Wednesday, February 15, 2012

When is it a good time to buy Oolong?

A couple of readers asked me this question a few days ago. They are planning to order just after I've selected the spring harvests. With harvests in April/May, this could be as late as early June for the best Oolongs coming from Taiwan's highest peaks. This means that they would receive their spring Oolong mid June... just in time for the beginning of summer! It seems too bad that we can't enjoy the spring taste of Oolong during spring.  (Or can we? I'll come back to that a little bit later).

This 'buying just after harvest' strategy makes most sense with green tea, a tea category that is not well suited to aging (with a few exceptions). Green tea leaves have a higher moisture level, which oxidizes at the contact with air. So, the earlier they are brewed, the fresher the taste. The second advantage of this strategy is to make sure that you're getting an early spring harvest (before April 5) when the buds are smallest and their taste most concentrated and fine.

Oolong leaves are harvested with more maturity (and therefore later) than green tea, because they need more strength to withstand their partial oxidation and drying. If the drying is long and hot enough to cause changes in the aroma, it is called roasting. Oolong is therefore more stable than green tea. And rolled Oolong can even be tightly vacuum-packed to further reduce the contact with air to keep it fresh longer. 

The biggest concern for freshness is for the very lightly oxidized and unroasted Oolongs. But the first question isn't how long can they keep fresh? The first question is to ask oneself is if they are good (for your body). While green tea is best brewed light (few leaves and lots of water), Oolong is best brewed with a higher ratio of leaves for water. Sometimes, such low oxidized Oolong can feel uncomfortable for the stomach. It feels too 'green', too raw. Its only advantage is a very light, flowery fragrance. But this scent is also likely to change and sour within a few weeks after opening the vacuum sealed pack. For these reasons, this is not the kind of Oolong I select.
The High Mountain Oolongs I list in my selection have more a deep flower, light fruity scent kind of oxidation and a longer than average drying. This ensures that their taste will feel pleasant for the body and that they can be stored well for quite some time. Actually, because I emphasize Oolongs that are well dried, they do feel a little bit dry early on. A little resting time will refine them and add smoothness. When do they peak? It's difficult to say for sure. This will depend in great measure on how they are stored after they are opened. Vacuum packed and kept in a cool and dark place, they are very stable for around 2 years.

Wonderful bowl by Michel François
If the Oolong has received a nice spring Hung Shui Oolong kind of medium roast, the leaves will be even drier and more likely to age well. Roasting is a real success when it manages to give more sweetness, deeper aromas and a longer aftertaste while preserving the freshness, the liveliness of the taste. This is, for instance, the case with the Shan Lin Shi spring Oolong I brought to Kending's Youth Activity Center where I took these pictures.
It's one of my favorite teas. The harmony between the traditional hungpei (roasting) and the spring freshness is just right. And it fits so well here, in this Chinese courtyard house, where my modern porcelain mixes with these ancient surroundings.And it leaves such a long lasting aftertaste...

So, almost any time is a good time to purchase well made Oolong. For Hung Shui Oolongs, I would even recommend to consider the oldest first, before they sell out. The best strategy, in my opinion, is to taste/test a small quantity first and order a bigger quantity later if you find an Oolong that really appeals to you.
The qinghua jar refines Hung Shui Oolong

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