This Wednesday saw the latest in our #teamasterclass series at our Bath Tea House. This masterclass focussed on the varied and exciting category of Oolong tea and a great group of tea enthusiasts joined Rob as we talked and tasted our way through 19 Oolong teas - some of which we stock at Comins and some from our sample collection gathered on our travels. Below are some photos from the event and what follows are some notes for those of you interested to learn more! Of course at Comins we believe there is no better way to learn that by tasting so do call into our Tea Houses and we will happily and enthusiastically guide you through our menu!
OOLONG OVERVIEW : Like white, green and black teas oolong tea is the product of the Camellia Sinensis plant. The defining characteristic of oolong tea is that it is made up of leaves that are partially oxidised.
There are a few theories in the origin of the name oolong :
The first is that it is named after the part of the Wuyi Mountains where it was originally made [Michelle visited in 2015 & will return this Spring]
Another theory is that it is named after the man that discovered the variation of the tea plant that made the first oolong. His name is said to be Wulong, Sulong or Wuliang. Similar to this is a man called who discovered oolong tea by accident. After a day picking tea he was distracted by a deer - by the time he returned to the tea it had started to oxidise. The theory that is most likely is that the shape of the processed leaf led to the name wulong cha. Often Oolongs are dark and long, hence the translation 'Black Dragon Tea'. [Below you see Mr Wu with his beautiful Rock Teas]
OOLONG TEA VARIATION : Oxidation in oolong tea can range from around 10% up to 90% depending on the production method. Oxidation starts when the tea leaf is picked. This can then either be stopped, sped up or controlled and then stopped. The more oxidised a leaf the darker its colour. In Oolongs the control of the oxidation is key to the final result. Check out this great infographic from world of tea for a simple way of viewing how oxidation in oolong teas varies from other teas.
This variation in oxidation creates the wide diversity of flavours possible from oolongs. From light, fruity and sweet to woody, strong and roasty.
Often unique cultivars (cultivated versions of the Camellia Sinensis plant) are exclusively used for particular varieties of oolong. This further widens the flavour possibilities.
Another key factor in flavour variation is the style or shape. There are 'balled' (or 'semi balled') oolongs where the leaves are tightly wound into small bead like shapes. The second is the 'ribbon style' oolongs that are rolled into long curled leaves.
Further to this the time of picking is also important. Quality varies with the season. Spring and Autumn teas are higher quality than summer tea. Leaves picked during early Spring are generally considered to have the highest quality.
Finally location matters. Key growing areas for oolong teas are Anxi, Wuyi, Fujian and Cha Zhou in China. In Taiwan they are Wenshan, Alishan, Lishan [Oolong tea was first grown commercially in the 1860s in Taiwan - introduced from China]. All of these areas vary in soil type, rock type, aspect and such things as altitude and these varying conditions create a wide range of flavour profiles in the oolong class.
PROCESSING OF OOLONG TEA
Oolong tea is made from more mature leaves consisting of one bud with 3 or 4 leaves. They are picked when the buds at the top of bushes mature to half the size of a fully grown leaf.
WITHERING : Withering refers to the wilting of fresh green tea leaves. After picking the fresh leaves are transferred to large split bamboo baskets. The purpose of withering is to reduce the moisture content in the leaves and allow the flavour compounds to develop. While it can be done outdoors, controlled withering usually takes place indoors.
BRUISING : This is a vital step in the development of the quality and taste of the tea. Depending on the desired results a variety of methods are used to bruise the leaves, including light turning to shaking, tumbling and rolling. These are repeated many times with 'rests; in between until the right level of oxidation is achieved.
The bruising breaks the cell walls of the plants allowing oxygen to mix with the components and enzymes in the leaf speeding up oxidation. The spreading out and resting of the leaves slows down the oxidation. This process is adjusted according to local conditions, such as humidity, temperature, presence and speed of wind and brightness of the sun
KILL GREEN : This refers to heating to stop the oxidation. It alters the enzymes and stops them having a chemical reaction in the leaf. The timing and intensity of this process has to be exactly right.
ROLLING & SHAPING : During this step, the leaves are rolled into the right shape. Depending on the varieties oolong tea can either be long & curly [e.g. We Rock Teas] semi rounded [Taiwan Dong Ding Teas] or fully rounded [Anxi TieGuanYin Tea]. When the tea has been rolled it is heated in some way, then rolled again. This process is repeated many times to get the right shape.
BAKING : This is initially used to completely remove moisture and completely stabilise the chemical profile of the leaf. It also prevents the shape from changing. This is generally conducted at a high temperature for a short time.
There is also a secondary use for this baking. This uses heat for an extended period of time and produces 'baked' oolongs. Baking programmes of this nature can last up to 12 hours and add to he flavour and depth of the finished tea.
Modern Baking units are electric, however traditional ovens are made from bamboo boxes over charcoal fires - such as the ones here in this picture being used by Mr Wu on Michelles trip to Wuyi in 2015.
BREWING OOLONG TEA : Traditionally oolong teas are brewed using the Gong Fu ceremony. This consists of a small 'Yixing' clay teapot, a vessel to pour the tea into and sipping cups to savour tea from. However on all Michelles trips to China the tea growers have also used Gaiwan [lidded Chinese tea bowl] and sipping cups. As always at Comins we provide brewing instructions on all of our packaging as well as guidelines on number of infusions - as with oolong tea you infuse the tea multiple times - going on a journey as you do so. So take a seat, take some time and see where the tea takes you!
Explore Comins Oolong collection here
NEXT MASTERCLASS : Black Tea [Dates to follow]