TAIWANESE OOLONG

TEA : A COMPLETE GUIDE .

LET'S START FROM HOW TO TASTE A TEA .

by Chen, Hsiao Pu, co-founder of Deerland Tea

 

PERCEPTIVE &

EVALUATIVE

Introduction to Taiwanese Oolong Tasting: Why should start & How to enhance

the experience

PROCESSING

TAXONOMY

Intro & How to brew

  • Low Oxidized Oolong

  • Medium to High Oxidized Oolong

  • Aged Tea

TEA TASTING

IN CEREMONY

  • What is a Taiwanese Tea Tasting Ceremony? How to prepare or to participate in one as a guest?

  • How to brew oolong 

FACTS ABOUT OOLONG

  • Cultivar

  • Plantation & Region

  • Processing Technique

Ageing

Processing

ANALYTIC

TEA TASTING

Tasting / Cupping :

  • What to prepare?

  • What is the procedure?

  • To judge an oolong with TRES method 

 

Tea tasting:

perceptive and evaluative

Oolong tea tasting is one of the most rewarding experiences one can have. It is not only perceptually satisfying, but also fun to play around different brewing, aging, and roasting methods. Similar to coffee, there are various methods and equipment for brewing and roasting. Similar to wine, tobacco, and whiskey, aging tea is a fascinating transformation process of flavors and mouthfeel. The combination of these dimensions of tea makes tea tasting an endless journey to explore for both tea enthusiasts and professionals.

At the most general level, tea tasting can and should be split up into two dimensions: perception and evaluation. Perception refers to what one perceives exclusively through senses: appearance, odor, taste, and mouthfeel. Evaluation refers to the judgment one makes regarding the aesthetic property of the tea, such as the balance and style of the tea. Perception without evaluation gives an unorganized list of sensations, while evaluation without perceptive descriptions gives vague and abstract assessment at best.

This article offers a very brief introduction to Taiwanese oolong tea tasting, from brewing methods, equipment, to facts about tea cultivar, plantation, and culture. Taiwan is one of the most well-known oolong-producing countries. Two main developments of oolong processing techniques set Taiwan apart from other oolong producing regions around the world: the lightly oxidized oolong (BaoZhǒng 包種茶 and High Mountain Tea 高山茶) and insect-bitten tea (Oriental Beauty 東方美人茶). Also, the tea roasting technique in Taiwan was inherited from south-east China for more than a hundred years. It has developed into its own style and has become an important part of Taiwanese tea culture. Tea brewing methods, teawares, and tea tasting methods co-evolved with the development of tea, leading to the unique tea tasting culture in Taiwan which needs to be introduced in its own right. Therefore, this article will focus exclusively on tasting Taiwanese oolong tea.

There are two general ways one tastes tea: tea tasting in a tea ceremony, and systemized analytic tasting. One might be tempted to think that analytic tasting is more scientific and therefore more valuable than tasting in a tea ceremony. In my opinion, this is not entirely true. In an analytic tasting, the aim is to figure out how a tea actually tastes; in a tea ceremony, the aim is to construct a context, such as choosing the right teawares and setting up the right environment, to make the taste of tea as good as possible. While analytic tea tasting is in a way more static, tea tasting in the tea ceremony is more dynamic. Both can be very rigorous and helpful for our understanding of the tea we taste.

 

I will start in Section 1 with the taxonomy of oolong tea in Taiwan in order to give a rough picture of what kinds of tea will be covered by this article. As will be apparent, oolong is a very large category of tea, and generalization of the taste of oolong should always be made with caution. Some oolong may taste very much like green tea, while some may taste like black or PǔĚr 普氵耳 茶.

  

In Section 2, tea tasting in a tea ceremony will be introduced. This section will be mainly about my personal procedure of tea making in a tea ceremony. My procedure is surely not the orthodox way, if such a thing exists, of tea making in Taiwan. However, I find such a procedure very helpful in the way that one can fully appreciate the potential of a tea following such guidelines. In Taiwan, it is very common to see that a large number of considerations not directly relevant to tea tasting been fabricated into the procedure of tea ceremony. These additional aesthetics, philosophical, or mythical considerations of tea usually distract us from tea tasting than helping us to understand the tea we taste.

Since the discussions of sensation and evaluation of tea work for both ceremonial and analytic tea tastings, such discussions will be presented in Sections 3 and 4 in the hope that readers can follow the discussion more easily. Such an arrangement, therefore, should not be seen as the advocation for the separation of ceremonial tea tasting from the perceptive and evaluative aspects of tea. In fact, knowledge in analytic tea tasting can be helpful for ceremonial tea tasting.

 
 

Oolong tea processing taxonomy:

LOW OXIDATION,

MEDIUM TO HIGH OXIDATION,

& AGED.

LOW OXIDISED OOLONG

ow oxidization oolong is more prevalent than the medium to high oxidization ones especially since the second half of the 20th century in Taiwan. Before the end of the second world war, the only low oxidized oolong tea in Taiwan was BaoZhǒng. Most of the other oolong tea, such as DòngDǐng 凍頂烏龍 and TiěGuanYin 鐵觀音, are oxidized at medium to a high degree. Also, these traditional medium oxidized oolongs were normally roasted. As a result of medium oxidization and roasting, a high proportion of oolong tea in Taiwan had notes of ripe fruits and roasted barley.

The landscape of Taiwan oolong tea had dramatic change after the end of the second world war. One of the major development is that low oxidization and low roasted oolong gradually dominates the market. Such development is commonly associated with the oolong tea contest in Taiwan and Wú, ZhènDuó 呉振鐸, a former director of Tea Researcher and Extension Station, Taiwan. Mr. Wu was one of the initiators of the modern oolong tea contest in Taiwan and had been a frequent judge of oolong tea contests. Wu was believed to prefer lighter roasted oolong to the higher ones based on anecdotal evidence. Since Wu had been tremendously influential to the development of Taiwanese oolong tea, his personal preference has to some extent dictated how tea is made in Taiwan. Teamakers have been highly motivated to make light roasted oolong tea in order to win titles from tea contests, and consumer’s preferences have been directed toward low oxidized oolong.

Low oxidized oolong is more similar to green tea than the black. If tea leaves are harvested during summer or at low-altitude farms, the tea tends to tastes more bitter and astringent. High Mountain Tea harvested in winter or spring is considered the most valuable option. However, it is also practically more difficult to make tea in the mountain during these seasons. Most so-called high mountain teas in the market are in fact tasteless or grassy.

TYPICAL TEA WITH LOW OXIDATION & LOW ROASTING 

  • Most High Mountain Oolong

  • Some Low Altitude Oolong

  • BaoZhǒng

 

 

TYPICAL TEA WITH LOW OXIDATION & MID TO HIGH ROASTING 

  • Most High Mountain Oolong 

  • Some Low Altitude Oolong 

  • TiěGuanYin (Modern)

 

Suggested Tea to Water Ratio

For Teapot, GàiWǎn 

6~10 g to 100 c.c.

For Cold Brew 

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

For Mug

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

Suggested Tea to Water Ratio

For Teapot, GàiWǎn 

6~10 g to 100 c.c.

For Cold Brew 

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

For Mug

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

 

MEDIUM TO HIGH OXIDISED OOLONG

A higher level of oxidation had been popular in the past in Taiwan for good reasons. On the negative side, grassy notes and astringent mouthfeel decrease as the oxidation level increases. Since half of Taiwan island locates in the tropical region, and because tea harvested from the warmer region tends to have rougher tastes and is more astringent, raising oxidization level helps mitigate the taste and mouthfeel of tea. On the positive side, flavors of tea from tropical regions tend to have a higher potential to be developed through oxidization comparing to tea grown in a cooler climate. The intense notes of fruit or ripe fruit are important characteristics of the medium to highly oxidized oolong tea which can be more easily made from tea grown in the traditional tea regions in Taiwan.

Traditionally, most medium to highly oxidized oolong tea in Taiwan are roasted. The reason for such phenomena might be a historical coincidental one. The TiěGuanYin processing technology was introduced to Taiwan from the South-east China in 1895, and had been one of the two major types of partially oxidized tea (the other was BaoZhǒng invented in Taiwan around 1885). Since roasting is one of the indispensable process to produce TiěGuanYin, large amount of the medium-oxidation-high-roasting tea in Taiwan were roasted.

One exception to the medium-oxidation-high-roasting paradigm is Oriental Beauty. It is best produced during summer, highly oxidized, and highly infested by a specific type of pest, the Tea jassid/Leaf Hopper (Jacobiasca Formosana). The ideal taste of such tea has been expected to be smooth, clean, and floral. The roasting process can destroy the delicate flavor of Oriental Beauty, especially the floral part.

TYPICAL TEA WITH MEDIUM OXIDATION & MID TO HIGH ROASTING 

  • DòngDǐng Oolong (Traditional)

  • TiěGuanYin (Traditional)

 

 

 

TYPICAL TEA WITH HIGH OXIDATION & MID TO HIGH ROASTING 

  • Black Oolong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TYPICAL TEA WITH HIGH OXIDATION & NO ROASTING 

  • Oriental Beauty

Suggested Tea to Water Ratio

For Teapot, GàiWǎn 

6~10 g to 100 c.c.

For Cold Brew 

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

For Mug

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

Suggested Tea to Water Ratio

For Teapot, GàiWǎn 

5~7 g to 100 c.c.

For Cold Brew 

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

For Mug

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

Suggested Tea to Water Ratio

For Teapot, GàiWǎn 

4~6 g to 100 c.c.

For Cold Brew 

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

For Mug

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

 

AGED OOLONG

It is not clear whether people deliberately aged tea in the past, but nowadays, the tea aging had been to certain extend stigmatized since the development of High Mountain Tea. Before the invention of the plastic air-tight packaging technology, tea will be inevitably aged if not consumed right after the tea was made. Such limitation contributed to the prevalence of medium oxidized and roasted oolong tea in the past. When the tea is lightly oxidized, the odor tends to be more volatile and vulnerable to oxidization after the tea is processed. Lowly oxidized tea is therefore practically more difficult to be enjoyed by the public. On the other hand, the humidity was difficult to be controlled in the past. Once in a while, tea has to be gently roasted in order to dehydrate the tea. Furthermore, the flavor of tea might still be rough during the first few days or weeks after the tea is roasted, and aging helps mitigate such an unpleasant flavor. As a result, aged, medium oxidization, roasted tea was common in the past.

The notes of aging have been considered off-odors for lowly oxidized oolong tea until recently. Since the fragrance of lowly oxidized tea disappears easily when been contacted with oxygen, and people valued the floral odors of light-roasted oolong highly, aging lowly oxidized oolong tea was uncommon. 

Recently, one of the most popular hobbies among tea enthusiasts and professionals is the experimentation of aging techniques for lowly oxidized oolong. Such change may result from the rapid development of teawares manufacture and a deeper understanding of tea brewing methods. New material, such as medium-high density porcelain of tea urns for tea storage has been widely available. Such products have been recognized as ideal storages for low roasted oolong to age. Nowadays, people are also more skillful at low temperatures (<95°C) brewing techniques, which is very different from how people brew with the wet-brew methods. Aged slowly oxidized oolong can taste astringent if brewed at high temperature, and the new dry-brew methods might have stimulated the development of tea aging culture.

MEDIUM-AGED

Oolong stored in a special container for more than 3 months and up to 5 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OLD TEA

Tea stored in a special container for more than 5 years up to decades.

Suggested Tea to Water Ratio

For Teapot, GàiWǎn 

5~10 g to 100 c.c.

For Cold Brew 

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

For Mug

1~2 g to 100 c.c.

Suggested Tea to Water Ratio

For Teapot, GàiWǎn 

Direct by

personal preference

Tea tasting IN TEA CEREMONY

Good tea tasting methods have to make it possible for the tasters to perceive the most important dimensions of the tasted tea: appearance, odor, flavor, and mouthfeel. There has been no consensus on the best protocol for tea tasting in a home tasting environment during a tea ceremony. 

Arranging a decent tea ceremony may or may not be difficult to manage. Depending on how one defines “good”, a tea ceremony can be very elaborated or extremely simplistic. It is probably a less common view in Taiwan that tea ceremony is good in itself: a tea ceremony is merely instrumental and is always set up for some other things. However, there are different views regarding what tea ceremony should achieve.

It is a common view in Taiwan that the process of tea ceremony should reflect certain philosophical ideals. For example, Confucianism and Buddhism are commonly used to set the evaluative standards of the success of a tea ceremony. Specifically, a tea ceremony is successful when such a ceremony realizes certain virtues advocated by the corresponding philosophical ideal, such as the reflection of certain ideal inter-subjective relationships in Confucianism, or the reflection of the impermanence worldview in Buddhism.

 

As will be discussed in more detail later in this section, a perceptualist also considers tea ceremony instrumentally, but for purposes different from the Confucianist and Buddhist. A perceptualist evaluates the success of a tea ceremony based on how such ceremony contributes to our perceptions. Unlike the Confucianist, for example, whether a tea ceremony reflects an ideal relationship is irrelevant to the success of a tea ceremony if the participants cannot perceptually enjoy the tea they drink. This article is written for practicing the perceptualist approach to tea ceremonies. From my personal experience, the protocols in this section are adequate guidelines for managing a tea ceremony.

As indicated in the introduction, the tea ceremony is in some respects more dynamic than analytic tea tasting, which will be discussed in the next section. By dynamic, I mean the need to adjust continuously how one makes tea in each round in order to fully utilize the potential of the brewed tea. Surely, one should have a rough plan about how to proceed during each session, but what exactly one should do has to be re-evaluated after each round. 

A rough plan, such as the guideline offered in this section, for a tea session is important before one starts the brewing process. Some teas, such as aged tea, can be easier to extract. For such tea, the tea maker should start the brewing process more gently to avoid over-extraction in the first few rounds, but flat in the later rounds. For some other teas, such as Oriental Beauty, the floral aroma is a crucial aspect of the teas. It might be worthwhile to under-extract a bit at first so that the participants of the tea ceremony can adequately attend to the delicate floral notes. Still, other tea leaves have very solid structures and have to be brewed with fully boiled water throughout the whole session.

 

During the tea ceremony, however, the tea brewer will be responsible to make the correct judgment of how good the previous round is, and make correct adjustments accordingly. Also, a beginner to tea brewing in a tea ceremony might be overwhelmed not only by making the correct judgments but also by practical issues such as keeping the process smooth and natural so that the participants won’t be stressed. The principal for tea brewing is as simple as adequate extraction, but mastering such skills takes practices. 

 

PREPARATION: BEFORE BREWING

  • Medium to soft water,

  • Descent quality tea leaves

  • Teaware

  • 1 to 4 participants

  • At least 40 minutes for each session of tea tasting

BREWING TEMPERATURE, DURATION & ROUNDS

Brewing temperature and duration are two of the most important parameters for taste control; however, setting the right temperature and time are far from easy. High quality oolong teas are like wine: the characteristics of oolong tea depends on many different factors including tea cultivar, processing technique, harvest year, etc. Because of the complexity of tea, all instructions on how to brew tea must be vague, and always should be adjusted during each session based on the experience of the previous brew. Whenever one made a pot of over-extracted tea, the length of the following brewing period should be reduced, and vice versa. Below are the rough guidelines on brewing temperature and brewing time for most Taiwanese oolong tea.

 

BREWING TEMPERATURE

High oxidized, medium to high roasted oolong 

Boil water (100 °C) is usually needed for the first round, and the wet-brew method might help to enhance the extraction rate after around the fifth round.

High oxidized, non-roasted oolong 

Optimal brewing temperature usually starts as low as 80°C to avoid over-extraction.

 

Low oxidized, medium roasted oolong 

Optimal brewing temperature remains to be explored, and 95°C could be an acceptable starting temperature.

Low oxidized, low roasted oolong

Optimal brewing temperature usually starts around 95°C.

 

Medium-aged oolong

Brewing temperature should generally be 3 to 5°C lower than the original tea. 

 

Old tea

Brewing temperature should be much lower (as low as 60°C).

BREWING DURATION

Standard

  • 1st round: around 75 sec.

  • 2nd round: around 55 sec.

  • After 2nd round: around 60 sec.

 

High oxidized, medium to high roasted oolong 

Around 20 to 30 seconds shorter than the standard.

 

High oxidized, non-roasted oolong

Around 15 seconds shorter than the standard.

 

High oxidized, non-roasted oolong

Standard.

Low oxidized, low roasted oolong

Standard.

 

Medium-aged oolong

Around 5 seconds shorter than the standard.

 

Old tea

Direct by personal preference.

BREWING / STEEPING ROUNDS

Depending on the quality and the type of tea, the potential for the multitude of extraction varies largely. Generally speaking, high quality tea has considerably greater potential to be re-brewed. When a tea session is finished, it is also possible to keep the used tea leaves for another 1 or 2 rounds of brewing the next day. Although the flavors of used tea leaves are largely lost, tea leaves will further be oxidized when kept at room temperature overnight. The astringent mouthfeel will largely be vanished, while mild sweetness remains. 

Assessing and controlling the development of taste in each round are important parts of tea tasting. It takes time to familiarize oneself with the characteristic of each specific batch of tea. Before a tea ceremony starts, the tea brewer should have a rough idea about the potential developments of each tea during each round, and plan the extraction rates for each round in advance. If one over-extract at the beginning, the potential of the later round will not be fully realized.

Oolong tea is more valuable when it has greater development potentials When brewed in a teapot, my standard for an acceptable quality of tea has to fulfill the following standard:

High oxidized, medium to high roasted oolong

More than 6 rounds. Teas in this category can even be cooked if the normal brewing method lets to under-extracts.

 

High oxidized, non-roasted oolong

From 4 to above 6 rounds. 

 

Low oxidized, medium roasted oolong

From 4 to above 10 rounds. 

 

Low oxidized, low roasted oolong

From 4 to above 10 rounds.

 

Medium-aged oolong

Fewer rounds can be brewed out of a young-to-medium-aged tea than its non-aged-original.

 

Old tea

Unknown.

VARIETY OF BREWING EQUIPMENT

BREWING OOLONG WITH TEAPOT

Making oolong with the teapot is one of the best ways to fully demonstrate the potential of oolong tea: oolong tea manufacturing methods have been optimized for teapot users for generations. YíXing clay pot 宜興壺 had been THE POT for brewing oolong tea over a hundred years since the invention of oolong tea in the 1720s. However, because of the development of new varieties of oolong in Taiwan, the status of YíXing clay pot has been gradually replaced by teapot made of other materials such as porcelain.

There are two general ways to make oolong tea with teapot: the wet-brew method and the dry-brew method.

The wet-brew is practiced by pouring boiled water on the surface of a teapot during the brewing process. By doing so, the temperature within the teapot can remain high during the brewing process. Such a method is ideal for making tea which requires more intense extraction, such as traditional TiěGuanYin and traditional DòngDǐng Oolong. It is important to place a tea tray for water collection when practicing the wet-brew.

 

When practicing the dry-brew, one does not pour boiled water on the surface during the brewing process, and the brewing temperature will not be as high as the wet-brew. The dry-brew is ideal for brewing low oxidized oolong, such as High Mountain Oolong. The production of low oxidization High Mountain Oolong originated in Taiwan since the 1980s, and the dry-brew has gradually become the most popular way to brew oolong tea in Taiwan.
 

The most basic way to make oolong tea with teapot are the following:

EQUIPMENT FOR BREWING WITH TEAPOT

  • Teapot

  • Water boiler

  • Teacup

  • Server (optional)

  • Timer (optional)

PROCEDURE FOR BREWING WITH TEAPOT

1. Pot-warming

pouring boiled water into a pot, place the lid, and wait for around 2 minutes until the surface of the pot becomes burning hot.
2. Steaming

Empty the water in the pot, place tea leaves inside and put on the lid. The remaining heat will steam the leaves and “awake” the hydrated aroma. Wait for around 2 minutes.
3. Sniff

Slowly open the lid, place the pot under your nose and take a sniff of the steam.

BE AWARE OF the heat of the steam. Pass the pot to share with your company.
4. Brewing

Pour hot water into the pot, and place the lid. Wait for around 50 to 70 sec.
5. Enjoy

Pour tea, sniff and observe the tea leaves, drink, and sniff the cup or server when empty.
6. Repeat

Repeat 4. and 5. until no further development can be expected.

BREWING OOLONG WITH GÀI WAN

GàiWǎn 蓋碗 has been a very popular way of tea brewing, especially around the green tea production area around the YángZǐ River 楊子江 in China. However, GàiWǎn is not as popular as teapot among the oolong drinking regions, such as southeast China and Taiwan. One explanation for such lower popularity among oolong drinkers is that heat dissipates more rapidly in GàiWǎn. Traditional medium-oxidized, high roasted oolong is usually brewed at high temperatures. Also, the wet method of traditional oolong tea brewing is practically difficult to practice on GàiWǎn, so that one cannot heat up GàiWǎn the way one does to a teapot. So, GàiWǎn has been considered not an ideal tool to brew oolong tea.

The recent development of High Mountain Oolong tea in Taiwan has popularized GàiWan. High Mountain Oolong tea in Taiwan is usually low oxidized, and therefore similar to green tea. Since such type of oolong doesn’t require the level of heat as high as traditional oolong, GàiWǎn can sometimes fulfill the job. Also, glazed porcelain, the most common material of GàiWǎn, is suitable for brewing fragrant tea with flora and fruit notes, which are possessed by many High Mountain Tea in Taiwan.

Oriental Beauty is another oolong tea suitable to be brewed in GàiWan. Since Oriental Beauty is sensitive to heat and can get astringent easily, and GàiWǎn offers more options to control the brewing temperature compared to a teapot, GàiWǎn and Oriental Beauty is a match.

How one brews tea with GàiWǎn is generally the same as with teapot. 

BREWING OOLONG WITH MUG OR BIG POT (OVER 350 C.C.)

Brewing with a mug or a big pot is a very practical way of making oolong tea when one is at work. However, nuances are expected to be lost when brewing with such equipment. In the most mug or big pot brewing scenarios, the tea-to-water ratio should be much lower than the ratio used for brewing in teapot or GàiWǎn. High quality oolong is strong in flavor and can be brewed for several rounds, but it will not be pleasant for most people to drink liters of strong tea during a lunch break.

COLD-BREWED OOLONG

Cold-brewed oolong is usually fragrant, sweet, smooth, and has a lower content of caffeine. Volatile chemicals contributing to the perception of odor in tea can be extracted at lower temperatures. Also, tea polyphenols (chemicals giving the astringent mouthfeel) and caffeine will only be minutely extracted at low temperature. While cold-brewed tea lacks the complexity of flavors comparing to the hot brewed one, the cold-brew method is ideal for making a glass of easy-drinking tea.

HOW TO DO COLD-BREWING

Cold-brewed tea can be made at room temperature by immersing tea leaves in water for 30 minutes to 3 hours or be made in the fridge in 6 to 10 hours.

 

PLAN A TAIWANESE TEA TASTING CEREMONY: DELICATE OR CASUAL

Depending on the purpose of a tea ceremony, the preparation may or may not be delicate. For most scenarios, functionality is all one needs to consider when preparing a casual tea gathering among family or close friends. In these cases, tea is treated similarly to table wine: tea should stimulate gatherers’ conversation, and not be put under the spotlight distracting the gatherers. Rich and fragrant teas are normally served so that the tea can match the widest varieties of desserts, including heavy and gravy food. The correct way to measure the success of a casual tea gathering is by assessing how happy the gatherers are, and not how beautiful the setting is. The host of a ceremony in such a gathering is responsible for serving tea to the guests. Since tea making requires a certain degree of concentration, a proper tea ceremony host might not be able to be an active participant in a casual tea gathering.

Different countries have very different cultures of the delicate tea ceremony. Japan is probably the country with the most diverse, systemized, and institutionalized styles of the tea ceremony. Typical Japanese Way of Tea (Chadō) is highly delicate at all levels. While tea plays an important role in Chadō, tea is not the only performer on the stage. At the very least, the following has to be properly arranged with proper reasonings to reach the oneness and harmony of a Japanese tea ceremony: choosing the tea bowls correctly reflecting the character of each of the guests, arranging the environment so that the ceremony fits well within the space, selecting tea desserts according to the tea and the season, and so on. A proper Japanese tea ceremony is truly artistic, as most of the perceivable objects and events in such a ceremony are arranged intentionally.

Taiwanese tea ceremonial culture is to a large extent less formal than the Japanese one, even though it is clear that the culture of Taiwanese tea ceremony has been influenced by Japan. Being less formal, the aesthetic judgment of tea ceremonies developed rapidly as people in Taiwan struggles to consolidate their national and cultural identity. In short, Chinese and Japanese cultural and philosophical ingredients have been extensively absorbed by different Taiwanese tea masters in their own way. While harmony among the selected teawares and the environment commonly offers the guiding principles in setting up the Taiwanese tea ceremony, Confucius's philosophy, Buddhism and philosophical Taoism sometimes provide the philosophical foundation of a Taiwanese tea ceremony. 

Besides the Chinese philosophically laden schools of Taiwanese tea ceremony, another prominent school exists in Taiwanese tea culture: perceptual. Some tea masters abstain themselves from complicating tea ceremony with philosophical thinkings and focus on the perceptual aspects within tea ceremonies. For a perceptualist, a tea ceremony is supposed to contribute to the ultimate perceptions of the tea gatherers. A perceptual tea ceremony is successful when, for example, the tea gatherers properly perceive the desirable flavors of tea, and not when certain philosophical concept fits well within the ceremony.

When perception is put at the center of tea ceremonies, one cannot avoid clarifying how we perceive tea and how we make aesthetic judgments of teas based on what we perceive. Perception can both be deceiving and truth-telling. We may value a tea highly when we are attracted by some notes familiar to us, even when such characteristics not being an essential part of the tasted tea. As will be discussed in the next section, aesthetic judgments based on perceptions can also be tricky. For example, when two teas have different sets of descent aroma profiles, it is not obvious whether it is possible to properly rank one of the teas higher than the other. If one wants to defend a perceptualist's view of tea ceremony, knowledge of analytic tea tasting will be crucial.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

TO JUDGE A TEA: KNOW THE BASIC FACTS

ABOUT OOLONG WOULD HELP 

In the ideal scenario, perception is unbiasedly truth-revealing: what one perceives is determined by one’s sensation and not the intention of the perceived objects. No matter how hard one tries, there is no way for someone to choose not to see a cat when the cat is in front of her while her eyes are wide open. Similarly, when one tastes tea, everything above the detectable thresholds should theoretically be detected. There is no need for someone to understand how oolong teas are made or which cultivars are used in the tasting samples for her to perceive the sweetness or bitterness of the tea.

Does it follow that knowledge regarding oolong has nothing to do with tea tasting?

 

I believe not for two reasons. First, people have limited attention to recognize the characteristic of what they perceived. The flavor of tea can be so complicated that even experts sometimes find it hard to individuate certain characteristics of the tasted samples. What makes things worse is that among the perceived flavors, not all can be articulated correctly. Even though knowledge of tea may misguide one’s assessment, it very often serves as a rough indicator of the flavor map of tea.

Also, knowledge of tea can help us make a more meaningful evaluation of tea. For example, the following assessment is clearly inadequate: “This oolong has fewer flavors than that black tea”, which is meaningless due to the fact that it is merely a well-known logical consequence of how one produced oolong and black tea in the first place. In other words, knowledge of tea makes it more efficient for evaluating one’s tea samples. Therefore, before starting the introduction of the analytic tea tasting process, a few facts about oolong tea may help.

CULTIVAR

It is commonly believed that black, green, and oolong tea are all made from the same species, the Camellia Sinensis. Such understanding is generally correct with only exceptional controversial cases, but not sufficient for serious tea taster. There is a huge variety of cultivars within the family Camellia Sinensis. Even if someone using the exact procedure to make a particular type of tea, different cultivars will deliver different flavors and mouthfeels. 

For serious analytic tea tasting session, the importance of cultivar is crucial. By serious, I mean tea tasting session sampling a sufficiently similar set of teas for a deeper understanding of the tasted teas. For example, it is not very helpful to have both black tea and green tea in the same tea tasting session, since the differences between the two are large. An analogous case of wine tasting might illustrate the importance of tea cultivars. In serious wine tasting sessions, it is not common to have red, rose, and white all in the same session due to the fact that the differences are apparent. On the other hand, it is usually not good enough for the tasters to recognize that “These beverages are all made from grapes.”, but desirable if they can tell the differences between wines made from different grape varieties such as Pinot noir and Merlot.

Similar to wine, different tea cultivars are considered suitable for making different types of teas. One major morphological differences among tea cultivars are the size of tea leaves. Many tea cultivars can be categorized either as the big-leaf variety 大葉種 or the small-leaf variety 小葉種. Big-leaf varieties, such as Assam, are usually more fragrant but astringent. In order to maximize the flavors and minimize the astringency, big-leaf varieties are considered more suitable for making highly oxidized tea such as black tea. On the other hand, small-tea varieties, such as Jin Xuan 金萱, usually have more nuances in flavor and less astringent. Delicate oolong teas are commonly made from small-tea varieties to highlight the flora notes in tea and to minimize the astringency.
 

PLANTATION : THE TERROIR FACTORS

The plantation is another important factor contributing to the taste of tea which is commonly misunderstood. By plantation, I mean all and not limited to the following practices: location, soil preparation, pest management, irrigation, fertilization, and rotation. Different locations are endowed with different micro-climate, and thereby have different potentials for producing different kinds of teas. Highly oxidized teas are usually more suitable for low altitude tea farms, while low oxidized tea is more suitable to make in the mountain area. Since tee trees cannot tolerate high soil humidity, the soil has to be mechanically agitated before planting tee trees.

 

Most misconceptions about tea plantation are about pest management and fertilization.

Are BIO teas better in terms of their taste and health benefit? It is not clear yet.

 

My personal opinion and understanding are that the majority of the so-called BIO teas are commonly produced without most of the benefits associated with them. Pest management and fertilization are some of the most knowledge-intensive areas in tea plantation. Completely abstaining from using synthetic pesticides and fertilizer is considered a radical approach to pest management, while using them smartly with knowledge-based application strategies are more commonly recommended by agricultural specialists. 

Surely, residuals of synthetic pesticides are potential harm to health. However, from the practical point of view, stigmatizing the use of synthetic pesticides raises the incentive of producers to fake the actual planting practices while discouraging the honest farmers. Well-managed tea farms should be expected from well-managed legal or social institutions and not merely rely on testimony or personal ethical statements. Active and transparent monitoring and scientific testing should be given more credit than the missionary style sourcing practices when one assesses the quality of tea.

 

PROCESSING TECHNIQUE 

Processing is the most critical factor contributing to the taste of oolong tea. Broadly speaking, there are three important dimensions of tea processing: oxidization, roasting, and aging. With the help of modern science, we have largely understood the general principle of how tea processing techniques affect our perceptual experience. We now know which direction to go when we want certain characteristics of oolong tea. The bad news is, we don’t know exactly how to go there. Tea processing, especially the roasting and aging parts, involve complicated and unexplored knowledge of chemical reactions, while the ultimate perceptual analysis of teas treated with these processing methods is even less explored. Nowadays, past experience still plays an important role in tea processing.

PROCESSING TECHNIQUE : OXIDATION 

Oxidation level of tea is one main criterion for the categorization of tea as green, black, or oolong; however, such criteria along is no sufficient. Specifically, it is erroneous to claim that “Oolong is a not-fully-oxidized version of black tea”. How oolong being oxidized is more critical than to which degree it is oxidized. In short, the progress of oxidization has to be distributed according to specific protocols among the entire first tea processing stage, which lasts for around 24 hours.

After the first stage of tea processing, the tea is ready for the refining stage. Flaws such as old leaves have to be removed. Other optional refining processing includes scenting and roasting.

Scenting is the practice of mixing aromatic flowers with tea leaves so that the tea can absorb aroma from the flower. Scenting was practiced from the late 19th century to the early 20th century in Taiwan, and has not been applied to most of the oolong tea in Taiwan nowadays.

PROCESSING TECHNIQUE : ROASTING

Roasting is another refining technique, which can largely alter the taste of tea. Unlike most coffee roasting process fewer than 20 minutes, oolong tea roasting is a very time-consuming process. Depending on the degree of roast, the entire roasting process can last over 70 hours. Tea roasting is also a very laborious process and knowledge-intensive practice. Large varieties of folk roasting theories still exist nowadays as no solid scientific examination has been offered to rule the folk theories out.

PROCESSING TECHNIQUE : AGING

Another largely unexplored area of tea processing is aging.

Practically speaking, it is very difficult to have a systematic investigation of tea aging due to the time-consuming nature of tea aging. There are other factors complicating the understanding of aging as well. One of the major factors is the aesthetic assessment of the taste of tea. It used to be the case that High Mountain Oolong Tea was expected to taste fresh and crisp. Aged-note of High Mountain Oolong Tea was considered a serious flaw. However, as more and more people exploring new storing materials, roasting methods, and storing conditions, aged High Mountain Oolong Tea has become desirable among tea tasters in Taiwan. So, in the case of aging, all we know at the moment is how tea ages, but not so much about how we should age them.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

THE Analytic TEA tasting:

TEA CUPPING 

Analytic tasting is a powerful method to assess the quality of tea. By standardizing brewing and tasting procedures and equipment, different batches of tea are expected to be comparable with each other free from tasters’ psychological biases. Similar to wine tasting and coffee cupping, analytic tea tasting aims at providing descriptive information, such as flavors, and evaluative information, such as balance and body.

There are a few things to be kept in mind when one plans an analytical tasting session. First, the selection of tasting samples should be meaningful for mutual comparison.

For example, a session might be designed to examine the differences between harvested year, harvested season, roasting degree, region, cultivar, and age. A well-defined purpose of a tasting session will be more rewarding than a session consists of sets of randomly selected tea samples. 

Second, the number of samples for tasting should be reasonable.

Five to ten samples per session should be manageable for careful cupping, but could be inefficient when the purpose of the session is to select a few items from large samples.

Third, depending on the purpose of each session, the organizer of the session should decide in advance what information will be disclosed to the participants. Insufficient information might unnecessarily confuse participants about what aspects one should attend.

EQUIPMENT & SURROUNDING

The most common tea tasting equipment is the standardized tea cupping set 評鑑杯組. In Taiwan, such set consists of three items: 

  • One 200 c.c. Bowl

  • One 150 c.c. Brewing Cup

  • One Spoon 

 

Each of the items should be made of glazed porcelain so that no residual odors from previous uses will present after cleaning. The set should be white so that the color of tea liquor can be observed.

Porcelain spoon is preferred to metal ones for two reasons. Metal not only might affect the smell but also has a higher heat dissipation rate than porcelain. Sniffing the spoon is convenient to examine the dried note, the odor of tea emerged when tea liquor evaporates due to the residual heat of the spoon. Tea liquor is more likely to evaporate on a heated porcelain spoon so that the dry note of tea can be assessed.

Besides the cupping set, it is also important to have a scale, timer, paper to take note, properly ventilated and odorless room, and sufficient artificial light.

  • One Scale

  • One Timer

  • Some paper to take note

  • One properly ventilated and odorless room

  • Sufficient artificial light

CUPPING PROCEDURE (TRES STANDARD)

  1. Observe dry tea leaves.

  2. Place 3 g of tea leaves per sample in the brewing cup.

  3. Pour boiled water into brewing cup and steep for 
5 minutes for twisted-shape leaves 條索形烏龍; 
6 minutes for ball-shape leaves 球形烏龍.

  4. Pour the tea into the cupping bowl.

  5. Observe the appearance of steeped tea leaves and tea liquor.

  6. Slurp the sample.

  7. Sniff the heated spoon, and attend to the development of oder before and after the tea on the spoon is fully evaporated.

PERCEPTIVE TEA TASTING:

TO JUDGE AN OOLONG BY ANALYTIC STANDARD

 

BY APPEARANCE

There are four types of tea appearances which tea sommeliers examine:

  • Dry leaves 茶乾

  • Color of the tea liquid 水色色度

  • Clarity of the tea liquid 水色明度 

  • Steeped tea leaves 茶底

In most cases, appearances of tea are used for assessing whether there are flaws in tea.

JUDGE THE Dry leaves

  • The roundness of the rolled oolong dry leaves

  • The thorny Touch of the thin and twisted oolong

  • The coverage of white hair on the leaves 

For rolled oolong dry leaves 球形烏龍茶乾, the roundness of tea leaves is an indicator of whether the tea is processed properly, and whether the tea is preserved properly. If neither of these conditions is full-filled, the tea might not be seen as the typical Taiwanese Oolong. But the roundness is not always a relevant indicator in the casual tasting. For example, the tight balls sometimes deformed when the tea is aged. So, roundness is not relevant if one is observing aged tea.

For thin and twisted tea 條索形烏龍茶乾, such as Taiwanese BaoZhǒng, one indicator of the quality of tea is to gently grab the tea leaves and feel whether the leaves give gently thorny touch. The theory of such practice is that well-made Baozhong tends to be sufficiently dried and tristed so that they will be brittle and pointed at the tip of leaves.

Another commonly used indicator of tea leaves quality is by observing the coverage of white hair 白色茶毫 on the leaves. For an unknown reason, people seem to prefer tea with a higher density of white hair. To my knowledge, such an indicator might not be very helpful. However, since some tea cultivars naturally have hair and some don’t, observing the hair can help the tasters to identify the cultivars used in the samples.

JUDGE THE color of the tea liquid

  • Best only when the set of samples is sufficiently homogenized

 

​Color has been associated with several tea characteristics. The following factors usually make tea looks darker: high oxidization, high roasting, aged tea, insect infected tea, high brewing temperature, long immersion duration, long exposure of tea to oxygen, mild acid brewing water, and softer water.

Since the color of tea can be influenced by so many factors, the color might not be a practical indicator of tea quality. Even after most of the variations regarding water are controlled in an experimental setting, there remain other factors regarding the tea itself. So, color is best used when the set of samples is sufficiently homogenized.

JUDGE THE cLARITY of the tea liquid

  • Carefully distinguish the reason which results in the cloudiness of tea liquid 

 

The examination of clarity plays a more important role in tea tasting. There are three main categories of low tea clarity. First, some detachable or soluble contents of tea, such as white hair and soluble fiber, can make the tea less clear. Second, when dry tea leaves are smashed, the residual ashes of tea will appear in tea. Third, several malpractices during tea manufacturing, especially when the tea buds are premature when harvested, can significantly lower the clarity of tea. 

The first scenario of the unclear tea liquor shouldn’t be considered a flaw, the second scenario is not desirable but might be tolerable, while the third scenario strongly indicates the low quality of tea. When buying oolong tea, one should avoid such tea at all costs.

JUDGE THE STEEPED LEAVES

  • A large amount of information is hidden in the steeped tea leaves 

 

The brewed tea leaves are considered the resume of a tea since a large amount of information can be told by observing it.

The morphology of leaves reveals tea cultivars and several micro-climate conditions at the tea plantation.

Different kinds of wounds can be observed when the tea was infected by different kinds of insects.

The integrity and color of tea leaves sometimes reveal how the tea was processed.

The cutting-edges reveal whether the tea was harvested by hand or by machine.

All this valuable information for tea assessments won’t be available in the tea is crushed when processed. One can not infer from the fact the certain tea is sold as a whole leaf grade to the conclusion that such tea is necessarily superior; however, it will be very difficult to tell the value of tea otherwise.

JUDGE THE FLAVOR

  • Off-odors have to be recorded

  • The record of the flavor should as precise and neutral as possible 

The flavor of tea refers to both odors and taste here.

The flavor of the tea is probably the only criterion of tea that cannot be compromised when one assesses tea.

Less appealing color might affect the pleasure of making a tea to a small extent, unpleasant in-mouth sensations might be minimized with proper brewing methods, but the unpleasant or flat flavors of tea are not repairable.

 

There are three principles one should follow when assessing the flavors of tea.

First, off-odors have to be recorded. Such information is important when assessing the quality of tea, and should be cross-validated with other indicators of tea quality, such as appearances and in-mouth sensations. It could happen that some particular odors might either be considered normal or off-odor depending on the context. For example, the odor of aged tea might be considered off-odor in the context of sampling tea which was made in the latest season. In such cases, one might simply abstain from the judgment, but faithfully record the odors as perceived.

Second, flavors of tea should be recorded as precise and neutral as possible. Regarding preciseness, instead of recording “sugar”, it is more informative to record “caramelized brown sugar”. It takes practice for people to clearly distinguish and recognize the flavors of tea they taste. By forcing oneself to try to be precise, one’s tasting capacity will improve fast.

Regarding neutrality, it is more desirable to avoid using any vague, expressive, poetic, subjective, or unconventional terms to describe flavors of tea. When performing analytic tea tasting, one should avoid fabricating stories, explanations, and the like about the tasted samples. Once the flavors are recorded as they are genuinely perceived, the assessment will be less biased and easier to be shared with other tasters.

 

JUDGE THE MOUTHFEEL

  • To record the degree and the development of the astringency in tea  

  • When talking about the body of a tea, the weightier one is usually preferable  

Mouthfeel refers to the stimulus and texture of tea perceived by the free nerve endings of the trigeminal nerve at the surface of the oral cavity. Such perceptions are perceived by mechanisms different from how one perceives sweetness or acidity, and therefore, should be isolated. Common descriptions regarding mouthfeel include astringency and the body of the tea.

Astringency is one of the focuses of tea tasting. Tea without any astringency might appear flat and structureless, while overly rough tea can over dominate one’s perception of tea. Besides the magnitude of astringency, another aspect of astringency assessment is about the development of astringency. One desirable development of astringency of tea matches the following stages: astringency level starts low, gradually develops in the mouth, disappears shortly, and ends with only the sweetness in the mouth. When astringency over-powers or lingers in the mouth unpleasantly long, the tea might be considered low quality.

Another aspect of the mouthfeel of tea is the body of tea. Tea is weighty, smooth and full body when the tea gives you the impression of denseness and heaviness in your mouth; otherwise, the tea might be described as watery. The body of the tea is mainly influenced by the amount of soluble fiber in the tea. Well-managed tea farms, high mountain plantation, and tea harvested in winter or spring usually contributed to the weightier body of tea. The weightier tea is usually preferable to the waterier ones.

 

JUDGE THE (SWEETISH) FINISH回甘

  • To appreciate the sweetish-finish 回甘 by understanding how it is activated 

  • Record the appearance of the sweetish-finish

Finish assessment is the last stage of tea tasting.

Despite the lingering flavors, oolong tea gives a special type of sweetish finish 回甘 from the lower part of the tongue to the upper part of the throat, which is caused by the stimulation of the umami receptor inside the taste bud cells from Amino Acid in tea. Such perception is another important aspect unique to oolong tea tasting, while no appropriate translate of such term is available in English. A tea delivering strong and direct sweetish finish can be considered valuable even if it is very bitter and astringent.

Generally speaking, more astringent tea usually has a stronger sweetish finish. The astringent mouthfeel is caused by Catechin, while the sweetish finish is caused by free Amino Acid. The abundance of Catechin is correlated with the abundance of the free Amino Acid: these compounds are much more abundant in the bud than other parts of the tea tree. Therefore, how one harvests tea leaves depends on the balance between mouthfeel and finish one hope to achieve. If only buds are harvested, the resulting tea would be very astringent. If too many leaves are harvested compared to the number of buds, the tea will be flat and uninteresting.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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