Monday, March 31, 2014

How fresh is your spring 2013 High Mountain Oolong?

Biluochun harvest in SanHsia
For green tea, the best harvests happen in early spring, before April 5th (= before Qingming). So, thanks to EMS and other fast delivery services, it's possible for most knowledgeable consumers to receive very fresh green tea by mid April, just 3 weeks after the official start of spring. With High Mountain Oolong, though, the waiting period is much longer. The highest peaks are last to be harvested, because they are the last to experience the rise in temperatures. Lishan and Da Yu Ling harvests can extend until mid May. Add then at least 2 or 3 weeks for the logistics and you're looking at early June, the earliest, before you can receive your new spring High Mountain Oolong. By that time, the spring season is nearing its end already! So, how can we enjoy fresh, fragrant High Mountain Oolong from the start of spring?

First, we have to recognize that fresh Oolong is different from green tea. Oolong is a mix of mature leaves and buds. It's easier to dry these mature leaves, especially when they are rolled around the bud. This shape provides a good protection for the bud and less contact with the air's oxygen. Therefore, Oolong has a much better potential to retain freshness than green tea.

Second, leaf quality matters. High mountain leaves receive more nutrients from their slow growth, their new plantation soil and from the sun. Therefore, high mountain leaves are usually thicker. With such a rich content, the leaves have a better aging potential.

Third, the right process is key to preserving the freshness. So far, we have only examined the aging "potential" of the leaves. To transform this potential into a reality, the key is skillful drying of the leaves.   

Brewing High Mountain Oolong
Unfortunately, not all all high mountain Oolongs are well processed in this regard. This fall, a tea visitor for the US came with a spring Shan Lin Xi Oolong and we compared it to mine. His had lost most of its freshness already and felt disappointing. Somehow related to this problem, I often read about drinkers who try to roast their Oolong by themselves at home. They must feel that the tea has lost something and try to improve it. Unfortunately, by then the real freshness is gone ; it's just possible to add the energy of fire (which mimics freshness to some extent) and change it to something more roasted. But there are also risks of doing it wrong.

A spring 2013 High Mountain Oolong that doesn't feel fresh in spring 2014 is a sign that the farmer didn't finish the proper drying of the tea leaves. But why wouldn't he dry the Oolong leaves well? It's a question of time. Drying the leaves takes attention and heat and time. All this is money. It's a also about skill. High mountain leaves are valuable and if the drying is too strong or too quick, the leaves may get burned and loose their lightest aromas.

And finally, at first, the leaves smell fresher without this drying. So, if an uneducated customer smells/tastes 2 Oolongs, he will find that the well dried Oolong smells/tastes less fresh and looks less green than the Oolong that hasn't been well dried. This explains the trend for very green Oolongs and why the sellers often keep them in freezers! And thus, the consumer is likely to pick the wrong leaves...
Spring 2013 Lishan Oolong in March 2014
The solution to enjoy fresh high mountain spring Oolong now is to purchase great leaves that have been well dried just after harvesting. This is the best way to preserve their freshness. Of course, it's also recommended to keep them in a cool, dry, dark and clean place with little air. But it's not necessary to put them in the fridge or the freezer. All my High Mountain Oolongs still taste fantastic in terms of freshness. I even feel they taste a little bit better, smoother and more refined now than just after production!


Unknown said...

Great information! I'm in Kaohsiung, Taiwan right now. Where are you in Taiwan?

TeaMasters said...

Hi Mike,
Thanks, I'm in Banciao (New Taipei City).