Oolongs on my mind: The art of the leaf
This Saturday October 25 Stuart and I will conduct our first oolong-only tea-tasting at Many Rivers in quite a while. I’m looking forward to the occasion for many reasons, but principally because oolongs are my favorite class of teas. This personal enthusiasm comes through, I think, in the write-up that I did to advertise the tea-tasting in our October newsletter:
There are so many reasons to fall in love with tea: the diverse palate experiences, the remarkable health benefits, the alert yet meditative calm to be had. And then there are the semi-oxidized teas known as oolongs, which for many of us constitute the best reason to give your heart to a leaf. Oolong lovers—you know who you are—need no convincing. We look forward to seeing you here! But if you haven't yet found your affection enticed by the extraordinary qualities of oolong teas, join us for a fun tea-tasting experience where we will sample, compare, and explain why oolong teas are the object of such passion!
In preparation for the tea-tasting, last night I re-acquainted myself with an oolong that I haven’t tasted in quite a while: our dark-roast Tieguanyin. It was quite delicious, and in an unexpected way, because my impressions of this tea start with my introduction to it about four years ago, when we first decided to carry it. That tea provided a delicious brew, quite highly roasted, while nevertheless retaining a distinctive oolong complexity carried beneath the layers of roasty flavor.
This year’s tea is excellent in its own, quite distinctive way. The difference is most noticeable in the lesser degree of roasting to which these leaves had been subjected compared with the previous year’s tea, which brings more to the foreground the non-roasty flavor elements.
Which style of dark-roast Tiekuanyin is better? That is entirely dependent upon one’s personal palate and preferences. What I can say for myself is that I enjoy and appreciate both styles. Which brings me to the real subject of this posting: the extraordinary way in which the contributions of nature and artisanal skill create unique flavor experiences in fine oolong teas. This “conversation” between the products of the tea tree and artisanship occurs with all fine whole-leaf teas, of course, but oolongs are the class of teas where the products of this give-and-take are most evident.
As opposed to the siftings that go into mass-market tea bags, the quality of fine whole-leaf teas depend upon the quality of leaves harvested, and the treatment of those leaves post-harvest. For those unfamiliar with the details, there are now many books available that describe these processes in greater detail than I can offer here, such as The Story of Tea, The Tea Companion, and The New Tea Lover’s Treasury.
The point is that there are two principal axes of variability that influence what you can brew in your cup. One axis of variability is the effects of climate on the tea trees/shrubs themselves, as mediated by the treatment (or lack thereof) by tea farmers. The other axis of variability is what the tea-master does with the leaves after harvest. The degree of roasting noted above is just one decision that a tea-master makes when choosing what to do with tea leaves. This is in turn influenced both by the tea-master’s goal with a particular lot and his/her experience, as well as the character of the particular leaves on hand.
American consumers tend to expect uniformity of product. That’s what most tea-makers strive for with the majority of teas: reliability and uniformity of character. This is appropriate for most products, and most teas. But good quality oolongs, those that have the benefit of a skilled and attentive farmer, and a sensitive and experienced tea-maker, partake of, and aspire to something more than just uniformity.
Great oolongs are artistic creations, and we should no more expect uniformity from artistic output with tea leaves than with painting, poetry, or to use an even more appropriate example, than with high-end wine-making. That is the glory of fine oolongs. One cannot capture the evanescent qualities of the greatest efforts because those qualities depend upon factors that can never be nailed down as we expect production variables to be handled with mass-market products.
And that’s what I love and appreciate about oolongs. That’s why oolongs inspire such passion. In the western world, the closest comparison to oolong lovers I can think of are with those who seek in the finest red burgundies similar evanescent complexities on the palate. The best oolongs are art on the tongue. Enjoy!