21 October 2009

Loosely-rolled Oolong balls

Modern day oolong balls are mostly finished in electric-powered rolling machines.  Depending on the type of tea, farmer or processing method, the tea may first begin with some hand-work, but end up being finished in a machine.

Back in the day before machines, though, oolong was rolled by hand and tools.  A part of the process, especially for Tieguanyin, included the tea being put in a cloth bag that was twisted up and then kneaded by foot.  There's also a hand-crank machine that looks like two stub-spiked columns - some kind of medieval torture device - through which one would place a bag full of oolongs to be rolled.  Although there are modern machines that automate the rolling process, I still see the hand-crank one in operation for at least a part of the process.

A tell-tale sign of old oolong will be that it looks less tightly-rolled than modern oolong balls.  It's tough to beat the pressure that contemporary, electric-powered machinery can apply to the tea leaves.  I haven't done any research into taste differences between tightly vs. loosely-rolled teas, but I'm guessing that modern teas may retain their flavors and aromas longer.  However, loose-rolled teas may achieve flavor stability faster after firing (because the loose shape would, theoretically, allow for more airflow to the tea and aid in the "reducing fire" stage) and age more easily.

1980s Dong Ding   Spring 2009 Dong Ding

                       (Old 1980s Dong Ding [L] and Spr 09 Dong Ding [R])

Old oolong will also be brownish in color if they haven't been re-fired, and blacker in color if they've been re-fired over time.  There are merits to both methods of storing and processing old oolongs, but the resultant taste is of course, much different.  So far, I slightly prefer a light touch of re-firing over time, but that's also because it's not easy to find a 20+ year old tea that has a strong base and hasn't been touched again since it was made. 

I have a gift from a tea maker that is a large sample from a big bag of teas into which he puts remnants of his select production into.  It's at least 20 years old and every brew tastes different.  Never re-fired again, that tea is known to friends as my pu-er-oolong.  It tastes ancient - a bit like mildewy pu-er - and is generally unpleasant.  But it's old and hasn't been touched by fire since each tea was made.  This tea just goes to show you that old doesn't always mean good!


  1. Some of the HK shops still make TGY in the older style. I kind of prefer it that way.

  2. Me too, I like how it looks and how the leaves open faster. Your 83 Kang should be in that style.

    How's SF so far?

  3. Pu-er-Oolong! That is so cool! You really know what you're doing when it comes to aging tea. My hat is off to you for keeping the stuff around and proving its worth. --Spirituality of Tea