How to Choose Oolong Tea: 7 Easy Steps
There are a lot of options out there for Oolong Tea and it can be hard to choose the right one. How do you tell what's good? Well, it turns out you can tell a lot about a loose leaf Oolong just by its appearance. Here's a quick list of seven things to look for in dry Oolong Tea leaves to help you choose the best tea.
Alishan High Mountain Oolong tea leaves tightly rolled into balls
1. Balled Shape
Most Taiwanese Oolong tea is tightly rolled into balls because of the rolling stage of tea processing. The spherical shape goes beyond aesthetics, it helps keep the tea fresh and prevents the leaves from crumbling.
2. Same Size
Uniform size of the rolled tea leaves shows the leaves were at a similar stage of growth when they were harvested. If the rolled tea leaves vary greatly in size, it usually means they were not harvested as carefully as they could have been, and very young leaves were mixed with overly mature leaves. It could also be an indication that more than one crop of tea leaves have been mixed together. Finally, if there are many small crumbs, the leaves were not sorted well and/or crumbled from repackaging.
Alishan High Mountain Jin Xuan Oolong tea leaves
3. Similar in Shape
Traditional Oolong tea production methods produce tea leaves that are similar in shape, and less tightly rolled. Typically, well-rolled tea leaves will have their stems protruding from the rolled leaf. Recently introduced hydraulic compactors can potentially produce rolled leaves that tend to clump, due to the fact that the stem is wrapped inside the leaf. Overuse of compactors to save time and labor can result in more imperfections caused during the rolling process.
4. Uniform Color
Taiwanese Oolong tea is a deep green hue, with hints of yellow or reddish brown on the protruding stems. If the leaves themselves are yellow, this typically 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. Very well-oxidized tea leaves or bug-bitten leaves will vary in their appearance.
Loose leaf oolong tea in vacuum sealed bags to retrain freshness
5. Subtle Fragrance
When a vacuum sealed bag is opened for the first time you can smell a nice subtle fragrance. You should be able to detect the subtle notes in the tea that can indicate freshness 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 indicates the tea was not dried well or that it was not stored properly post production.
6. Trust Your Intuition
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?
How good a tea is ultimately depends on how it tastes to you!
7. Keep an Open Mind
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.
Want to know more about Taiwan's teas? We've put together a sampling of some of Taiwan's more famous teas in our Taiwanese Tea Sampler, so you can taste for yourself the broad spectrum of flavors that have made Taiwan famous for its specialty teas.