(Note: this article follows Jim's comment asking me which Oolong varieties have which characteristics)
Many parameters influence the taste and smell of Oolong tea. Let's try to make a comprehensive list of all the information a drinker should have to understand exactly what Oolong he's drinking. (Also valid for other tea categories).
1. The tree variety
The first information an Oolong tea drinker needs is the name of the tea tree from which the leaves were harvested. Different tree varieties have different characteristics:
- luanze Oolong, also called Qingxin Oolong is the traditional 'soft stem' Oolong. Its emphasis is more on the yun, the aftertaste than on the fragrance.
- Si Ji Chun, Tsui Yu (Jade) Oolong, and Jinxuan Oolong are of a very fragrant type and have less aftertaste.
- Qingxin Da Pa is between these 2 groups with a balance of fragrance and aftertaste.
For the above teas, the fragrance itself will depend a lot on the process of the leaves, so it's difficult to make any general remarks in this regard. There are, however, Oolong varieties that have very distinctive fragrances:
- Tie Guan Yin, the iron goddess, comes to mind, or
- Bai Ji Guan as well as most varieties from Wu Yi.
Knowing the Oolong tree variety is the first step to understand your tea.
2. Where does it come from?
2 very common names around here in Taiwan are: Dong Ding Oolong or Gao Shan Cha (High Mountain tea). Such names don't mean very much if you can't get more precise information. Dong Ding Oolong has become a generic term for any kind of rolled Oolong that has been roasted. And Gao Shan Cha is a generic term for high mountain tea, because high altitude produces fresher and lighter Oolongs. But each mountain has a different soil and its own character. It even makes sense to know what part of the mountain the tea comes from and the elevation of the plantation.
For instance, my fresh Dong Ding Oolongs come from Feng Huang, one of the few locations close to the Dong Ding village that qualify as Dong Ding Oolong. And my Shan Lin Shi high mountain Oolong comes from the Long Feng Hsia district, the highest part of the mountain.
3. The season of the harvest
Each season has a different climate (temperature and sun/rain). This has an influence on the taste and smell of Oolong tea.
- Spring is more flowery and fragrant
- Summer has a cereal fragrance. Fragrances are often heavier (temperatures are higher),
- Winter season gives more dryness and long aftertaste to the tea. (It's the driest season)
- Fall is somewhere between winter and summer.
4. The year of the harvest
In the wine industry, this is one of the most basic information. Usually it stands right in the middle of the label. For Oolong, on the other hand, it is not always easy to get this information. The general assumption is that an Oolong needs to be young and fresh to be good. This is only true for low oxidation Oolongs, though, and those that are not (or just a little) roasted. Because they have a higher water content, these teas will deteriorate over time. However, thanks to modern air removing sealers, such Oolongs can be kept fresh for over 12 months if storage conditions are right.
Roasted Oolongs, on the other hand, need a few weeks or months (depends on the degree of roasting) of rest to taste very good again. Such Oolongs can make very good candidates for long term aging. After 20 years of right storage, they will evolve and gain new, complex fragrances.
5. Leaf grade
Sometimes, farmers harvest only a particular grade of leaves (the best or the rest) to make tea of different qualities. This can be the case when they prepare to attend a tea competition. Good teas will then also be processed manually to take away the stems. There is more grading going on for Baozhong than for rolled Oolong. This information is not critical as the leaves will speak for themselves once you make them.
(Article continued here)