Tag Archives: oolong

A One Garden Comparison

This month’s offering from Global Tea Hut is a pair of organic teas from Mr. Xie in Ming Jian, Nantou, Taiwan. One is processed as a green oolong, lightly roasted. The other is processed as Hóng Chá (红茶), or what we might call “black tea”. Both sets of leaves were made from the same garden and (I believe) around the same time, which makes this a very interesting comparison indeed.


I set up another tasting, much like my post on bi lo chun last week, with two small gaiwans and my small Totoro tea pet to assist us with his invaluable perspective. These two teas are quite different, despite their similar origins, and further demonstrate the profound effect of oxidation, rolling, and roast.

The warmed leaves have a delicious aroma. The oolong smells buttery and with an unmistakably light roast and the scent of chestnuts. The hong cha’s leaves give off a hint of candy sweetness, but mostly smell of dry bark in spring. When I say “warmed leaves”, I mean the leaves in the pot before they’ve been infused. It’s possible I’ve never mentioned this here, but if you warm your teapot before brewing, try putting the leaves into the empty pot just afterward and quickly shutting the lid to let them absorb some of the moist heat remaining. After a few seconds, lift the lid and inhale the aromas of the warmed leaves. This can produce an amazing effect, all before even adding water to your leaves!

Both of these teas have been allowed to grow without pesticides, which means that many of them have been nibbled by small insects before the harvest. This can be a very desirable event. The resulting tea, characterized by the iconic Bái Háo (白毫茶), tends to have a sweet rich flavor like honey. This tea magic is due to several factors including defensive compounds that the plant releases when it is attacked, as well as the beginning of oxidation while the leaves are still on the tree. I can taste the effects in both of Mr. Xie’s teas.

The oolong (infused with no rinse at around 2 minutes) produced a golden liquor. The flavor was buttery with quite a roasted and honeyed aroma in the mouth. The roasting of this tea was clearly done with a lot of skill! The finish was crisp and short, not lasting as long as I wished, but that only encouraged me to make a second cup!

The mouth feel was very pleasant, more light and silky than thick and creamy, but it paired well with the aromatics of this tea. The third infusion brought out something like the flavor of oranges, which perhaps was there before but hidden by the roast. Usually I would say “citrus” here, but in this case that word really didn’t fit; I was really getting the sense of oranges.

The Global Tea Hut article accompanying this tea reads,

The oolong tea is bug-bitten, plucked, withered outdoors, and then indoors, shaken and mixed in piles (jiao ban), withered more, pan fired (sa cheen) to arrest oxidation and kill green enzymes, rolled to break down the cells and further oxidation, as well as to shape the tea (ro nian), and then roasted twice — once to dry the tea and then for a longer time to add flavor and fragrance.

The Hóng Chá’s liquor was a delicate tan, as expected, and the wet leaves had the sweet smell of candy sugar. The taste, however, was very surprising. I was expecting something like either the minty quality of Sun Moon Lake or the chocolate notes of Feng Qing, but instead it reminded me of nothing else but maple syrup. Not that extremely sweet Grade-A stuff or the sugar paste that you find in restaurants, but thick, dark, Grade-B maple syrup fresh from the tree: still sweet, but more like caramel (if you were under the mistaken impression that Grade-A maple syrup means higher quality, you might be surprised to know it’s just a designation of color and season of production).

To quote Global Tea Hut,

The red tea is also bug-bitten, plucked, and then withered indoors, piled on bamboo mats for 12-24 hours. It is then rolled for up to ninety minutes before being roasted dry. … This results in a deeper, darker liquor than the oolong — though less refined.

I only made three infusions of these teas during this sitting, but I think that both could easily have made five to ten with their flavors intact. Neither has full leaf sets, and there were lots of broken leaves and stems (even with the rolled oolong), but this tea does not suffer from that. Based on the appearance of the leaf damage, I’d say the broken ones were in that condition on the plants, not because of poor handling. I also noticed that the cha qi was very energetic. I’ve felt this before with arbor tree sheng puer, where the tea seems to infuse a “wild” energy in the body, but I think this is the first time I’ve felt the same with an oolong and a black tea.

globalteahut-june-leaf-textureOrganic farming and hand processing mean that leaves may not look as immaculate as some other teas, but that does not mean that they are poor quality! The skill of the farmer is always present in your cup: the growing conditions, the picking, processing and roasting are all equally important. The proof is always in the taste.

Painter’s Roast Oolong

Of all the many, many (read: too many) teas I brought back from Taiwan, the most eloquent was a small unlabeled pouch of rolled oolong carefully hand-roasted by a man in Lùgǔ (鹿谷鄉). As I’ve just sipped the last of that fine vintage, I thought I might tell you the story of where I found it.

Perhaps I should first explain why I think this tea is so special. Certainly it has all the qualities of a first class tea, from its smooth mouth-feel to the blissful aroma of sweet roasted chestnut as the liquor engulfs my senses. Yet those mundane aspects are only one level of the intrigue at play here. What really draws me to this tea is a characteristic that is difficult to put into words. Some people call this Cha Qi (茶氣). It’s something like the energy of the tea.

Photo Feb 24, 2 54 41 PMSome tea tastes great or has a very interesting aroma, but after drinking it I feel unsettled. A tea which leaves me feeling at peace in mind and body is a tea which I consider to have good Cha Qi, and it is a rare thing indeed. This tea has Cha Qi in abundance, and I wonder what it must take to craft such magic from plants. If you’d like to read more about this elusive quality, Stéphane has a good discussion on his blog and TeaChat has one as well, but you’ll probably have to experience it for yourself.

These fine leaves originated in Nántóu (南投縣), the only land-locked county on the whole island. While Taiwan is generally an easy place to navigate with English, smaller regions like Nántóu can make life a little more interesting. As we got off the bus in front of the Lùgǔ 7-11 (they’re everywhere in Taiwan), there was some confusion about our bus tickets. In order to exit the bus, you had to hand your ticket to the driver to prove you had paid for that leg of the journey, but one member of our group had already misplaced his ticket. In the ensuing chaos, we met a very nice woman getting off at the same stop who helped us communicate to the bus driver and resolve the situation.

We only knew of one person in the town, a man who worked at the renowned Lùgǔ Farmer’s Association, but we weren’t sure where we might be able to stay. Fortunately the nice woman at the bus stop (whose English was excellent) led us to a sort of bed-and-breakfast she knew across the street. Apparently the building was also attached to some sort of school for children where she taught art classes. And of course, like many people in Lùgǔ, the owners of the house were involved with tea production. 


A good place to stay if you’re ever in Lugu.

We immediately started exploring the small and friendly town and learning about its vibrant tea culture. In the last few decades that culture had been in decline until the Farmer’s Association was created to preserve the traditions of the growers, pickers, and craftsmen of the region. At one point we browsed a small tea exhibit at the town hall and the employees there took a keen interest in us. I think that having Americans touring their town was quite a rare thing. Since they didn’t speak much English and our Mandarin was non-existent, they called up someone they assured us could help. As good luck would have it, our friend from the Farmer’s Association walked in the door! He had a busy schedule but told us a little about the town and then promised that he could make more time to chat if we could wait until the following day. Not wanting to take advantage of his kindness, we agreed to spend the rest of the day wandering on our own.


Our tea friend and translator.

Our tea friend and translator.

After another hour had passed we found a very interesting shop on the far side of the town. Being able to tell the difference between a shop and someone’s home is often very difficult in Taiwan; they’re frequently one and the same. This place was run solely by a very kind man who clearly knew about tea (his home-made tea station was something to behold) but whose primary activity appeared to be brush painting. He spoke not a word of English, but we sat and enjoyed tea with him just the same, jovially munching on sunflower seeds and observing the varied paintings that surrounded us.


The painter himself.

The painter himself.

As we were preparing to leave, we wanted very much to purchase some of his really excellent tea but at that point our ability to communicate without words completely broke down, so the painter called someone up on the phone. We figured that he knew someone who spoke English and could translate for us. Imagine our surprise when our Farmer’s Association friend again walked in the door. Apparently he was the one to call if you needed to talk to foreigners, but we felt very guilty for disturbing his work twice in one day.

Photo Feb 25, 10 20 44 AM

It turns out that the painter did not actually produce any tea, but would purchase mostly-finished tea leaves from the farmers and then roast it himself in a large electrically-heated bamboo basket: quite an art in and of itself. It was very much an education on the amazing effect that a carefully executed roast can have on a tea leaf. Of course the base tea needs to be of a high quality as well, but by roasting the leaves just enough to engage their mouth-watering fragrance without burning anything, the master of roasting can transform a good tea into an outstanding tea. I have cherished my small bag of “Painter’s Roast” ever since and I hope someday to return to Lùgǔ to pay my respects to that master (and, of course, to get some more tea!).

Gui Fei at Stone Leaf Tea House

Yesterday was a beautiful lazy Saturday, and my wife had the brilliant suggestion to spend our afternoon drinking tea someplace we don’t get to nearly often enough: Stone Leaf Tea House in Middlebury. As we sat and tasted some fine Gui Fei oolong I realized I have never written about this wonderful tea destination, despite it being one of the three nearest tearooms to my home. (Of course, I have written about some of the tea before.)

Photo Feb 22, 4 55 12 PM

My favorite part about visiting Stone Leaf is the intimacy of the experience; when I step in the door and look across the beautiful wooden counter, I’m immediately greeted by John (the owner and a friend) or another one of the skillful tea masters who work there. I tend to immediately launch into a discussion about the newest teas on the menu or some new tea pot on display. Talking about the tea helps me to settle into the space as I consider what I’d like to drink that day. I can be very indecisive (there’s so many great options!), but John is very skilled at guiding the conversation toward a specific few teas that I will probably enjoy. I see it happen even with those customers that are brand new to the greater tea world: before they even sit down there’s often already a perfect tea picked out.

To be fair, this sort of skill in tea recommendation is what I appreciate from all of my favorite tea shops. What I think sets Stone Leaf apart is the unhurried nature of the exchange. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to run a tea room and try to give each person the attention they deserve in a shop full of customers. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. This may be just the times I happen to visit, but I’ve never felt a need to hurry up when at Stone Leaf.

Photo Feb 22, 4 17 42 PM

Finally, and not the least impressive: the selection of teas is top-notch. Stone Leaf is always importing the freshest tea nearly as soon as it is harvested. John even roasts some of his own oolongs; there are very few tea shops in the West that can claim that skill. I definitely recommend some house roasted Jin Xuan, if you have the opportunity to visit.

The Gui Fei we tasted was gentle and smooth with a really entrancing aroma and a light body. The air around the tea seemed to take on a delicate floral sweetness, like standing in a field of spring blooms: not pungent or overwhelming, but undeniably present and comforting.

The consistency of the leaves was a welcome find. Each rolled ball contained around five full leaves all still attached to the stem. The leaves were of small-to-medium size, but I think that the presence of so many complete leaf sets helped to create the smoothness of the tea. After the fifth or sixth infusion the liquor began to take on a more bold, coconut aroma and flavor. I love a tea that presents a whole new side of itself as the infusions progress.

A heart-felt thanks to Stone Leaf for bringing us such a fine tea!

Photo Feb 22, 4 54 36 PM

Cultivars and Places in Tea Names

Tea naming is an interesting art, and it’s easy for us Westerners to be confused by the plethora of naming conventions out there. I think a little primer might be helpful.


Let’s take a tea name like Gao Shan Ali Shan Jin Xuan Milk Oolong. That’s a lot of words! But we can break it up pretty easily to learn more about our tea. Within we will find:

1. The height of the tea garden.

2. The place the tea was grown.

3. The cultivar used.

4. A common use-name.

In this case we’re going through a Chinese tea name because I think that can be the hardest to understand, but the same principles apply to tea from other countries. There may, however, be more information as well, such as the leaf size or grade.

“Gāo Shān” (高山) literally means “High Mountain”. It refers to tea grown in a garden above 1000 meters. Many of the oolong teas from Taiwan fall into this category. The theory goes that if a tea is grown at a higher elevation, it will tend toward lighter, sweeter flavors as the increased sunlight and decreased temperature affect the leaf. This is not universally true, of course, but Gao Shan oolongs usually do have those qualities.

tea_culitvarsMany teas include the place name for the mountain or region in which the tea was grown. This has led to some famous locations throughout the tea growing world, and plenty of counterfeits. Ālǐ Shān (阿里山) is one of the most popular tea mountains in Taiwan and so you can often find “Ali Shan” tea that was actually grown someplace else. Still, the place a tea is grown does not in itself tell you if a tea will be good or not, so it’s just another guideline.

A Cultivar (short for “cultivated variety”) is the particular version of Camellia Sinensis that was grown to make this tea. Often the cultivar isn’t mentioned in the tea’s name, but sometimes it is the entirety of the name. Jīn Xuān (金萱), for example, is the name of a particular tea cultivar that is grown in Taiwan and Fujian, China. A particular cultivar is usually processed in the same manner, even in different locations, so if you are familiar with the way a cultivar tastes, that can give you more of an idea of the experience you will have with a tea than anything else in the name.

“Milk Oolong” is the more common name for Jin Xuan tea in the West because the flavor of that cultivar, when gently roasted by the tea manufacturer, gives off a sweet aroma with a texture similar to cream. The common name of a tea is often a translation of the Chinese cultivar name or location, but not always. In this case, Jin Xuan literally means “Golden Day Lilly”, so “Milk Oolong” is not a translation.


So finally, our “Gao Shan Ali Shan Jin Xuan Milk Oolong” is a tea that was grown about 1000 meters on Ali Shan mountain using the Jin Xuan cultivar. This is why you can’t have a Dong Ding Ali Shan (two place names) or a Jin Xuan Tie Guan Yin (two cultivars). As always, though, the only way to really learn about a tea is to give it a try (preferably several).

Shui Mi Xiang from Camellia Sinensis

This is a tea I haven’t had before. Shuǐ Mì Xiāng (水蜜香) means “Water Honey Aroma”, or perhaps more lyrically, “Honey-water scent” and it’s easy to see why. The dark twisted leaves give forth a dusty sweet aroma that gave away the family of this tea even before I knew what it was: Guandong oolong.

Photo Feb 11, 3 15 33 PM

This is the first tea I’ve had with this name, but I assume it falls into the category of Phoenix oolongs (凤凰茶 or Fèng Huáng Chá). This class of oolong is grown in the Phoenix mountains of Guǎngdōng Province (广东) in south-eastern China and has very specific characteristics. Dark, long, and twisted leaves which carry an unmistakable roast and the subtle aroma of sweet stone fruit are the hallmark of this style. Typically they produce a golden infusion with a honey and apricot flavor. I’ve tasted many different Phoenix oolongs, and there is a variation in flavor intensity, aroma, and body, but otherwise they all share the qualities mentioned above. It’s one of my favorite styles of oolong to share with new tea drinkers as I think it showcases the amazing flavors that can be brought out of the tea leaf with nothing added. I’ve even had someone call me before to ask if the tea they bought was scented!

As with any tea, consistent leaf sizes are desirable and this tea has them. They will allow the tea to infuse at a consistent rate without small or broken leaves confusing things. Many Phoenix oolongs I’ve had are of the Dān Cóng (单丛) harvest. Dān Cóng means something like “single bush”, and (from what I understand) refers to wild or arbor tea trees, that is, tea plants that have been allowed to grow without pruning so they reach three to five meters in height. Arbor tea leaves tend to have more complex flavors than those found in cultivated gardens. Perhaps this is a Dān Cóng and perhaps not, but it is definitely an exceptional tea. I smelled the aroma during a recent trip to Camellia Sinensis and immediately picked some up.

Xiāng (香) can also mean “spice”, which is really interesting because I definitely detect cinnamon notes in the taste and texture. My first few infusions reminded me of cinnamon sticks and the sweetness of cherries. The translucency of the liquor implies a lighter body, but it’s actually quite full in the mouth.

Photo Feb 11, 3 45 21 PMI easily made four good infusions of 4g of the same leaf, with no loss of flavor that I could detect. Another good sign. I don’t think this tea will last very long in my collection with the speed at which I’m drinking it, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years, it’s that tea is meant to be consumed. If you hoard tea without drinking it yourself, you’re missing the point, and even better is to share!

Taiwan High Mountain Oolong from Teavivre

High mountain oolong (gāo shān wū lóng chá, 高山乌龙茶) almost always refers to a rolled oolong tea grown in Taiwan at a height of more than 1000 meters. Beyond that, it’s really a pretty vague description. As I read somewhere recently, calling tea by a name like this is something like calling a wine, “red wine from a field near a lake”. Actually quite a lot of tea is marketed without even the general style of production or the mountain name included, an unfortunate circumstance for us tea drinkers! Of course, this lack of information neither labels a tea as likely to taste delicious or common, so it is up to us to learn more.

My best guess about this tea would be that it’s a Qīng Xīn cultivar (青心) from Shānlín Xī (杉林溪) mountain or someplace nearby, but I definitely could be mistaken. The package lists Nántóu County as the location of origin, which is a prime producer of this style of tea on mountains like Shānlín Xī and Dòng Dǐng Shān.

Photo Feb 07, 1 45 30 PMAt my first inspection, the leaves seemed rather broken and small, but after some infusions, I discovered quite a few full leaf sets with long stems. I wonder, actually, if the broken leaves have more to do with the small sample packaging rather than the tea itself. Fair warning: this tea was sent to me by Teavivre as a sample.

When a tea is labeled as “High mountain oolong”, I usually don’t expect that much from it. Way better than any bagged oolong, certainly, but lacking in the nuance and intensity of a tea worthy enough to have been given a name. My experiences infusing this oolong fall within that category. The flavors were varied, but light, and the leaves opened up rather quickly, so the number of good infusions was somewhere around two or three.

Just to be sure, I infused a new packet with exactly 4g of leaf, no tea dust, and a fairly precise timing of around 1.5 minutes. The results had a pleasant energy, and were not without a good flavor, but a somewhat uninspiring aroma and flat mouth-feel.

The aroma of the wet leaves is honeysuckle and rose, with a little bit of raspberry sweetness, but it doesn’t seem to linger. The taste reminded me of eating the wakame seaweed out of miso soup or water chestnuts: a thin sweetness on top of the water.

Photo Feb 07, 2 33 58 PMSo: for me, a good daily tea but not something I would much want to show off. On the other hand, much better than many other teas I’ve had with the same name. With tea, it all depends on what you are looking for!

1995 Tieguanyin From Maokong

The leaves of this tea are dark brown, and clearly roasted as I’d expect from an aged oolong. As usual I can’t honestly verify that this tea is actually from 1995, but I know that when I was in the shop purchasing it, we tasted a selection of the owner’s aged Tieguanyin ranging from 1992 to 1998 and decided we liked this one the best. Buying directly from a tea master like this is about as good a guarantee as you can get unless you’ve aged it yourself.

Photo Dec 17, 10 16 03 AM

The infusion is a beautiful dark amber, already giving a sign of its quality. An overly-roasted aged oolong can be murky, but this is clear and glowing. The taste is roasty and rich. It has a full mouth-feel like a good Da Hong Pao and, for me at least, a comforting sensation. I suppose I can be comforted by many teas, but I would definitely call this ‘comforting’ as opposed to ‘energizing’ or ‘calming’. Drinking it is like sitting by a winter hearth, basking the gentle scent of woodsmoke.

Photo Dec 16, 2 18 28 PM

The level of roast is what sets this tea apart for me. Roasting oolongs, particularly for aging, is not an easy task. A little too much and the tea tastes sharp and baked. Too little and the tea may be too bland or worse, too green for aging. This Tieguanyin doesn’t taste of charcoal or burning. There’s even a light touch of sweetness, as though someone added a tiny spoonful of sugar to my cup.

I bought this tea in Maokong, Taiwan at the Chang Nai-miao Memorial Hall (張迺妙紀念館) while looking for teahouses. My friends and I stumbled across this wonderful place quite by accident.


Maokong (貓空) is a popular but rural and somewhat remote part of Taipei, sitting atop a mountain. They’re famous for their teahouses and the tea they grow tea there. We took a gondola to get up to the area which is a popular tourist attraction in itself. Not only was the line quite long, but we had to get a ticket and wait an hour to even get in line in the first place. The gondola ride was beautiful, going past temples and between some low mountains (~400 meters).

IMG_1874When we arrived at the top we were starting to get hungry, but we also wanted to find a pleasant teahouse. Well, in Maokong, there are a lot, but most of them seemed to be just restaurants. We hiked for an hour or two around the mountain until we stopped in to a small family cafe. We were served a delicious selection of veggies and some OK oolong. Of course, we weren’t going to get amazing oolong with a meal!

While eating we tried to communicate with the proprietors (including one very helpful dwarf gentleman), but without much luck. As is often the case in these situations, it seemed that they knew of someone who could help. One of the family members rushed out of the door on some mission. Minutes later, she returned, alongside a woman who spoke excellent English. With the new woman’s help we were able to explain that we were in Taiwan exploring the tea culture. Much to our surprise the woman asked us to join her next door where she worked in a tea museum! It turns out that she was the wife of the owner of the hall and a relative of the owners of the restaurant. We snagged a personal tour of the hall and a lot of tea processing information, as well as a wonderful gongfu service with the current master.


The woman’s husband was Chang Weiyi (張位宜), a descendent of a famous tea master for whom the memorial museum was made. He had also studied teapot making in Yixing and the hall sold some of his works. One of my all-time favorite teapots is one that I purchased there. With his wife’s translation, he brewed us several Tieguanyin as mentioned above. This 1995 was so divine that we decided to split some to bring home.

Photo Dec 17, 1 03 06 PM

The stoneware jar it came in reads 木柵鐵觀音, which is Muzha Tieguanyin, and the year. I still feel that this experience was one of the best parts of the whole trip and I’m very happy to still have this tea to remember it by.

Teavivre 2013 Qing Xiang Dong Ding

…or, How it’s hard to judge an Oolong before the fourth infusion.

Photo Nov 26, 11 37 51 AM

This was a sample sent to me from the lovely folks at Teavivre. Dong Ding (sometimes Tung Ting or “Frozen Summit”) is a very beautiful tea mountain in Nantou county near the west coast of Taiwan. They produce a lot of rolled oolongs in the Taiwan/Fujian style. “Qing Xiang” (清香) means “Fragrant” or “Aromatic”.

The dry leaves lived up to their name with a very pleasant sweet aroma. As expected for a Dong Ding, the leaves are rolled into balls, but somewhat unexpectedly they are many different sizes. Some are quite a lot larger than my usual Dong Ding (indicating a lot of stems, which doesn’t mean anything in itself), while some balls were more like fine gunpowder green tea in size. The variation in leaf size had me on my guard, as such inconsistency can make infusing a tea difficult. The color was a mix of bright green mixed with gunpowder gray, like an evergreen forest in the spring.

For the first infusion, I began with an experimental 1 minute at 95C. The resulting liquor was a flaxen yellow color that told me that at least I hadn’t over-steeped it. The mouthfeel immediately had a tiny bit of sharpness, making me think that there was some contingent of broken leaves in there. The taste was bright with a fairly fresh Dong Ding aroma. I’d guess this is a spring harvest, although the sample had no harvest date listed. The aroma and taste reminded me of spinach or kiwi fruit. At this point I was already judging the tea as average and wondering how many worthwhile infusions I could make.

Photo Nov 26, 11 38 54 AMFor the second infusion, I tried to mellow the taste by using less time, only 30 seconds. This time I tasted more kiwi, less spinach; it was sweeter and the sharpness was somewhat hidden as though behind clouds. The texture was still uneven, though, and remained very fresh and spring-like with only a light aroma.

For a third infusion, I upped the time slightly and the water I was using began to cool in its kettle. I tried 45 seconds at 90C. This yielded a taste that was still quite bright with a bit of roughness around the edges. However, my thoughts about the number of infusions began to change as this one had plenty of color, flavor, and the original aroma remaining.

Photo Nov 26, 11 42 33 AMFeeling very curious now, I tried a fourth infusion for 1.5 minutes with the now 85C water. Delightful! A hint of saltiness crept into the flavor, which changed everything. There was still the bright spring quality, but it became subdued and gentle. The aroma was delicate but unmistakably that of the wonderful sweetness you will find in an oolong withering room. Somehow a bit of cream entered the texture, mellowing the sharpness of the previous infusions. The effect was still there but now it manifested as a dryness on the front of the tongue in the aftertaste, not marring the mouthfeel. My mind wandered away to a green mountainside in Lugu, looking across the lake at the tea fields of Dong Ding.

Could this continue? Fifth infusion, 2 minutes, 80C. Still mellow! I think the first infusions were needed to bleed off some of the freshness of this tea. I think perhaps a first rinse would be a good idea in the future. I finally felt like this tea was giving in the way that was intended. A medium body, nothing dramatic, with a delicate green aroma and a round mouthfeel.

A sixth infusion, then. I heated the water again to see what that would yield and steeped for 2.5 minutes at about 98C. Impressively, the flavor was mellow and perhaps even more rich than the last two infusions. The color and aroma remained about the same. The taste didn’t last as long as it did before, vanishing after only a few moments in the mouth, but they were a very pleasant few moments.

Photo Nov 26, 12 29 45 PMI now suspect there could be four more infusions still within these leaves, but I’ve had enough tea for one sitting. This tea definitely surprised me. My first impressions were quite turned around by the fourth infusion. It’s really a reminder that, particularly with a rolled oolong, there can be layers of flavor that lie hidden away behind the initial taste.

A hot rinse of the leaves at the start or possibly beginning with a cooler temperature water might have made for a different beginning entirely for this tasting. Tea is a living creation, and while I love to find a Dong Ding that really wows on the first sip, I very much enjoy a tea that makes me taste and experiment to find its beauty. I’m glad to have had this chance!

2011 Buddha’s Hand

Buddha’s Hand oolong, or Fóshǒu (佛手), is an oolong made from a very large leaf cultivar of Camellia Sinensis. The taste of the tea is a bit of a mystery, because to me it tastes very roasted, but very light at the same time. It’s like Yán chá (rock tea) White tea. I’d really love to know more about its production.


This tea was purchased in Taipei in a small shop that I stumbled into while looking around the city. It took me quite a while to understand what we were tasting, because the name in Chinese, “Fóshǒu”, sounded like “Fossil” in English. I and my friends kept calling this tea “fossil tea” until we ended up at this shop, where it was the only tea they sold. Finally we understood that this was something unique and delicious.

This is one of the teas I decided to test in my grand (old) tea tasting experiment. I’m a little behind.


For my first infusion, I used 4g for 1.5min at 90C. The specifics are not that crucial, but I’ve taken to using my scale more and I think it’s really improved my cupping. The liquor has a light tan color. The taste is, as I mentioned, a very light flavor and a dark roast at the same time. Even though it tastes quite dark, the roast is soothing and nowhere near the intensity of a Wuyi oolong, also lacking the sweetness of a Bai Hao.

Second infusion at 2min is slightly darker in color, but still only a translucent brown. The flavor remains the same. It’s a comforting tea, if lacking in aroma. It reminds me of Japanese Hojicha in a way.


If I remember correctly, there was only a little more flavor when I purchased it originally all those years ago. I can’t find any of my tasting notes from that trip at the moment, so I can’t say for certain, but I remember it being light and comforting even when it was fresh. If I’m right, it’s held up quite well. I’ll keep this one for now.

Mysterious Ku Fu Phoenix

Ming Tao Xuan in Montréal, where I purchased this tea in 2011 has labeled it as “Phoenix Ku Fu Cha (Chinese Red Tea)”, which is confusing in many ways. Its mystery, however, can still be unraveled with some careful tasting. And the process can be so rewarding.


My taste buds tell me that this is definitely an Oolong and not a Red tea (what we call Black tea in the West) although it definitely has a decent amount of oxidation, putting it near enough to Red tea territory. The fact that it’s a twisted leaf with a high oxidation and a plum-like sweetness puts it squarely in the Feng Huang (凤凰单丛) category.

Feng Huang, or Phoenix oolongs, are produced around the Wuyi shan region of Guandong province in southern China. Not as roasty as their Da Hong Pao and Shui Xian cousins, Feng Huang tea has dark twisted leaves but an amber infusion with a fruity aroma. The more of them I taste, the more I learn that the style has quite a range of flavor and strength (like all teas, really).


The kind that is most familiar to me is the Mi Lan Xiang or “honey orchid scent” style. It’s not uncommon to mistake a Phoenix for a tea with added flavors because of their strong fruity aroma (usually plum or apricot), and the Mi Lan style adds a sweet honey taste to that. After some experience you can tell the difference, though, because added scents are cloying and overflow the taste when it hits your palette. Real Phoenix is just sweet enough, but the underlying “rock tea” (another name for leaves grown in the Wuyi region) is still present.

In the cup, I’m getting the fruit aroma, but the taste isn’t filled with honey. I get sweetness, but it’s more of a candy sweet, like a subtle sugarcane. The roast gives it a decidedly Shui Xian leaning, making it less smooth in the aftertaste than I expect. I’m not certain what style of Phoenix to call this “Ku Fu” tea, because from what I can tell, “Ku Fu” doesn’t really mean anything. My best guess is that it’s supposed to be “Kung Fu”, a.k.a: Gong Fu Cha, a method of brewing but also a title given to tea of a particularly high quality (at least in the eyes of its seller).

So let’s rename this tea to “Feng Huang Gong Fu Cha (Chinese Dark Oolong Tea)”. I think that fits better. Surprisingly it is still delicious after more than a year in my tea cabinet. If you’re going to keep an oolong for more than a year, make sure that it’s darkly roasted like this one. The lighter styles can develop off flavors so easily, but more heavily toasted leaves tend, in my experience, to retain their taste longer.

As always, if you infuse an oolong like this for too long, you’ll get a real punch of the tannins when they hit your tongue. In this case I started with about 1.5 minutes and it was too much. The rule here is to experiment! After a shorter, perhaps 40 second infusion, I was very pleased with the taste. Don’t be afraid to try tea you think is past its prime, but remember to give it more than once chance and you may discover a treasure like this!