Spring 2015 Dong Ding Oolong: Second (Lucky) Batch
After procuring our favorite batch in recent years from this artisan of Dong Ding Oolong last fall, we were also very happy with our initial purchase of his spring harvest. The only problem was that we sold out of it much sooner than planned. Luckily we've been in continuous contact with this farmer in recent months.
Dong Ding Oolong Tea
Tea Type: Qing Xin Oolong 青心烏龍
Location: Yonglong, Nantou 永隆村，南投縣
Harvest: April 2015
We were there on the day that a sample of a different day's batch of spring tea was returned by a long term regular customer because it "tasted different than the usual".This batch was from the small plot of tea, separate from his main plot and just meters from his house, which is what produced our favored batch last fall. During the spring growing season, he realized that the new leaf growth on this plot had matured quickly at their middle stage. He decided to not administer the secondary phase of pest control, even though there was ample time before harvest. This allowed the leaves to be affected slightly by the Green Leaf Hopper after they were at least half-grown. Mr. Liu was very pleased with the final result, and decided to offer this unique batch of tea to his customer who began buying tea from his father decades ago.
The customer likes his tea leaves left unroasted, despite that this is the prime Dong Ding Oolong producing village in Taiwan. This batch of unroasted leaves brewed an especially substantial, balanced brew with just a hint of honey essence. This, however, is a flavor to which their loyal customer is not accustomed. He simply likes what he likes and is not interested in anything else. I tasted this returned sample with Mr. Liu, as he told me the story. I immediately responded, half jokingly, that he should offer another batch of unroasted leaves which suit the customer's taste, and I'll buy all of what remains of the "special batch". In the end, this is what happened.
Mr. Liu and Andy chat while the minimal summer harvest's leaves wither in the sun.
It just so happened that our film shoot with a Buddhist-based television station coincided with Mr. Liu's subsequent harvest. He had pruned his tea trees back quite a bit after spring harvest from his main plot, and decided that he would not administer any pesticides at all during the next growing season, with the intent of producing a batch of Concubine Tea. Of course, Concubine Tea needs to have it's leaves bitten by the tiny Green Leaf Hopper for it to have its signature "honey fragrance" along with its bold character. In retrospect, we realized that he was taking an extra risk by pruning his trees extensively and not protecting the "open wounds" from pests in any way afterwards. This challenges the plants' immunity in a radical way, which in the long run, is most likely a good thing.
Mr. Liu's plot of tea at summer harvest, after the tea trees were pruned a couple months prior.
Other farmers would see it as dangerous in the sense that the plants would produce far fewer leaves in the subsequent crop, at least, and with unreliable quality. And this proved to be true. The June harvest amounted to a small fraction of what this plot normally produced. The minimal leaves that grew from the pruned trees were heavily affected by the Green Leaf Hopper, stunting their growth significantly, and making them more difficult to process.
Similar to almost all the bug-bitten crops that we've tasted this year, this batch was heavily oxidized, closer to Black Tea than a standard Taiwan Oolong. The honey character was evident, but the astringent factor was high, as is common in summer crops at this elevation, combined with the radical growing conditions. While we continue to be intrigued by the character of this tea, knowing the conditions that created it, we decided not to procure this minimal harvest. Incidentally, we also have not found any other bug-bitten batch that we have been inspired to offer this year. We are learning that finding just the right combination of the bug-bitten effect on the leaves and the custom processsing of the leaves hitting the mark is a formula that verges on magic!
A view into the drone monitor while Mr. Liu supervises the solar withering phase of summer's harvest.
So, it was on my visit to taste the minimal batch of summer harvest that was filmed by the TV crew that we tasted the "special spring batch" that Mr. Liu had retrieved and put through a single roasting. I reiterated that I would like to buy this tea if it becomes available. He said yes, that he would provide his loyal customer with what they liked, and this batch could be ours. A couple weeks went by, and I took a friend who was visiting from the city up to visit Mr. Liu and see about getting this second batch of spring tea. We tasted it again, and decided that another short roasting session could bring it to its full potential of flavor. Mr. Liu had some family matters to attend to, so his nephew, Ah-Miao, the next generation of tea artisans in the family, offered to roast the tea for us.
When we went to pick it up, Ah-Miao related how — on the day he was to roast the tea, it rained heavily in the afternoon. This being less-than-ideal weather conditions for roasting, he waited until the middle of the night, long after the rain had stopped, to begin roasting. The leaves went into the oven at 3 a.m. and within 3 hours, Ah-Miao determined them to be "just right", knowing what I like. I have had several opportunities to be present during Mr. Liu and Ah-Miao's final preparations of competition teas. Being there in the final hours of roasting, usually over 20 hours total, and tasting the difference hour-to-hour until the leaves are determined to be done is truly a privilege. Ah-Miao's judgement proved to be accurate, and we are exceedingly pleased with our second batch of spring tea from our good friends in Yonglong Village, the heart of Dong Ding Oolong Country.
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The medium oxidized leaves have undergone extensive, repeated roastings that have resulted in a very balanced, integrated character. The initial steepings offer a freshly cut wood aroma with a toasted nutty flavor. This proceeds to open up into a sweeter, more complex profile that is strikingly reminiscent of roasted winter vegetables, including parsnip, caramelized onion and butternut squash.
Mr. Zhang's father cultivated tea on their homesteaded land in Xiaobantian, on the southside of Lugu Township, where he grew up in the midst of traditional tea making. At 20 something, he decided to embody his local tradition by clearing land to cultivate his own plot of tea. For the last 20 years, he has managed his own humble, privately owned plot of tea. Throughout this period, he also acquired seasonal work in tea factories in Lugu, Shanlinxi, Alishan, Fanzaitian, and Lishan. In a word, he learned the ropes of tea making in a comprehensive way, like most tea farmers of his generation. Lugu hosts the highest concentration of tea makers in Taiwan, and is a hub of specialty tea making culture.