You know the old adage "You can't judge a book by it's cover"?
It turns out that you can tell a lot by "judging" loose leaf Oolong tea by it's appearance. Here's a quick list of things to look for when you are looking at dry Oolong tea leaves.
Most Taiwanese Oolong tea is tightly rolled into balls because of the rolling stage of processing. The spherical shape goes beyond aesthetics, it helps keep the tea fresh and keeps it from breaking up.
Uniform sized rolled tea leaves mean the leaves were at a similar stage of growth when they were harvested. If the rolled tea leaves vary greatly in size, it means they were not harvested as carefully as they could have been and very young leaves mixed with overly mature leaves. It could also be an indication that more than one crop of tea leaves have been mixed together.
Traditional tea production methods produce tea leaves that are similar in shape. Newer, hydraulic compactors produce leaves that tend to clump, due to the fact that the stem is compressed into the rolled leaf. This affects oxidation and how well the tea dries.
Taiwanese Oolong tea is a deep green hue, with hints of reddish brown on the protruding stems. If there are yellowish leaves among the darker green leaves, this indicates that overly mature leaves were harvested along with the new growth. There is always slight variation in color, but look out for big differences.
When a vacuum sealed bag is opened for the first time smell it. You should be able to detect the subtle notes in the tea and the degree of roasting. If there is a strong perfume smell it could indicate that the leaves have been flavoured with additives during or after processing. If you smell a stale, musty smell it means the tea was not cured well or that it was not stored properly post production.
Trust your intuition when you first see a given tea. What appeals to you? What looks not quite right? Do the tea leaves look beautiful, like there was great care and finesse in producing them?
High quality Oolong tea is grown in nature and processed by hand. It does not always line up with standard assessments, so leave room for the possibility that, even though a batch of tea may look different, it may brew a truly exceptional pot of tea. As with organic produce, it can look stunted and gnarly, but taste the best.
In the end, visual assessment is a first impression that may very well be proven wrong by your experience of smelling and tasting the brewed tea.
Is there anything you look for that we've missed? We love to hear about what you look for when you look at dried Oolong tea leaves.
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We recently visited Mr. Liu when we hosted a visitor from Italy who was keen on experiencing the local tea culture. Our guest was truly elated to be served tea by a true artisan of the trade. Mr. Liu served us three different teas that were all locally harvested this past spring. They varied only in their degree oxidation and roasting. And the one that was sufficiently oxidized, but only lightly roasted, immediately impressed us.