Good tea comes from good plants. The soil, the weather, the climate, the time of picking, and the age and health of the plant all dictate the quality of the leaf. One cannot make great tea with inferior leaf; however, good leaf does not always ensure top quality tea. The best leaf does not inherently translate into great tea. It takes the hand of a master to bring out the best in a tea leaf.
In the case of Taiwanese Oolong tea, skilled hands are needed for every step of the process. Careful hand picking, even withering, meticulous rolling, and careful drying are all essential to producing a fine batch of oolong. All of these steps are physical actions that are easily observed. Taiwanese tea farmers have it down to a science. Their timing and technique have been carefully perfected and passed down from one generation to the next.
In fact, the major processing steps done at one factory are often almost identical to those done at any other factory producing similar quality tea (pictured above: picking, withering, rolling, repeated pressing and tossing/rolling, and drying/sorting). So what is it that separates one producer’s product from another? The terroir of the garden, or inherent character of the terrain, can be credited with some of the differences, but that has little to do with the human side of the process.
We often hear of teas produced by a “master’s hand”. If the process is so similar from one factory to another, where does the tea master come in? Well, in Taiwan it often comes in the final step… the roasting.
Not all Taiwanese teas are roasted, but for those that are, there is a certain reverence among producers for those that do it well. It is a point of pride and honor to be considered a skilled roaster of oolong tea.
Spring Tea Competition in Lugu
In fact, Tung Ting, one of the most famous Taiwanese oolongs, is often judged by how well it has been roasted. It is quite common for people to buy large quantities of un-roasted tea, roast it themselves at home, and re-sell it for a profit. Even many competitors in the Lugu Farmer’s Association’s prestigious Spring Tea Festival are not the original growers, but actually just roasters!
By roasting tea, an individual can leave his or her mark on a tea, forever changing its character and creating something entirely new. Here at Stone Leaf Teahouse, we are adding a new chapter to this long tradition of tea roasting by bringing this ancient art to Middleburry, Vermont. Tea can’t be grown in the northern US, but we can create a tea unique to our shop through this amazing process. Our in-house roasted oolongs are one of a kind. Their varied flavors and unique character can’t be found anywhere else. We start with fresh, high quality finished tea and transform it into something new and totally our own.
Traditional lidded bamboo roasting basket over charcoal
The art of tea roasting is a skillful manipulation of time and temperature. The best roasting is done in small batches in bamboo baskets. Long ago, the heat source was charcoal or open flame, but nowadays in Taiwan, electric coils are used. Un-roasted oolong tea is bright green and brews a light yellow/green liquor. Heavy roasting produces a darker, richer brew with, obviously, more roasted flavor, though subtler flavors can also be developed. Roasting can bring out a floweriness, a sweetness, and/or a smooth creaminess in certain teas. It is up to the master to bring out the best in each tea.
A modern tea roaster that utilizes racks like an oven
The roasting process can take anywhere from a few hours to several days or weeks. During this time, the tea master must carefully watch, smell, and taste the tea so that he or she can control and manipulate the process. Flavors will come and go over time, and the tea will continue to change for a short time even after it has been taken away from the heat source.
Because of this constant change, the tea master must anticipate the changes and stop the process before the tea reaches its best. Too long and that perfect flavor will disappear, but too short and it will never attain its pinnacle. It is a subjective process that takes lots of experience, plenty of patience, and a bit of luck!
Tie Guan Yin
One example of a heavily roasted oolong is our Tie Guan Yin. This tea, produced and roasted in Taiwan, has a rich brown leaf color. The aroma of the dry leaves is nutty and slightly smokey. The liquor of the tea is a beautiful golden brown, and the flavor is sweet with notes of caramel and dried fruit. After the initial processing of this tea, the leaf was a deep green. The flavor was probably slightly green with a bit of floweriness, similar to the more common Chinese Tie Guan Yin variety. However, the tea master in Taiwan created an entirely new tea through a long roasting process. Although we don’t know the exact details (tea masters must keep their secrets), this tea was roasted at a high temperature, for long intervals, over the course of two months. The roaster was able to use high temperatures to give this tea a rich, dark color and taste with out imparting any burnt flavors. Surely the hand of a master roaster!
The Tie Guan Yin is a bold tea that really showcases the strong flavors that roasting can produce. Our house-roasted oolongs, however, show another, more subtle side of tea roasting.
Stone Leaf Teahouse’s tea roaster
Our roasting machine comes directly from Taiwan and is a standard size for professional small batch roasting. The first tea we tried roasting was Tung Ting in 2009.
Tea shop in Lugu with brew station, loose tea, and roaster in far back
Tung Ting is traditionally roasted in Taiwan, although sometimes it is left un-roasted for those who enjoy a greener oolong. We started by purchasing a large batch of finished, but un-roasted tea directly from a farmer in Lugu township. Back in Vermont, through careful experimentation, we produced one batch of lightly roasted and another batch of medium roasted Tung Ting. The results were a hit. The sharper, green flavors of the tea had mellowed and new and intriguing flavors had developed. Both batches quickly sold out and we began experimenting with different teas and different techniques.
Four Seasons in the roaster
Four Seasons Oolong is a Taiwanese hybrid tea varietal that has gained in popularity over the past decade. Known as Si Ji Chun (Four Season Spring), this variety is prized for its light, fresh, and fragrant character. The name comes from the fact that it produces this great, flowery, “spring tea” flavor year round. Because of this special character, this tea is rarely roasted in Taiwan, but we felt that it had potential as a roasted oolong. Diving into uncharted territory with a new tea, we aimed for a nice, full, medium to heavy roast. We started by roasting it for two long days with the temperature peaking out at about 110 degrees Celsius.
Stone Leaf roasted 4 Seasons
We then let the tea rest for a few days before doing a shorter, final day of roasting. After another few days of rest, the leaves had turned deep green with slight reddish brown highlights. The aroma was still flowery, but different. Lilly and honeysuckle were replaced by a deeper rose fragrance with a touch of molasses. The flavor of this tea is savory with a distinct toasted, nutty character.
House Roasted Four Seasons Oolong
Our next adventure in roasting began just this past month with the arrival of new winter oolongs from Taiwan. One of these new arrivals was Gui Fei Cha. This tea is produced in Lugu (Tung Ting area) and at first glance, appears to be a fairly standard rolled, green oolong. What makes this tea different, however, is what happens to it before it is even picked.
Gui Fei Cha
Leaf hoppers, a kind of sap sucking insect and natural enemy of most farmers, are actually the friend of some tea farmers. When leaf hoppers bite a tea plant at the right time, the leaves begin to wither on the plant. This produces a distinctly soft and sweet flavor in the final tea. This process is also what makes Bai Hao, another oolong produced in northern Taiwan, so unique.
Like Tung Ting, Gui Fei Cha is normally roasted and the batch we received this winter was no different. It had been lightly roasted by a friend in Taiwan, but it retained some of its green, astringent flavor. The tea was delicious, but we were curious to see if we could push it closer to perfection.
Gui Fei Cha
As this tea was already slightly roasted, we decided to do a low temperature roast for about one and a half days, just to nudge it along. The resulting tea was a wonderfully balanced, medium roast oolong. The green mellowed, the liquor had more body, and the sweetness really rose to the top. The brewed tea looks darker and has more body than our roasted Four Seasons, but the roasted flavor is lighter. The Four Seasons has an up-front toasty flavor, while the Gui Fei Cha’s flavor is more well rounded and the roasting is more subtle. Unlike other rolled Taiwanese oolongs, this tea has little floral aroma or taste. It is strong, savory, and has lasting mouth flavor.
Li Shan Oolong
The last in-house roasted oolong on our menu is our new winter Li Shan. High mountain grown oolongs, like this Li Shan, are most often left un-roasted. Sometimes, a tea master will chose to lightly roast a high mountain oolong, but they are hardly ever heavily roasted. The high mountain growing conditions produce a vibrant, delicate, complex, and captivatingly aromatic tea. The tea we received, sourced from the Cing Jing Farm area just outside of Li Shan, was highly enjoyable, but we felt that a little roasting might make it even better. Part of the fun of having your own roaster, is that you can change or redefine any tea on a whim. It’s often a bit of a gamble, especially with a great high mountain oolong like the Li Shan. We did not want to lose that great high mountain taste, so we did a short low temperature roast just to try and bring out some of the more complex favors. The result was a great success. The Li Shan retained it’s clean and crisp high mountain flavor, but it also developed a slightly creamy, buttery character. The resulting tea reminded me of a cross between a fresh pine and flowery Li Shan and a creamy, coconut Ali Shan. In the end, the lightly roasted Li Shan makes for a richer, more enjoyable tea drinking experience.
The Taiwanese say that a young man prefers un-roasted tea and an old man prefers heavily roasted tea. Un-roasted tea is fresh, vibrant, and energetic, while more heavily roasted teas are smooth, mellow, and have a depth of flavor that can only come from an experienced hand. Regardless of you age or preferences, there is plenty to explore in the world of oolongs.
Four Seasons, Gui Fei Cha, and Li Shan
It is always assumed that tea is something grown, produced, and perfected in Asia. It is never considered that we in the west will ever be able attain the tea master’s touch. It may be a long time before tea can be referred to as a local product here in New England, but by developing our own roasting methods, we can truly say that these teas are, at least in part, hand crafted in Vermont. Just like local coffee roasters and beer brewers have already done, we can develop our own local tea culture and encourage active experimentation and creativity in the art of tea. Our house roasted oolongs are just the beginning!
The best part is getting to taste!
You can browse our selection of roasted and un-roasted oolong teas, or explore all our teas here!