away the taste will be different from when it has cooled to say 80C or 70C. Many are delicious cold. No more wasted cups of tea!
One of the most fascinating and delicious ways to change an Oolong is by baking it. This process originated from the need to dry leaves out by using charcoal fires, but was soon discovered to change the flavour and over time has brought about some of the more iconic oolongs. The process essentially using a baking programme to bake the tight ball of leaves formed from the inside out, adding layers of flavour as the compounds are caramelised. Traditionally this was done using a bamboo baking basket over a charcoal fire, the temperature of which had to be controlled exceptionally skillfully by the maker, who also had to care for the tea. Our Yilan is one such tea, being baked by a 76 year old gentleman in north west Taiwan. Apparently his sons aren’t too keen in continuing the traditions preferring traditional methods you can see below. However, whilst he is still making it we will continue to buy it.
All this variation is before I have even talked about brewing. As many of you know oolongs can be infused many times, one serving of leaf can be used upwards of five times on average. This is not just for economic reasons it is to get the full beauty out of the leaf. Each infusion tastes slightly different from the one before, not getting lighter or even more bitter, but offering a different experience as the leaves are fully infused. As Michelle often explains in the Tea House it is the re-infusion and the slow journey of discovery involved in the traditional preparation and enjoyment of Oolong tea that makes it so special. Gong Fu service brings tea to where it should be as an experience rather than a rushed necessity - and is perhaps why these teas are so popular. Well that and the fact people love the ‘playing messy' nature traditional tea preparation!
We hope that reading this will tempt you to explore these wonderful teas & make a trip to the Tea House where we would love to prepare and share them with you!