21 April 2011

The Greening of Traditionally Oxidized Oolongs

There has been a continuing trend of oolongs going greener (less oxidization, less roasting) over the past decade or two.  Jason Chen’s latest book about his experiences with Phoenix and Tieguanyin oolongs finishes off with a similar assessment.  He writes that at one point, Anxi Tieguanyin was so popular that tourists and wholesalers clamored up to the tea mountains, clogging the narrow roads and driving up prices with their bidding wars.  The popularity of Taiwan’s lower-oxidized teas caused some tea buyers to request a similar product be made with Anxi’s famous Tieguanyin.  Thus, Anxi Tieguanyin – according to Jason - dropped down to an oxidation level of 15% or less to meet the demand for a light-tasting and fragrant product.

Less work and less roasting goes into the contemporary versions of the tea, which also allows farmers to produce more of it.  One may also reasonably surmise that the level of oolong production and roasting skills have declined over time.  I find it ironic that of all of China’s teas to go green in order to mimic Taiwan’s high mountain oolongs, it was Anxi Tieguanyin, a tea known for the high oxidation and roast that is needed to achieve its full body.  There are surely several other oolong varietals that would suffice in making a high-fragrance, light-tasting oolong, but few have the allure of an Anxi product with the famous Tieguanyin name.

Phoenix Dancong is another tea that is traditionally highly-oxidized and roasted, but has also changed in the last decade or two.  Nowadays, you can find an increasing number of variations of this tea (osmanthus, almond, apricot…) and even some that taste like a green oolong.  The very characteristics that make the tea a “Phoenix oolong” can be said to be missing in some contemporary interpretations of the tea.  Still, contemporary Phoenix oolong remains more similar to its traditional form than Anxi Tieguanyin.

What does that mean for a tea when its characteristic scents and tastes have changed?  For Tieguanyin, we have what’s called the 觀音韻 (guan yin yun), the characteristic notes that are unique to the tea; 岩韻 (yan yun) similarly applies to cliff teas.  If we compare a tea that is produced on Alishan but has no high-mountain qi, for example, with one that is produced on the lower Meishan (a production mountain for Alishan) but has the full bouquet of an Alishan-type tea, which one is truly the “real” Alishan?  Do we define by taste or origin?  What essential components qualifies a Dong Ding tea to be a Dong Ding tea?  The producers/retailers/market will continue to call a green Anxi oolong a Tieguanyin while traditionalists, like my Tieguanyin teacher, lament the fact that contemporary versions of the tea are nothing like what is supposed to be a Tieguanyin tea. 

If a tea tastes good, then it’s good to you, even if it’s not really what it claims to be.  I received a sample of an aged cliff tea from a tea friend that knows I like tasty, old leaves.  The sample came labeled “Big Red Robe” but it didn’t taste like it, more like a Shui Xian.  I tried it a few days ago and it had clear and strong cliff tea yun; quite a nice tea.  I asked about the origin of the tea and she said it’s a Wuyi tea with no specific, identifiable varietal; the label was a misnomer.  Because of this, the tea sells for quite a bit less than it could if it was actually a Da Hong Pao or Shui Jin Gui.  Consumers, we believe, pay more for the fame of the tea type than the taste (but naturally, they pay more for a tasty, well-known tea than a less tasty one).

If you enjoy drinking a brew, then have another cup.  I have seen too many people prevent themselves from enjoying another cup of tea because it didn’t taste/look/smell like an oolong/Darjeeling/aged pu’er/Longjing should…even though it tasted good.  I have also seen too many people try to enjoy a bad tea because it was famous/rare/expensive.  Two years ago, I encountered a gentleman that was trying to sell his private collection of pu’er.  He had a factory-floor, nugget-style pu’er that he claimed was from the 60s and worth thousands a pound; he was willing to part with it for 1/2 of its supposed “market value.”  It honestly smelled and tasted like urine; I was trying to figure out how he kept his face straight while drinking it.  Last year, I saw dogs and birds running around tea that was undergoing solar withering and I wondered if animals were running around and doing business on the floor of the factory that this old nugget pu’er was produced in.  It’s more likely that the tea had been poorly fermented and poorly stored, though the pungent aroma was quite unique.  Poo-er?  Truly.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

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