Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Is roasting the same as 烘焙 (hōngbèi')?

As we approach the cooler fall season, let's focus on roasted Oolongs for some time. Yesterday, I've shown that there are 3 different roasting tools (bamboo basket over charcoal, bamboo basket over electric heat and electric oven). But independently from the tools, it's important to understand that for tea, when it's well done, 烘焙' (hōngbèi') means more than just roasting. "Roasting is a cooking method that uses dry heat, whether an open flame, oven, or other heat source. Roasting can enhance flavor through caramelization and Maillard browning on the surface of the food.(...) Until the late 19th century, roasting by dry heat in an oven was called baking." (Wikipedia)
'Strong' Yong Lung Hungshui Oolong, winter 2013
This definition also applies to what happens to Oolong leaves as they are placed over a dry heat. If it's done shortly and at low temperature, the leaves are simply dried. It's when heat and/or time is pushed higher/longer that the flavors start to evolve and intensify.

烘 (hōng) already means baking/roasting in Chinese and refers of the application of dry heat to produce more flavors.

The addition of the character焙 (bèi), which also means bake, implies a second purpose for this process...
With coffee, the roast happens within several minutes and is followed by a quick cooling. Rolled Oolong leaves are much smaller than coffee beans and it should be possible to roast them even faster. However, with Oolong, this process takes much longer (several hours to several days!) The reason is that tea leaves are more fragile. Only very few drinkers like the charcoal taste of very strong fire. Most drinkers want to preserve the character and freshness of the original tea (provided its quality was high to begin with). This is the goal of a successful 'hōngbèi'.
Every tea roaster has his own style and technique. But a slower process allows for more control. The leaves rest more and are less likely to get burned. (On the other hand, it's more labor intensive and costs more). Once the flavors have come out of the leaves and have turned sweet through caramelization (while preserving the core freshness), the second function of the hōngbèi is stabilize this outburst of new flavors and calm down and refine the taste.
This may sound very abstract and difficult to comprehend. The best way to learn how a successful 'hōngbèi' tastes is to experience it! That's why I have illustrated this article with pictures of my winter 2013 strong Hungshui Oolong from Yong Lung. It's a good example of an Oolong that has been 'roasted' with force AND harmony.

In my latest tasting notes, I wrote that the first taste is this Wuyi 'suan' (acidity). Then, the whole mouth feels dry, except for a salivation and sweetness at the tip of my tongue (and below). I smell dark chocolate, cashew nuts and ripe fruits. The aftertaste is very smooth and I feel a green freshness coming from deep inside. Despite using a porcelain gaiwan and not a teapot, I'm amazed at how balanced and sweet this Oolong tastes.
We'll explore another day how best to brew such hungshui Oolongs. But if you want to experience the smooth and rich character of excellent Hungshui Oolong, I recommend to use few leaves and a first long brew of a minute or 2 (after a good preheating).


Jake // said...

Not sure why you think that rolled oolongs are much smaller than coffee beans, especially unroasted coffee beans. In fact, it's the other way around. I'll take some pictures for comparison if you want.

Steph W said...

Great explanations!

Stephane said...

Thanks Steph!

I had my Yong Lung (Dong Ding area) Oolong in mind. Its leaves are not as long as high mountain Oolong and they are rolled very tightly. They are smaller than coffee. It's open for discussion at what stage we can qualify as 'much smaller'. But I agree with you that it's possible nowadays to find high mountain Oolongs that are quite big, possibly bigger than raw beans.

However, we could also discuss the roasting of Yan Cha or Baozhong. Since these leaves are not rolled, they are very thin and heat penetrates quickly and easily. And yet, these teas are also roasted for hours or days (much longer than for coffee).

Jake // said...

Raw beans are actually smaller than roasted beans. They expand when heated. As for the Yong Lung being particularly small, if you would be willing to send a sample I would take pictures :D.

What temperature is tea normally roasted at? I know that coffee is generally roasted around 200 degrees Celsius for about 10-15 minutes depending on the level of roast desired.

I wonder what physical properties of tea causes such a long roasting time to take place. Possibly water content?

Best wishes

Stephane said...

The maker of my strongly roasted Tie Guan Yin tells he goes up to 150 degrees to roast this tea! This is the maximum. But for the other Oolongs, where the roast is lighter, he stays around 100 degrees Celcius.