traditional oolong production: a live showcase
CultivarsTwo major groups of cultivars used in the Phoenix area today are Shuixians and Wulongs(1). The former yields most of the popularly available Phoenix selections so we shall talk about it here, and leave the latter to another piece of writing.
Shuixian in Chinese actually refers to Chinese Sacred Lily (Narcissus tazetta), a sweetly fragrant small white flower customarily displayed in the household during Chinese New Year. Its cleansing aroma is one of the best loved delights of the festival. The flower name is borrowed because the tea made from these tea plants do have that similar kind of aroma. Actually in the last hour of the fermentation stage in the production, the aroma is so intense that you would think you were totally submerge in a sea of blooming lilies.
The progenitor plant, a wild tea plant called “Hong Yin”, is still growing in the wild in this area and a few producers are still making tea from it. Some scholars believe that the “Yu” tribe, an indigenous mountain people, was first to make tea in the oolong approach over 1,000 years ago using it.
The last known audit in 2000 says there are over 80 Shuixian cultivars used locally. Since the growing rate differs quite dramatically between cultivars, plucking for first flushes can be spread from end of March to late May. This is good for the farmer because he can time his production focus across a range of different cultivars, minimizing the scale of his labour force and hardware setup. This is critical to enable these small family run tea production farms to continue operating in the economically reasonable fashion that is. Almost all producers in premium production areas are such small farms.
Plucking and Sun-withering
Better quality Phoenix is usually plucked on a sunny day just before or immediately after midday. When there is good sun, the young leaf cells expand fully, and the leaf face is glossy, plump and healthy, and free of dew. Leaves plucked under such conditions retain the most sap needed for the taste and aroma producible through the lengthy traditional oolong production process. This practice is very different from that of green teas, such as “Dragon Well”, which requires the leaves to be extremely young and fresh from early morning Spring cool air. For oolongs, such as the Phoenix teas, the leaves have to grow to a certain size in order to be chemically optimized to deliver their maximum quality. That is why the spring harvest for green teas is usually a lot earlier than oolongs.
The plucked leaves are very thinly spread out on flat bamboo sieves to wither under the sun, and are turned over a couple of times to allow even ventilation. This step is likely to have taken from the ancient tea drying method, sun-baking.
Unlike the ancient method, in oolong making, the leaves are removed from direct light after 2~3 hours and are allowed to cool before being sorted ready for the next stages. This “liang qing” (i.e. airing of the green) process allows the leaves to re-hydrate and turn plump again for the next step.
After the leaves have been cooled and sorted (usually after dinner time in these Phoenix villages where it gets dark quite early), they are to be partially fermented. The process takes place throughout the night for a duration between 7 to 9 hours, during which time the tea master has to rattle(4) the leaves briefly for about 5 minutes at regular intervals of one and a half to two hours, each time gradually increasing the vigor of the process.
This “rattling” of the leaves causes the edges to rub against each other, thus gradually breaking the cell walls and triggering a series of chemical reactions as the plant enzymes and other leaf constituents (such as protein, amino acids, polyphenols, carbohydrates, etc) come into contact with each other. The result is visually evident when a thin reddish rim begin to appear in the leaf. Somehow, the West has called this oxidation process “partial-fermentation”. The locals call it “zao qing”, making of the green.
The rattling becomes more rigourous after each interval, and the “pang qing” (holding the leaves to make them bump into each other) becomes “yao qing”, i.e bumping turns “rock and roll”.
This stage of zao qing is critical in order for the leaves to attain an optimum condition for further processes to develop the aromas and tastes typical of these oolong teas. Since the weather, both before and during the plucking, and the conditions during sun-drying, temperature, and humidity are all variables that affect the quality of the leaves, the extent and control of rolling will need to be accordingly adjusted in order to maximize the result of the harvest. It takes a great deal of experience to be able to judge the leaves in the process to fine-tune subsequent work carried on them… continue on next page»
1. The name Wulong in cultivars is not to be confused with the tea selections with the same name. I have deliberately used the pinyin way of presenting the cultivars and keep the word oolong for tea selections.
2. Some people suggest other groupings and much greater numbers. I think they are a little exaggerated and agree with B.Z. Huang, who has spent much of his life studying the tea and group the various selections according to aromatic characters: 8 as bouquet/honey, 4 as herbal, 3 as fruit, and 3 others individual characters. I have further simplified the grouping into the classic and bouquet styles, according to both the finishing process and the overall taste impression. As with any other oolong regions, new varieties do come about every now and then, so there can never be any conclusive listing.
3. Dancong: Single Bush. A more popular name used in connoisseur circles than saying Phoenix oolongs. More in the Phoenix introduction page.
4. The locals divide the zao qing process into “scratching of the green” (pang qing) as the first half, and “rocking of the green” (yao qing) as the rattle action intensifies towards the later half of the process,. The leaves are literally rattled in the shallow bamboo sieve. This traditional and more delicate technique, however, is giving way to manually operated drum rollers, like those used in Anxi, Wuyi and Taiwan. The proper and more demanding approach is now reserved for premium quality productions.
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