20 July 2009

2006 Hong Shui Oolong - Re-fired Review

I had my first taste of this tea years ago at a tea fair in California, although I didn't know enough about tea back then to pick up on the characteristic higher oxidation level of this tea.  Prior to my most recent purchase, my last taste of it was with Stéphane of Tea Masters in Winter 08.  He had a solid example of Hong Shui for us to enjoy.  However, the beauty of the tea was eclipsed by an even finer example of an old, 1980s Dong Ding that he had brought with him.

                           hong shui leaves vs qingxin1

Top leaf is from a Qingxin varietal - note the tinge of red on the outside edges.  Bottom two are from Hong Shui, although most examples of this type of tea may not have leaves as red as these.  I overexposed the frame to highlight the color difference.

Hong Shui is no longer a mainstream production method for oolong, nor is it one that I have either studied or tried many samples of.  I'm not sure what the correct English translation would be, but "Red Water" is literal.  Hong (red) also refers to the color of the leaves, whose edges give us one method for gauging oxidation levels.

In an issue of the "The Art of Tea" magazine, I read about how Hong Shui was the traditional way to produce Dong Ding.  Hong Shui oolong has a higher oxidation level that is generally over 50%.  Taking a look at my collection of old Dong Ding teas from the 80s, though, I noticed that none of them are oxidized to the extent of a traditional Hong Shui tea.  For a traditional, aged example of this tea, one may need to look for a left-over from an even earlier period.  The production methods for both modern Dong Ding and Hong Shui oolong are similar, but the latter is even more time-consuming and labor-intensive.

Modern Hong Shui Oolong, although produced in the same region using the same type of tea plants and similar techniques as Dong Ding oolong, is not what one would consider a modern-day Dong Ding.  I made the mistake of expecting the tea I bought to taste complex & light with sweet notes like a Dong Ding tea, and instead, I found a brew that reminded me of Oriental Beauty and Wuyi Yancha (cliff tea), with some strong Dong Ding traits.  Unlike other Hong Shui teas I've seen, though, the redness wasn't as uniform throughout the leaf.

Sweet and smooth with a tea color befitting a high-oxidized oolong (again, I think of Oriental Beauty).  Light notes of fruit.  The tea begins with a sweet, honey scent, and continues to a subtle floral aroma - none of which are overbearing.   An orange-colored tea liquor, full-bodied mouth-feel and smooth finish complete the brew.  I didn't detect a strong hui-gan or hui-wei from the brew, but the tea does leave a satisfying finish in the mouth.

The tea that I am talking about is Hou De's house-exclusive 2006 Hong Shui Oolong.  Per Hou De, it was re-roasted in 2007 and 2009.  One of the advantages of a high-oxidized oolong is that its flavor and roast remains more stable over time.  You'll likely find that old-school, traditional higher-oxidized oolongs with a good base can be stored & aged and have a fairly stable flavor profile.  Age a modern high mountain tea or low-oxidized Tieguanyin and you may find that its flavor doesn't keep quite as well as the old school ones.  The roasting process itself to maintain and/or revive the teas requires skill and patience.  I have samples of my own overly-anxious roasting that have resulted in a short-lived burst of flavor with a secondary scent of "fire" that is right under the tea's own fragrance.  Result?  Incomplete. 

Guang of Hou De did the re-roasts of his Hong Shui oolong and he may have also done a lot of work with the original processing of the tea as well.  He has been able to deepen the flavor of the tea without loss to aroma or the tea's accent tastes.  The brew remains soft, with many of the characteristics of Hong Shui tea that I remember.  Guang's roasting is controlled and patient; I didn't taste or smell the changes to the tea that would be the result of over-anxious roasting, the slight burnt smell of too much heat, or the dryness in the brew of a tea that's had heat applied to it for too long. 

Interesting, unique, and beyond the brew itself, quite a good example of a quality, domestically re-fired oolong.  This tea inspires me to journey and find a traditional, old, aged Hong Shui from Dong Ding mountain. 

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