Comparing Seasonal Batches Of Loose Leaf Oolong Tea
What are the variables to recognize?
The inspiration for this post began when we first tasted our spring batches of tea this year. Especially for the three teas that we'll take a look at here, we immediately thought upon tasting each of them, they are noticeably different from last winter's batch. So first, let's list the main points to observe in comparing seasonal batches from the same source of tea.
- Maturity and constitution of leaves
- Degree of oxidation
- Degree of roasting
- Flavor profile
Of course, in the final analysis, it all comes down to number 4. The first three points are mainly what determine how the tea tastes. Keep in mind that these are basic categories, and that there are finer details to be considered within each one.
Now let's look at three very different tea types, and take note of how the recent spring batches differ from the previous harvest.
Unroasted Four Seasons Spring Oolong tea
Above we see the first brew of tea from the recent spring batch on the left and the previous late winter batch on the right. We brewed 7g of tea in 150ml of 95°C+ water for 3 minutes, twice. It's a bit difficult to see in the photo, but there is slight variation in the "depth" of color and texture between them. The spring batch is just a shade deeper, with a bit more "thickness" to it. Winter is slightly clearer and lighter in color. In conjunction with this, the aroma of the brewed leaves, and the "waft of the spoon" dipped in the tea varies noticeably. Finally, the flavor profiles of each one stand on their own in character.
Late winter's harvest offered a fresh, dark green leafy character with notes of aromatic herbs. It had substance and depth, but maintained its essential fresh green flavor. The slow winter growing season produced hardy, thick leaves and stems. This raw stock requires more tenacity and skill to coax the composition of the leaf into producing a balanced brew. The late winter harvest stands alone in its balance of substance and fresh green character.
Noticeable differences can be seen in the brewed leaves of each batch. Late winter's growing season resulted in hardier stems and somewhat stunted, yet thick substantial leaf growth. Spring weather induced more prolific, faster, and fuller leaf growth. This combination of fully grown yet supple composition in the leaf offers more ideal raw material to work with in achieving the goal of sufficient and uniform oxidation.
As a result, the character of this spring's batch is mellower, with a balanced, sweet character that is both soothing and refreshing. The aroma is delicate, with sweet floral notes. The flavor is reminiscent of garden fresh vegetables, like summer yellow squash, zucchini, and baby lettuce. The level of oxidation is represented in these more balanced, sweeter aspects of aroma and flavor. Overall, it's a milder, smoother character than the more distinct, deep green character of late winter.
Medium Roast Dong Ding Oolong Tea
Above we see the brewed tea of our Dong Ding Oolong Tea from winter 2017 on the right and spring 2018 on the left. We brewed 6g of tea for 3 minutes, twice. Again, the lighting in the photos doesn't clearly show that the winter tea on the right is slightly lighter and thinner than the spring tea on the left. The most obvious reason for this is the difference in the degree of roasting. Both the aroma and the flavor profile indicate the same.
In the first brewing, the spring batch was balanced and pleasant, but a bit thin and insubstantial. The winter batch brewed more obvious sweet notes that made it more satisfying on first taste. The second brewing really brought out the full character of the spring batch. The more extensive roasting typically warrants a bit more brewing time. A well-roasted tea offers an added layer of complexity to the flavor profile. It enhances the inherent qualities, and then adds just a nip of sharpness at the end to give it a more vivacious character. The winter batch continued to offer a satisfying tangy/sweet profile in the second brewing, but did not match the complexity and fullness that the spring batch offered. Newcomers to Dong Ding Oolong are likely to prefer the milder sweeter winter batch. Whereas veteran Dong Ding lovers would go for the heartier brew with the dry, slightly bitey finish.
Roasting tea leaves shrivels them and causes them to lose their original shape and composition to an extent. Even so, we can notice that the spring batch (left) was more mature than the winter batch at the time of harvest. Maturity of leaf offers more substance and constitution. Immature leaves do not have the same constitution to withstand more extensive processing. This is the most recognizable reason for the difference between these two batches. The more mature spring tea leaves had the constitution to withstand further roasting, with the result of enhancing their flavor profile.
Heavy Roast Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea
Tie Guan Yin Oolong is the most heavily processed type of tea that we know. It requires extensive withering and oxidation phases, and then involves unique curing methods as it is dried and rolled. Following tumble heating to cease oxidation, the leaves start to be rolled and dried. They are intermittently tightly wrapped into cloth balls and put in a roasting oven at lower temperature to "steam in their own juices". This is what gives traditionally made Tie Guan Yin its subtle tangy character. After drying and rolling is complete, the leaves undergo extensive post production roasting. So for anyone looking for an Oolong Tea with an extra bold flavor profile, traditional Muzha Tie Guan Yin is the one!
The color of brewed tea in the photo above clearly indicates that last winter's batch (right) was significantly more roasted than the recent spring batch. The bold, slightly charred character of last winter's heavily roasted batch has mellowed over the months, and the tangy/sour notes have become more evident. But is still predominantly a heavy roast character. The spring batch is much less roasted, and maintains some of its original tea leaf flavor. It is milder, smoother, and with a broader range of flavor in its profile. If it proceeds to settle like last winter's batch has, and the tanginess becomes more pronounced with months or years of resting, it will prove to be an exemplary batch of traditional Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea!
each batch of hand-crafted loose leaf tea is unique
Each of the batches we've looked at closely above have their own attributes as well as shortcomings. Each growing season provides a different crop of tea to be understood and worked with in the effort to bring it to its potential. This is root of tea culture worldwide. It's the same as wine making. Everything from the soil, the fertilizers, the climate, the harvest conditions, the processing methods, and the experiential wisdom and intuition of the artisan — all of these factors contribute to the character of each batch of tea we have the privilege of tasting and learning from. So we encourage you to increase your understanding of what contributes to these variations. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, we encourage you to appreciate each batch, and indeed each brew, for what it is. Learn from each handful of leaves you toss into your teapot!
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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.