by Phil on October 4th, 2013
Canton Tea Club Week 53: Yellow Gold Oolong
As far as I can remember, I managed to spend my first twenty years in tea without tasting an Oolong.
I had my head down tasting teas from India, Sri Lanka and Africa for Typhoo during that time, and very little else appeared on the bench. No oolongs, no white teas, I don’t even recall tasting any green teas. That seems shocking and rather sad now, but the tasting was so relentless that there was little time or inclination to look beyond the weekly buying task.
When I left Typhoo in 2000, I tried to broaden my horizons, and was fortunate to meet Leo Kwan in London. Leo is now running the Tea Guardian website (highly recommended if you want real tea detail), but at that time he was experimenting with a tea bar in Selfridges promoting his Ming Cha brand. Talking and tasting with Leo opened up a whole new world for me, and I can remember very clearly the first time I tasted an Anxi Oolong with him. It was a Tie Guan Yin, and knowing Leo it will have been a very fine one. The tastes were so new, so different, so exhilarating that I wasn’t able to really make sense of it, it was completely outside my normal frame of reference.
That first session with Leo set me on my way, and remains one of the reference points in my life in tea. In fact, I might even describe it as the tea equivalent of my first kiss. Since then I have become increasingly fascinated by China Oolongs, with their fragrance, depth and complexity. I have been lucky enough to visit China several times in recent years, and always find myself drawn to Oolongs when I’m there. On a trip that involved no programmed visit to Oolong producers, I found myself exploring the back streets of Suzhou, looking for teashops and the chance to taste Oolongs. I still have the small tea tin I bought at one of those shops, which contained a very precious Anxi Tie Guan Yin.
The Old Tree Dancong Oolong from last week remains the pinnacle, but this week’s Huang Jin Gui is a classic Anxi variety, and takes me right back to that first tasting with Leo. Maybe not as complex as some other Oolong varieties, but it is super-fragrant and refreshing. It’s a very good introduction to Oolongs, and ideal for all-day drinking.
A bit more information about the tea. In contrast to other types, Anxi Oolongs Tie Guan Yin is produced from small young bushes, planted in neat rows on the contours of high mountains. Anxi has different producing regions and different cultivars, and these aspects are of far more interest to tea experts in China than the stories and legends. These are seen as made up for overseas markets, and usually developed long after the tea had become popular.
Huang Jin Gui is one of four famous Anxi cultivars, known in English as Yellow Gold or Golden Osmanthus. The finished tea can be recognised by its yellow stems, which compare with the reddish stems of the Tie Guan Yin variety.
Anxi Oolongs are very popular in China, and production is now on an almost industrial scale. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find artisan producers using traditional skills. We have only been able to find this one with the help of a long-standing friend in China, who has sourced it for us.
The making process is complicated. It starts with withering in a cooled room, when the natural fragrance of the leaves becomes apparent. This is followed by gentle tumbling to bruise the leaf edges, allowing a small amount of oxidation to take place. The leaves are then heated to disable the enzymes and end the oxidation. The process of shaping now begins – the leaves are packed into cotton sacks, which are then tied tightly before being rolled and squeezed. This slowly twists the leaves inside the bags into the ball shape, and they are finally baked to fix the leaves and bring out the flavour. It is quite common for the teas to be re-baked prior to delivery.
The finished tea has the distinctive ball shape, also known as ‘dragonfly head’. The balls slowly unfurl when infused, and the purple tinge to the leave edges shows where the bruising and oxidation took place. The degree of oxidation is small, maybe 15%, and this is why the liquors are light and greenish in colour, with such a floral aroma and flavour.