The picture above was taken when we picked up this batch of tea from our friend's home in Nantou, Taiwan. He was blending together smaller batches of tea leaves that had been roasted in separate traditional basket roasters. This was the total amount of this batch that was made from 36 kg of Shanlinxi High Mountain Oolong that was harvested last spring. The leaves had to be specially sourced from a farmer who was willing to put the time and effort into oxidizing the leaves considerably more than a standard High Mountain Oolong. The oxidation level is essential for optimal results of extensive post-production roasting.
These leaves have undergone 8 separate roastings over a few months, for a total roasting time of about 50 hours. Our friend first prepared his tea leaves for charcoal roasting by roasting them 3 times in a conventional oven roaster at low temperature of 80 -100°C. This provides a "base" roasting level that the charcoal roasting can proceed from more efficiently. The leaves were then handed over to a specialized charcoal roaster who charges a standard fee, regardless of how many roastings are needed to achieve the desired results. In this case, it was 5 roasting sessions of incrementally increasing heat, starting from about 90° and finishing at 120°.
Above is a woven bamboo basket with a screen at the bottom on which the tea leaves are placed. Only a certain amount of tea leaves can be put in a given tray in order for the leaves to be roasted evenly.
There is also a specific thickness to the the layer of ash that is necessary to insulate the heat rising from the burning charcoal embers at the base of this insulated stainless steel roaster in order to produce a consistent low temperature for a slow-roasting effect. Notice how the ash is formed into a mound, so that the most intense heat that is generated at the center is properly insulated.
Above is a shot of Longan charcoal that was just ignited. After the charcoal has burned considerably to achieve an even, lasting heat source, a layer of ash is applied for insulation.
Our friend, who is a professional roaster himself and consistently achieves high awards in local competitions for his skill, keeps this chunk of Longan charcoal on display in his tasting room, acting as an air purifier as well as a symbol of a tradition that he is dedicated to representing. So much traditional knowledge and skill has gone into the making of this month's batch of tea — not to mention time and energy, that we feel it stands alone in representing the deep tradition that is alive an thriving here in the heart of Oolong Country in Taiwan.
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The appearance of the brewed tea has gained substance, and become a deeper yellowish gold in comparison to the thinner, lighter unroasted brew. This coincides with the flavor profile in that the roasted version is heartier, with a more balanced character. The aroma coming off the leaves from the initial rinse is reminiscent of buttered carrots or yams. After the first brew, the aroma is more like grilled corn, cooling off into freshly baked scones. The second pour brought on stronger roasted vegetable notes, but again cooling off into a pastry aroma.
Red Oolong offers a smooth, balanced, mildly sweet, rich but not quite bold flavor profile, with elements of fruit compote, pumpkin pie, and a hint of dried flowers. This ultra-friendly character, combined with the fact that almost all Red Oolong is cultivated naturally on the southeast coast of Taiwan, facing the wide open Pacific, where the sky reminds a North American of the northern west coast, is no wonder why it is rapidly gaining popularity on the international market. Once again, Taiwan leads the way in Oolong Tea innovation!