Baozhong (包種茶, literally “wrapped item”) is a very interesting tea to categorize. It balances on the border of being Green and Oolong. Very lightly oxidized, bright and floral, green and tan, it is one of the oldest styles of tea produced in Taiwan. When I think of Taiwanese oolongs, I usually imagine the sweet roasts of Dong Ding, or the high floral scents of Ali Shan. It’s easy to forget the humble twisted leaf grown in Taipei when confronted with all the miracles of the Taiwanese Tea Research Institute growing in Nantou and Chiyai.
Despite various spellings of the name (e.g.: “Pouchong”), Baozhong is pretty obvious when you see it. Most oolongs from Taiwan are of the rolled style, meaning that they are rolled during their lengthy processing into small balls which open up upon steeping to reveal three, four, or five leaves attached to a soft stem. Baozhong, however, is twisted into a sort of curl of one or possibly two leaves (the size of which varies based on the leaf) and you’ll rarely find more than the hint of a stem. The leaves are usually a bright green that immediately makes me think of a green tea, and indeed the oxidation level for Baozhong is only 5-15%, making it closer to green tea than any other oolong.
To the best of my knowledge, almost all modern Baozhong is grown in and around Pinglin, a region in the Wenshan mountains within the borders of Taipei. It’s a place which I’ve actually had the good fortune to visit. As with most tea growing areas, the people I encountered there were very friendly and welcoming, especially when they learned that I was visiting because of their tea!
Today I thought I would compare a few examples of 2013 Baozhong that I have in my cabinet. The first is from Red Blossom tea in San Francisco. It was purchased a year ago and has been resting in a double-lidded metal tin since. Even though the leaves have only been exposed to the air at the infrequent times I’ve opened the tin, I had it in my head that the leaves had lost a lot of their luster and energy. Many oolongs can retain their greatness for several years after harvest, but Baozhong is so close to Green tea that I feared its magic had been depleted by time. I was pretty pleased to discover that I was wrong about that. I infused 4 grams of leaf for about 1.5 minutes with 90°C water in a gaiwan and was greeted by a floral aroma and brightly energizing tea! A very impressive feat given its nearly 2 years of age.
The second tea I tasted was actually the same tea from the same purchase, but had been stored differently. Following some advice from Stéphane Erler, four or five months ago I had moved a good amount of the tea from its metal tin to a ceramic jar to see what effect it would have. Today I opened the jar to a wonderous aroma and was excited to compare it to its near cousin. As you might expect, the tastes were very similar, but there were notable differences. First, the liquor of the tea from the ceramic jar was a shade darker (and remained so at every infusion) despite identical measures of weight, gaiwans, and water. I brewed these very close together to see if I could spot anything unique and to minimize any variations. Secondly, the ceramic jar Baozhong had a deeper, richer flavor than its metal-tinned version. The floral notes were much the same, but the mouth-feel was decidedly changed by its container. This is a fascinating experiment that I hope to repeat in the future!
The third tea I tasted was also a Baozhong from 2013 although just purchased recently from Teamasters. Its leaves were dramatically larger and darker than the Red Blossom tea and in fact barely fit in the gaiwan I was using. After the second infusion I removed one third of the leaves to allow the remainder to open and move about. I try not to get too far into “tea dogma”, but if my experiences are anything like yours let this be a lesson as you explore the tea world: if your gaiwan or pot is overflowing with leaves, it will dull the taste and make for a strong and blunt cup. Best to remove a few (or a lot!) of the leaves and until the remainder can swirl about efficiently. This Baozhong was dramatically more buttery and smooth than the others, making my mouth water at each sip. The buttery quality of tea is hard to describe unless you experience it, but this one was sweet and thick like cream. I’m very glad that I ordered it!
All three gaiwans gave me two good infusions and a third that was still tasty if faded. I might have been able to coax a few more from the leaves, but after drinking three infusions each of three teas I had consumed more than enough for one sitting! I bow deeply to the farmers in Pinglin for growing and crafting these unique leaves and to Red Blossom and Teamasters for giving me the chance to hold them in my cup.