Chinese tea fermentation in an image

The level of fermentation is THE element used to categorise teas. For example, green teas are unfermented, Oolong teas are semi-fermented and black teas are fully fermented. The level of fermentation of teas is high associated with its appearance and taste: Green teas are light in colour, more ‘grassy green’ and refreshing in aroma and taste; Black teas are more smooth in texture and often dark yellow and red in tea brew colour.

Chinese Oolong teaA way of illustrating this is through Oolong tea, classified as semi-fermented. Different Oolong teas have various fermentation levels, which is carefully controlled and crucial to the nature of the final product. During Oolong tea’s processing, one of the important steps is to ‘bruise’ the edges of the tea leaves by putting the leaves in a bamboo cylinder and toss around (Yao Qing - 摇青). This process triggers the enzymes to be released from the cells and start a chain of chemical reactions within the tea leaves to facilitate the later fermentation. Once the tea leaves are fermented to the desired level, a process called Chao Qing (炒青) is applied, where the tea leaves are heated (NOT dired!), often in a wok, with highly skilful temperature control to stop the fermentation to progress further.

semi-fermented Oolong teaThe image below is from a semi-fermented Oolong (Zhang Ping Shui Xian). As seen on image, the edges of the tea leaves are red in comparison to the rest of the green ( called ‘green leaf of golden edge’ - 金边绿叶 in Chinese). The red part is where the leaves are fermented and border between the red and the green is where the fermentation stopped.

All teas are categorised around their levels of fermentChinese Oolong teaation, and maybe some additional elements if relevant.

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The Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea

Tie Guan Yin History

Tie Guan Yin (English translation Iron Buddha) is one of the most popular Oolong teas. Some confused it with green tea due to its green appearance. The birth place of Tie Guan Yin is the An-Xi area of the Fu Jian Province, south-east of China. It is therefore often marketed as An-Xi Tie Guan Yin to emphasise its authenticity.

Tie Guan Yin Production

making Tie Guan Yin Oolong teaTie Guan Yin is lightly fermented in comparison to the other Oolong teas, which is what gives it the deep green appearance. Its tastes is also gravitated towards the green tea end of the spectrum, refreshing and fragrant, yet with Oolong teas’ full body flavour and smooth texture. Some describe its fragrance as similar to a mild version of jasmine, but not as strong and over powering and of course it is not scented.
Tie Guan Yin is consumed wildly in south-east China and Asia. It is a very accessible tea and is one of the most popular teas used in Kung-Fu tea tasting.

Tie Guan Yin quality grade

Similar to all other Chinese teas, the quality difference in Tie Guan Yin is vast. From the top quality product which is typically:

  • Harvested from plantations of high altitudes and ideal growth conditions including lack of environmental pollution;
  • Harvested during the optimal time of the year, best being around the Qing Ming period according to the Chinese calendar (April) and under the ideal weather conditions (not too sunny with right level of humidity);
  • Processed with highly traditional skills including many steps and stages, some repeated a few times;
  • Fetching astonishing market prices up to hundreds folds of the lower quality counterparts.

There are also other quality grades for normal tea consumers’ daily consumption.

Organic Tie Guan Yin

The cost of the organic Tie Guan Yin production is relatively higher than the organic green teas, mainly due to the more mature leaves it uses, and thus requiring logger organic care. Organic Tie Guan Yin has a lighter fragrance and flavour.

Tie Guan Yin is a tea of must try. I however recommend the naive tea drinkers not to start from the top grade as it can take a little while to appreciate the subtle differences, similar to premium wines in this regard.

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What is so unique about the Chinese Oolong tea

Chinese Oolong tea

Many tea drinkers now are quite aware of green teas, and black teas have been consumed in the west for quite some time, but what is Oolong tea?

Understand Oolong tea from the tea categorisation and production

Oolong tea countryTeas are categorised based on the degree of the fermentation during their processing. Oolong tea is a class of Chinese teas that are semi-fermented, between the unfermented green teas and fully fermented black teas. Oolong tea is a family of teas and is exclusively Chinese. It originated from the Fu Jian Province, South-east of China. There are currently three major areas in China that produce almost all Oolong teas in the world: the Fu Jian Province, the Guang Dong Province and Taiwan.

Oolong tea is believed to have originated in the Wu-Yi area of the Fu Jian Province. The translation of Oolong into English is Dark Dragon.

Oolong tea is a family of teas

Like all other classes of Chinese teas, Oolong tea is a family of teas. The degree of fermentation varies depending on the tea type, some are lightly fermented (eg Tie Guan Yin / Iron Buddha) and the others are substantially more fermented (eg Da Hong Pao and Phoenix Single Bush). Due to it semi-fermented nature, Oolong teas possess green tea’s refreshing properties and black tea’s smooth texture. The individual teas also have their individual unique aroma produced through their highly skilful processing techniques. Oolong teas have been long loved by tea lovers in China and worldwide. I will provide some detail description of individual/sub-group Oolong teas in the subsequent blog posts to assist the tea lovers to have a closer look and taste of the individual varieties, which are vastly different in many aspects. 

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