Tea Education

What is White Tea?

More so than any other article in our "What is Tea" series, the answer to "what is white tea" feels elusive and delicate, much like white tea itself.

Partly this feeling of ambiguity around white tea may be a volume issue - white tea is only made from the bud and perhaps first two leaves of the tea plant (camellia sinensis), and then only from the first harvest in spring. This harvest occurs in a narrow two or three week window in the early spring and can only take place in dry weather conditions (i.e., no rain and low humidity). Additionally, white teas are only produced in the Fujian Province in China (with some more recent productions in Darjeeling), further limiting total production.

Is it any wonder, then, that White Teas are less known and less widely understood? That white tea feels precious and ephemeral and not wholly tangible?

silver needle white tea in a bamboo scoop with teapot and cup

The Origins of White Tea

Like most types of tea, the origins of White Tea are shrouded in myth and the mists of time. What we do know for certain is that White Tea comes to us from Fujian Province, now primarily from Fuding, and that it gets its name from the furry white down that coats the buds known as "Hao". 

White Tea was popularized within China during the Song Dynasty (920-1269), but there are references to White Tea dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Like many of the world's famous teas, White Tea came into popularity as a favored tribute tea, and may at one time have been solely reserved for royalty. 

It wouldn't be until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) popularized loose leaf tea that white tea as we know it today began to be produced. Prior to this transition, all tea was pressed into cakes and often powdered and whisked like matcha, rather than steeped. 

During the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), Fuding White Tea was discovered in 1857. This new cultivar had a dense pekoe (young leaf) growth with large, fragrant buds. It is from these trees that the first Silver Needle white teas were made.

Though this type of tea is centuries old - and was even a tribute tea to emperors - white tea remains one of the least studied and discussed types of tea, especially in the West. This is in part due to its relatively small production yields and delicate nature - at the beginning of the tea trade it simply would have been impossible to export White Tea to the West, as it most certainly would have been compromised on the rough and moist ocean or overland voyages to Europe.

But in recent years White Tea has been getting more attention, not least due to its potential to have even more healthful properties than long-admired Green Tea. So what is White Tea?

How is White Tea Made?

Production Methods for White Tea

White Tea is made primarily in Fuding in the Fujian Province in China. White Tea is the least handled of all the tea types, undergoing minimal processing so the first, downy buds of spring retain the delicate, burgeoning flavor of new growth.

1. Plucking

Springtime's first downy buds, and perhaps the first two leaves, are harvested by hand during a two week period in late March or early April. This harvest is very delicate and can only be done in dry weather, making white teas the most susceptible to poor harvest years.

2. Withering

The leaves are spread out to dry on bamboo racks for 12 to 14 hours. Sometimes fans are used to increase the air circulation and speed drying.

3. Sorting

Broken leaves and other residue are sorted out with sieves of differing sizes. Larger pieces like stems and branches are removed by hand. 

Did you notice something missing??

If you've been reading our other What Is Tea series blogs, you may have noticed a glaring omission in the processing of White Teas: there's no mention of oxidation or halting oxidation! 

This is not a mistake! Part of what makes White Teas so delicate and unusual is their lack of oxidation, as well as their lack of a step in the process to completely stop enzymatic oxidation. Even Green Teas undergo heating (either panning in China or steaming in Japan) to deactivate the enzyme that causes oxidation. But White Teas do not - they are allowed to dry fully on their own, with minimal interference from their producers. 

This is one of the reasons we think of White Teas as delicate, and a big reason why they were not good candidates for export prior to the modern age.  

Types of White Tea

There are five main types of white tea:

Yin Zhen (Silver Needle) - The most desirable white tea, Yin Zhen is made from only long, needle-like silver buds that are uniform in shape and color. Generally Yin Zhen is light on the palate with floral and woodsy notes.

Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) - Second only to Yin Zhen, Bai Mu Dan is a premium white tea consisting of silvery buds and the first two leaves. Generally, Bai Mu Dan is sweeter on the palate with floral and sweet spice notes.

Gongmei (Tribute Eyebrow) - Made of young leaves but no buds, Gongmei has a more robust flavor and finish than Yin Zhen or Bai Mu Dan.

Shou Mei (Noble Eyebrow) - Usually made from the leaves not deemed suitable for Yin Zhen or Bai Mu Dan production, Noble Eyebrow is still a quality tea. Expect similar flavors to green oolong.

Fujian New Craft - Production of this new type of White Tea began in the 1960's, and yields a less fragrant but more robustly flavored cup. 

Is White Tea Low in Caffeine?

Made from downy buds and perhaps the first two leaves, White Tea has a reputation for being delicate - delicate in preparation, handling, color, taste, and even caffeine levels.

But new research is challenging conventional thought on the caffeine levels of White Tea, and it is becoming evident that which White Tea you are drinking and how you infuse your White Tea plays a large role in how caffeinated your cup will be. 

Silver Needle White tea is comprised solely of the tea plant's first downy spring buds. These buds are covered in little, white downy hairs that both give White Tea its name and protect the bud from the vagaries of spring weather patterns. And it's these little downy hairs that play havoc with caffeine levels in your cup. 

The downy hairs on White Tea buds are hydrophobic, meaning they are designed by nature to keep the buds from becoming saturated with moisture and then being harmed by frost should temperatures dip below freezing overnight.

This hydrophobic nature of the buds of course plays into how you steep white tea - and also how much of the caffeine, polyphenols, and amino acids are extracted from the tea. 

As with most teas, longer steep times correspond to more extraction of all elements of the tea leaf, including caffeine. Higher temperature steeps will also lead to higher caffeine concentrations. 

In general, if you are looking for a lower caffeine traditional tea, Silver Needles may be your answer if you steep them at a low temperature for a relatively short period. But we recommend a stem and leaf tea (like Kukicha or Wood Dragon) or a roasted tea (like Hojicha) or a wild tea (like Nan Mei Wild Buds) instead. 

How to Steep White Tea

We'll go into more detail on this in our How to Steep White Tea blog, but in general you can think of White Tea as "low and slow". We recommend brewing at 175-185° F for 3-7 minutes depending on the composition of your white tea. Brew towards the longer end of the interval for Silver Needle teas and the shorter end for bud and leaf or leaf-only teas. 

 Shop White Tea Green button with Bee logo

Sources: 

Gascoyne, K., Marchand François, Desharnais, J., & Américi Hugo. (2016). Tea: History, terroirs, varieties. Firefly Books. Ltd.

Zhang, Haihua, et al. “Influence of Brewing Conditions on Taste Components in Fuding White Tea Infusions.” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, vol. 97, no. 9, 2016, pp. 2826–2833., https://doi.org/10.1002/jsfa.8111.

Taiwanese Oolongs: History, Production & Terroir

Taiwan is a small archipelago with the perfect climate for cultivating tea. Though their tea growing history is comparatively short, Taiwan's tea growing regions are some of the most famous and highly regarded in the world. 

We've previously discussed oolongs and their history in general, but the Taiwanese oolongs are so special and unique they deserve an entire post of their own!

hands presenting steeped and dry taiwanese oolong leaves infront of cups of brewed tea

In this photo, you can clearly see how the dry beads on the right unfurl to reveal large, full leaves when steeped (center).

History of Tea Production in Taiwan

Just off the coast of China, across the South China Sea, Taiwan has a complicated history with tea. Though native, wild tea trees have been found in southern Taiwan near Kaoshan, the history of tea and tea production in Taiwan is inevitably linked to the long history of world powers vying for control of the tea trade and this strategically located island, ideal for exporting goods to Europe.

It was the Dutch, who controlled the island in the 17th century, who first began the tea trade on Taiwan. But it was after Taiwan was annexed to China in 1683 by the Qing dynasty that a wave of immigration brought with it tea plants, seeds, and production expertise. Many of these immigrants were from the Anxi and Wuyi Mountain areas of the Fujian Province (where oolong teas are believed to have originated). 

At first families cultivated tea for their own consumption, but over time the tea trade started to develop, becoming more substantial around the end of the 18th century. This slow increase in tea production caught the eye of European traders, and in 1866 John Dodd became involved in in the trade, offering to finance tea plantations and set up factories for tea processing (eliminating the need to send the leaves to Fujian for the final stages of processing). 

The Japanese then occupied the island from 1895 to 1945 and greatly encouraged black tea production to take advantage of the demand for this type of tea in the US and Europe - as well as avoid competing with Japan's own green tea production. Further development of the tea industry was highly encouraged under Japanese occupation, with the government offering training courses and gifting plants and fertilizers to Taiwanese peasants. 

After the second world war, focus for the tea industry in Taiwan shifted yet again with the arrival of the Chinese. Now production was mostly oriented to green teas being exported to North Africa, and in 1965, Japan. But during the 1970s, strong competition from China and Japan forced Taiwan to reassess its role in the tea market once again, shifting focus to production of the local favorite: oolong. Fortuitously, household income for most Taiwanese had increased during this time, and tea growers serving a domestic market were able to focus on quality instead of quantity. These changes and skillful introduction by the government of educational programs like tea festivals, museums, etc. directly led to the production of the beautiful Taiwanese oolongs we so enjoy today. Quality has become such an important marker for Taiwanese tea producers that there are many contests in tea producing regions. Winning the prize, of course, increases the value of the tea!

By the numbers: To give you an idea of just how important domestic tea production is to Taiwan, growers produce around 16,500 tons of tea every year and Taiwan exports less than 1/4 of that yield (around 4,100 tons). The rest is consumed domestically. All 12,000 tons of it!

What Makes Taiwanese Oolongs So Special?

Taiwan - Tea Regions, Topography & Terroir

Google Maps View of Taiwan with topography

Taiwan is an archipelago with one main island just across the South China Sea from China. Taiwan has a very special combination of topography and climate that makes their western regions an ideal environment for producing tea. 

You can see in this topographical map courtesy of Google Maps that a large, long, and tall mountain range runs down the middle and eastern sides of Taiwan. The Zhong Yang San Mai mountain range protects the western third of the island from storms coming in off the ocean from the west. This, combined with temperate conditions that rarely drop below 55° F and an average rainfall of 79" a year, makes the western slopes of the mountain range a wonderfully hospitable climate for growing tea. 

Taiwan's Main Tea Regions

Taiwan has several different tea growing regions, many with one or more mountains famous for their particular terroir and tea production. 

District of Nantou

Located in the center of Taiwan, Nantou is the principle growing region on the island and includes both Mount Dong Ding and Mount Shan Lin Xi

Producing around 12,000 tons per year, Nantou produces over half the tea grown in Taiwan. However, outside the famous mountains of Dong Ding and Shan Lin Xi, both of which are home to exceptional tea gardens, much of the tea produced in Nantou is of medium quality. This may in part be attributed to the high volume of tea produced, as well as advanced mechanization and processing of tea harvests shipped to Nantou from other areas of Taiwan.

Mount Dong Ding & Mount Shan Lin Xi

Celebrated for their high altitude teas, Mount Dong Ding hosts tea gardens that produce oolongs at 1,650 - 2,600 feet and Mount Shan Lin Xi is home to gardens that reach as high as 5,400 feet. Dong Ding is known for its honeyed notes of lilac and vanilla. Shan Lin Xi teas are sweetly vegetal with aromas of cherry and white flowers.

District of Taipei

In the north, Taipei is the original home of tea in Taiwan, and it is still the second-most important growing region. As Taipei became less important as a key location for exporting teas, and the area grew more industrialized, many tea plantations moved south to Nantou. Still, Pinglin and the Mucha Mountains are home to many beautiful gardens. 

Pinglin & The Mucha Mountains

A village to the west of Taipei, Pinglin is home to a type of twisted leaf oolong known as Bao Zhong. Most Taiwanese oolongs today are rolled into little beads, making Pinglin Bao Zhong rather rare among Taiwanese oolongs. The Mucha Mountains are home to the Tie Guan Yin cultivar, brought to the mountains south of Taipei by the Tsang brothers from Anxi, China in 1875. Mucha Tie Guan Yin is known for its intense, roasted flavor. 

District of Chia Yi

If tea production in Taiwan as a whole is relatively new, tea production in the Chia Yi district is in its infancy. Yet this small but mighty region produces some of Taiwan's best known Gao Shan Cha, or high-altitude teas. 

Ali Shan Mountain & Yu Shan Mountain

Ali Shan is home to several gardens at altitudes between 2,300 and 5,600 feet. A protected park with soaring evergreens at high altitudes and lush vegetation that gives way to palm trees, banana trees, and other fruit trees at the base, the beauty of this mountain shows through in the teas produced there. Ali Shan merges with Mount Yu Shan. Though Yu Shan peaks at 12,966 feet, its tea plantations are at around 4,250 feet. Teas from this region tend to have heady and rich floral aromas with supple, smooth liquors that give off notes of the exotic fruits and flora found on these mountains. 

District of Hsinchu

Home of the famed Oriental Beauty, Hsinchu is in northwestern Taiwan, an area of plains that lie at about 650 feet above sea level. This region produces mainly dark oolongs that are oxidized between 40 and 60 percent. Included among these is Oriental Beauty, the bug bitten oolong that is the most popular tea in Taiwan. 

Districts of Hualien and Taitung

Both located on the eastern coast of Taiwan, these regions are lesser known. In recent years Hualien has been moving towards organic productions, but its gardens are more subject to the capricious nature of storms coming in off the ocean. These regions generally produce different kinds of tea, not just oolong. 

District of Taichung

Like Chia Yi, this district is young but mighty. Only around 20 years old, tea production in this central district focuses on the high mountain oolongs produced on Li Shan and Da Yu Lin Mountains. 

Li Shan and Da Yu Lin Mountains

Li Shan (Pear Mountain) is home to growing areas between 5,250 and 8,700 feet. This area has traditionally been home to fruit orchards, but high demand is shifting focus so rapidly the government has had to step in to avoid excessive expansion into tea and away from fruit. Nearby, the gardens on Da Yu Lin Mountain are at an altitude of 8,500 feet and among the highest anywhere in the world.

The Terroir of High Altitude Taiwanese Teas - Gao Shan Cha

The distinction of Gao Shan Cha, or high-altitude tea grown above 3,300 feet, is relatively unique to Taiwan (only Sri Lanka joins Taiwan in distinguishing between high-altitude and low-altitude teas). With some of the highest elevation tea gardens in the world, it makes sense that Taiwan would distinguish between low- and high-altitude tea, but what makes altitude worth distinguishing?

High-Altitude Climates & Their Effects on Tea

Anyone who's gone hiking in and around our beautiful local peaks in the Adirondacks will tell you that a warm sunny day at the base of the mountain can be a bit chilly and cloudy by the time you reach the peak.

To put the mountains in Taiwan in perspective for those familiar with the Adirondack State Park, Mt Marcy - the highest point in New York - has an elevation of 5,344 feet (1,629 meters). Mount Ali Shan in Taiwan is 8,737 feet (2,663 meters), with some of its tea gardens reaching to 5,600 feet above sea level - higher than the highest point of Mt Marcy! And Mount Ali Shan is not even the highest tea producing peak in Taiwan!

The climate in Taiwan is temperate, but even on sunny days the high-altitude tea gardens often experience fog and low-lying clouds that linger in the mornings and evenings. This low-lying, misty cloud cover acts much like the man-made shading techniques in Japan, naturally forcing the tea plants to work harder for sunlight, concentrating their leaves with sweet chlorophyll. The high-altitude shoots are extremely dark green and concentrated in amino acids and nitrogen compounds. The fog also has the additional effect of moistening the leaves, keeping them tender and supple - perfect for later processing into the characteristic rolled beads.  

Additionally, the temperatures are just enough cooler at altitude to slow the growth of the tea trees. Slower growth means the plants' aromatic oils are more concentrated in the leaves of high-altitude teas than their lower-altitude counterparts. 

All this combines with the specific terroir of each mountain to produce teas that are more complexly aromatic and flavorful than their lower-altitude brethren. 

Taiwanese Oolong Tea Production

The Taiwanese differentiate between lightly oxidized oolongs (10 ~ 30%) and more oxidized oolongs (40 ~ 70%), referring to oolongs with less oxidation as green oolong and oolongs with more oxidation as black oolong. Both teas follow a similar production process, with the black oolongs spending longer in the oxidation phase. 

Processing Green Oolong Teas

Day 1

Day one of oolong production concentrates on the very important, delicate, and instinctive task of oxidation.

  1. Plucking - Plucking on the mountainous slopes of Taiwan's most famous tea gardens is done manually, mainly by women. For the tea plants to be ready for processing into oolong tea, the bud and the three following leaves must be open before plucking. 
  2. Withering - Picked leaves are spread out on large sheets for 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the weather. This withering stage drys the leaves slightly so their moisture does not damage the leaves in processing.
  3. Oxidation - Oxidation determines the final flavor of the tea and is still largely instinctual, requiring experienced tea growers. Oxidation releases the aromas and begins stabilizing the leaves. Growers will spread out leaves on bamboo trays in a controlled temperature environment of about 68 - 77° F, with humidity of 60 - 85%. The leaves are then stirred at 1 - 4 hour intervals to create friction, breaking down the cellular structure of the leaves. This releases the aromatic oils and thus starts the enzymatic process of oxidation. Oxidation may take 10 to 18 hours and is not a science but an instinct. Experienced tea growers will touch and sniff the leaves to know the precise right time to stop oxidation.
  4. Firing - Enzymatic oxidation is halted by heating the leaves once the leaves have reached their required level of oxidation. This is done by placing the leaves in a heated rotating cylinder. The leaves are heated to 572° F for about 5 - 7 minutes.  
  5. Rolling - Right after firing, the warm leaves are rolled by a mechanical arm for about three to five minutes.
  6. Drying - This first drying stabilizes the aromas and removes residual moisture. They start drying low, at about 158° for 5 - 6 minutes, then increase the temperature to 212° for another 20 minutes to a half hour. After this heating, the leaves are spread out on bamboo trays and left to stand overnight (6 - 8 hours).

Day 2

1. Shaping - On Day 2, the Taiwanese follow an important and repetitive cycle that will be repeated dozens of times. The steps are first repeated 10 - 20 times in a heated cylinder and then 30 - 40 times in a non-heated cylinder. It is this long, labor-intensive cycle that creates the distinctive, characteristic bead shape.
  • Heating / Stirring - First the leaves are softened in a heated, rotating cylinder for a few minutes.
  • Rolling - Next the leaves are divided into 44 pound packages, wrapped in a special fabric, then placed in a special machine that compresses it into a round shape using four rotating rollers.
  • Compression - Another machine then turns and rolls these fabric-wrapped packages for about 10 minutes while applying compression pressure.

2. Final Drying - Final drying further stabilizes aromas and ensures there is no  more than 2 - 3% moisture remaining in the leaves. Final Drying lasts        around 5 - 10 minutes at around 212° F.

3. Sorting - Although this could be mechanized, usually the remaining small stems are removed by hand. Sorting is a purely aesthetic - and extremely tedious - part of the process, making the teas look more beautiful, but not affecting the taste.

4. Roasting (Optional) - Most producers in Taiwan do not roast their oolongs, though some consumers do ask for this step, which imparts a characteristic toasty and somewhat nutty flavor to the teas. Typically, this step would be done not by the grower but by the tea merchants. In roasting, the leaves are heated one final time in either an electric oven or in bamboo baskets over an electric heater, then stirred at 20 - 30 minute intervals for 2 - 60 hours. Roasting balances the flavors of the liquor and produces a sweeter and less astringent cup, while also reducing the caffeine levels in the tea.

 

Processing Black Oolong Teas

We will not go into as much detail about the process for Black Oolong Teas, as it is essentially the same we described in our What is Oolong Tea? blog. Black oolong teas are generally twisted instead of rolled, eliminating the need for the second day of processing that includes the rolling and compression cycle. The steps for making a black oolong are as follows:

  1. Plucking
  2. Withering
  3. Oxidation
  4. Panning
  5. Rolling
  6. Drying & Firing

Learn more about processing black oolongs >>

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Sources: 

Gascoyne, K., Marchand François, Desharnais, J., & Américi Hugo. (2016). Tea: History, terroirs, varieties. Firefly Books. Ltd.

    What is Oolong Tea?

    Oolongs are among the teas that are simultaneously most beloved by those who drink them and most ignored by those who don't. Part of this stems from their name: oolong. Green teas and black teas are obvious. Green teas are green and taste, well, green. Black teas are dark and taste dark. But oolongs? Oolongs sound fancy and unapproachable. 

    Today we're going to lift the veil and completely demystify oolongs, from taste profiles to production methods and regions to the best and most famous oolongs. 

    First, what is in a name? In Chinese, the name for what we call Oolong in the west is actually two characters meaning black (wū) dragon (long): 烏龍. This name is thought to refer to the shape of the leaves after they've been rolled into balls that resemble little dragons.

    Oolong, sometimes spelled wulong or wu-lung in English, is a semi-oxidized tea that goes through unique processing and can range from 10% - 70% oxidation. Because of this unique processing, oolong teas often have a mellow and balanced tannin without the astringency of green or black teas.

    (Note: For the purposes of this blog and explaining certain parts of the history of oolong tea, we will probably bounce around between the different spellings.)

    The Origins of Oolong Tea

    three white dishes against wood holding gabacha oolong wet leaves, dry leaves, and brewed tea

    I'm More Interested in How to Brew Oolong Tea >>

    China - The Birthplace of Oolong

    The official origin of oolong teas is lost to history, but there are several origin myths, if you will, that make convincing arguments. 

    Two origins hold that oolong teas likely originated in the Fujian province as part of a tea tradition known as Beiyuan - a type of tea given as tribute to the emperor. Located around the Phoenix (Fenghuang) Mountain in Fujian, which still produces some of the world's best teas today, this famous Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) tea was compressed in little cakes. 

    The first origin story holds that oolong tea came into being as the aforementioned Beiyuan tribute teas transitioned from tea cakes to loose leaf teas, when the cakes fell out of favor with royalty during the Song Dynasty. The two tribute teas are long (dragon) and Fenghuang (phoenix). In this story, the new form of processing gave rise to the name Black Dragon, or oolong in English. 

    The next story is that during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 CE) a man nicknamed Wulong in the Anxi region of Fujian became distracted during the harvest and accidentally allowed his leaves to oxidize. This is very, very similar to the founding myth of black tea, which blames an inconveniently invading army for interrupting the harvest, causing the good townfolk to abandon their crop and allow the leaves to fully oxidize. 

    The final origin story for oolong assumes that oolong was named for the Wuyi mountain range, where it was documented in 12th century Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) poems. This theory makes a lot of sense to those of us in the west because Wuyi sounds an awful lot like wulong, and many of the most famous Chinese rock oolongs hail from this region. Neat, right? But transliteration is a tricky game, and the Chinese characters for the Wuyi Mountain range literally translate to Mountains of Warrior Barbarians ... nothing to do with the color black OR dragons. 

    This brings us to a brief side note on Chinese words in English:

    The characters for oolong are: 烏 (wū, meaning black) 龍 (lóng, meaning dragon)

    The characters for the Wuyi Mountains are: 武 (wǔ, meaning military or warrior) 夷 (yí, meaning barbarian) 山 (shān, meaning mountain)

    It is worth noting here that transliteration is very imprecise, and more art than science. Transliteration is essentially the process of taking a word in one language and transcribing it in the alphabet of another language so it is easier to pronounce in that language. An easy example would be the English name Munich for the capital of Bavaria rather than the German München. For character languages like Chinese, transliteration into the Roman alphabet used in English is very imprecise and words are often written many ways. Hence: oolong, wulong, and wu-lung. 

    You can see, then, why it would be tempting to conflate Wuyi and wulong. After all, we write and pronounce Wulong and Wuyi the same way in English. Alas, the characters are different and pronounced differently in Chinese. The "wu" in wulong is "wū" while the "wu" in Wuyi is "wǔ". 

    All this is a long way to say that the origins of the word oolong are murky, but the simplest answer is probably the correct one: tastes and tea styles changed, and a new type of tea was born.

    Taiwan - A Hospitable Climate

    Taiwan is an island directly across the South China Sea from the Fuijian Province in China. With the very tall Zhong Yang San Mai mountain range in the middle that protects the western side of the island from large storms coming in from the ocean, and a temperate climate that rarely drops below 55° F with over 79 inches of rainfall on average, the Western regions of Taiwan are ideal for growing tea.

    In the early 1800s a tea merchant decided to see if tea would grow in Taiwan. A very hospitable climate for tea, the cultivation of tea quickly spread throughout the island. It wasn't until 1868, however, that the Taiwanese began processing oolongs themselves, having previously sent the leaves to Fujian for processing. John Dodd, a British merchant, decided this was incredibly inefficient and persuaded tea masters from Fujian to begin processing teas in Taipei. Beginning then and continuing till now, oolong is the most exported tea from Taiwan. 

    How is Oolong Made?

    The Process for Making Oolong

    Like most teas, oolongs go through a six or seven step process of plucking, withering, oxidation, firing (halting oxidation using heat), rolling, and drying. After drying, some teas will then be roasted to impart a warm, nutty, almost cereal-like flavor to the teas. 

    The Chinese and Taiwanese tea producers have different methods for producing oolongs, with Taiwanese rolled oolongs like our Ali Shan or Shan Lin Xi going through additional processes on the second day called heating/stirring, rolling, and compression. This process, repeated 10-20 times, is how Taiwanese oolongs are shaped into very tiny, compressed rolls of tea that unfurl when infused into beautiful, full leaves. 

    Oolong Tea & Oxidation Levels

    Oolong can be the most intimidating category of tea because there is no clear cut rule for what oxidation level classifies tea as oolong. Instead, oolongs exist in this nebulous category of semi-oxidized, which can range from 10% - 70% oxidation, making it difficult to say definitively "I like oolongs". You may find that you love high mountain Taiwanese oolongs but you're not a fan of rock oolongs from the Wuyi Mountains, for example. 

    A quick glance at our shelves of oolongs in the store, or the oolong page on our website, nicely visualizes the range in oxidation, from the very lightly oxidized Ali Shan with its pale gold liquor to the heavily oxidized Shui Xian Lao Cong with its liquor of a clear, deep amber.

    You can use both the color of the liquor and the production regions as reliable indicators of whether or not you will enjoy a certain oolong. The best way to figure this out? Taste, taste, taste and taste some more teas!

    What is oxidation?

    Oxidation is a natural enzymatic process that becomes possible as soon as the leaves are plucked from the tea trees. Green tea is an unoxidized tea, so the leaves are handled as little as possible during the withering phase to avoid triggering oxidation, then the leaves are quickly heated to halt natural enzymatic oxidation after being allowed to wither for a short time. Black teas, by contrast, are fully oxidized teas, and this oxidation is further encouraged by rolling the leaves after withering to break down the cell structures that trigger oxidation. 

    You may have guessed by now that oolong teas are the goldilocks of oxidation. Oolongs came into being because tea producers mastered the oxidation process, making it a precise art. This precision allows them to start and stop oxidation to achieve the perfect expression of their leaf and terroir.

    How does oxidation affect the way oolongs taste? 

    Lightly oxidized (green) oolongs will be light in character and have delicate, floral aromas.

    More oxidized (black) oolongs have notes of wood, spice, and fruit and may even have a hint of sweetness.

    The Role Altitude Plays in Oolong Production

    You may have noticed in our discussions up to now that we've mentioned several mountains, both in China and Taiwan. This may, in turn, have caused you to wonder if there's a special connection between either tea and mountains or, more specifically, oolongs and mountains.

    While tea does not need to be grown at higher altitudes, there is a definite correlation between altitude and quality of harvest. Many of the world's best teas come from small, high-altitude gardens, where the terroir (the flavors soil, climate, and environment contribute to a food or beverage) and production methods combine to produce highly flavorful and aromatic teas. 

    Taiwanese High Mountain Oolongs

    All tea trees grown above 3,300 feet (1,000 m) are referred to as Gao Shan Cha, meaning "high altitude tea". Taiwan is one of the only tea producing countries to distinguish between high and low altitude teas, with high altitude oolongs being the more sought after due to their complex aromas and flavors. The colder weather at high altitudes slows the growth of tea trees, concentrating the aromatic oils in the leaves, while thick fog often reduces sunshine to just a few hours per day. As with shading for Japanese green teas, this reduced sunlight increases the plant's chlorophyll production and causes the tea trees to produce amino acid and nitrogen-rich, vibrantly dark green shoots. The fog adds another advantage, moistening the leaves and keeping them soft, which helps the leaves to remain supple and aids in processing. Some beautiful high mountain Taiwanese oolongs include our Ali Shan, Dong Ding, and Shan Lin Xi

    Chinese Rock Oolongs

    Soil and environment also plays a large role in high altitude teas. The most famous example of this would be the rock oolongs from the Wuyi Mountains, which retain the mineral flavors of their rocky, high-altitude soil once brewed. We encourage you to try either Da Hong Pao or Qi Lan Wuyi to experience rock oolong for yourself!

    How Do You Brew Oolong Tea?

    To prepare your oolong, you will first want to look at the dry leaves. If the dry leaves are tightly rolled, we recommend adding a hot water rinse to your usual tea preparation in order to help the leaves unfurl and fully infuse. This step is particularly important when brewing in the gongfu method with a gaiwan or yixing! 

    For a western-style brew, we recommend 5 grams of tea to 16 ounces of water. For most rolled oolongs, this will be about 1 tsp of tea. Twisted oolongs like Da Hong Pao will likely require 1.5 teaspoons because they are more voluminous in their dry state. 

    Most oolongs, regardless of oxidation, will be brewed at 195° F for about 3 minutes in a western-style cup or teapot. You will notice as your tea brews that the tightly furled rolls open to reveal large, full leaves. For this reason, we recommend a large infuser like our 400ml Glass Infuser to make sure your leaves have plenty of room to unfurl and interact with the water.

    A note for those who love milk and sweetener in their teas! We recommend holding off on your usual splash or spoonful and tasting your oolong before diving into your tea preparation ritual. In general, oolong teas have very mild tannin, and you might decide they do not require your usual amount of either milk or honey!

    Learn more about the different methods for brewing Oolong teas >>

    Green box with bee reading: Discover Oolong

    Sources: 

    Gascoyne, K., Marchand François, Desharnais, J., & Américi Hugo. (2016). Tea: History, terroirs, varieties. Firefly Books. Ltd.

     

    What is Black Tea?

    Pouring black tea into a flowered tea cup with a pile of black tea leaves

    The Origins of Black Tea

    Black tea is a delicious, robust tea with warm flavors and an often distinct astringency. It is delicious plain, with a dollop of milk, or sweetened with honey. We drink bracing black teas to warm up on cold winter days, sweet iced black teas to cool down in the summer, and weakly brewed teas with lots of honey for sore throats. For these and many other reasons, black tea is the tea we are most familiar with in the West. But interestingly, black tea is a relative late comer to the tea world and did not exist as we know it today before the 17th century. 

    Prior to the invention / discovery of black tea, most Chinese people consumed primarily green teas and oolongs. In the 17th century, however, Europe began importing tea and a whole new market opened up - but this new market was not without its challenges. It is thought that the Chinese started experimenting with oxidation and fermentation to prolong the shelf-life of teas that now had to make very long ocean or overland voyages to an increasingly voracious foreign market in Europe. And, thus, black tea was born!

    Today, black tea is produced in many different countries, including China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Rwanda, and more!

    How is Black Tea Made?

    If you started reading this article thinking that there is a black tea plant and a green tea plant, you are not alone! This is a common misconception in parts of the world where the tea plant (camellia sinensis) doesn't grow natively - like here in the United States! It is natural to assume that two beverages with such wildly different colors and flavor profiles must come from different plants. In practice, however, how the leaves are processed changes their appearance, flavor, and even chemical composition, creating the beautiful white, green, oolong, black, and pu erh teas we enjoy so much.

    The Process for Making Black Tea

    1. Plucking

    Most black teas are made from mature camellia sinensis leaves and may be plucked either by hand or by machine. Special black teas like golden bud teas and teas known as “beautiful teas” are carefully plucked by hand to ensure composition and quality. 

    2. Withering

    Chinese Black Teas

    During the withering phase, leaves are withered either naturally or mechanically. In natural withering the leaves are spread on the ground or bamboo racks for 5 to 6 hours with frequent stirring. Mechanized withering takes about 4 hours and uses sieves over brick containers that are heated using hot air circulated from wood fires (this gives Chinese black tea its characteristic smoky flavor). Withering removes about 60% of the moisture from the leaves and allows the leaves to soften, preparing them for rolling.

    Indian Black Teas

    In India, producers reduce the water content of leaves by spreading the freshly picked leaves out in withering vats. The leaves are spread on grids of metal, jute, or plastic that allow air to circulate. The humidity and temperature are constantly monitored during withering, and after 14-17 hours the moisture content of the leaves will be reduced by 60-70%. 

    3. Rolling

    Once the leaves are withered and softened, they are rolled by hand or by machine to break down the structure of the cells, triggering enzymatic oxidation. 

    4. Oxidation

    Black tea is fully oxidized, giving the leaves their characteristic dark hue that brews to a beautiful, deep-reddish-brown liquor. How your black tea is oxidized depends on the traditions of the production region and tea estate. 

    Oxidation is the defining step of black tea production, and it all comes down to some pretty interesting chemistry. During oxidation, the originally colorless polyphenols in camellia sinensis leaves are transformed into theaflavins and thearubigins. It is this breakdown that gives black tea its color and astringency - and also leads to the interesting way your body processes the caffeine in different teas (hint: black tea might not be as caffeinated compared to green tea as you think!)

    If your oxidation period lasts too long, the tea will develop a thick liquor and a strong, almost fermented taste. Too little oxidation results in a thin liquor and a green or raw infusion. 

    Chinese Black Teas

    Dependent on the conditions of the day and location, the oxidation process for black teas may last 8-12 hours. During oxidation, the leaves are spread out and covered with wet cloths to further stimulate the enzymatic oxidation reaction. The ambient temperature should be around 72°F. 

    Indian Black Teas

    Indian black teas are spread out on ceramic or steel trays in a humid environment between 68 and 86°F. For quicker oxidation, the leaves are spread in a thin layer. Alternatively, if the producer is looking for a slower oxidation, the layer will be relatively thick. In modern times, humidity may be controlled by a humidifier to maintain at least 90% humidity. Some first flush Darjeelings may only oxidize for 15-30 minutes! Many teas from Assam, in contrast, will oxidize for up to 4 hours. Either way, this is far less time than it takes to oxidize leaves using the traditional Chinese method. 

    5. Drying

    Oxidation is halted and residual moisture is removed using various techniques until the moisture content is down to 2-6%. Most methods in China involve blowing warm air through conveyer belts. Indian black teas are placed on conveyors or revolving trays in heated machines. 

    6. Sorting & Sifting

    At this point in the process, the tea leaves are sorted into different grades and undesirable elements like dust, branches and other residue are removed. In China, higher quality teas are usually hand sifted using a bamboo sieve. In India, the leaves are sorted using vibrating grids of varying sizes placed on top of each other. This keeps the larger leaves on top, intermediate leaves in the middle, and crushed leaves and dust at the bottom. (Fun Fact: In Darjeeling all teas are sorted this way and leaf size is used as an indicator of grade.)

    7. Firing (Optional - Chinese Black Teas Only)

    This last, optional stage of the process further reduces moisture content and aids batch standardization. 

    Is There a Difference Between Chinese Black Teas and Indian Black Teas?

    In an effort to reduce trade reliance on China, the British developed the tea industry in India in the late 19th century. Their focus in this development was as much if not more about efficiency than quality, and almost all Indian teas are processed mechanically. 

    The key differences between Chinese black teas and Indian black teas is characteristic flavor. Most Chinese black teas will have a more mellow tannin and may have a slightly smokier flavor depending on how they are withered and fired. 

    Most Indian black teas, on the other hand, have a more prominent and astringent tannin. If you are a fan of Breakfast Teas, you prefer the strong, robust flavors of an Indian black tea like Assam. Darjeeling is a bit more nuanced with particularly high quality tea estates producing extremely aromatic teas with notes of spice, fruit, and malt.

    These differences in flavor are attributable to both terroir and production. Below we go over some of the key differences between how Chinese and Indian tea producers process black tea.

    The Orthodox Method - India

    Developed around 1860, the Orthodox Method uses a largely mechanized process and is used to produce the higher grade Indian teas. This process includes all the steps mentioned above: Plucking, Withering, Rolling, Oxidation, Drying, and Sorting.

    The CTC Method - India

    Developed in the 1930s, the Crush-Tear-Curl (CTC) method speeds up the oxidation process and increases the quantity and speed of harvest yields. Rather than the more complex Orthodox or Chinese methods for processing black teas, CTC consists only of a quick withering followed by cutting and crushing rather than rolling. The leaves are then further torn apart in a machine called a Rotorvane. Then the leaves are rolled into small beads in a large barrel. Usually the leaves used for CTC teas are of a coarser, inferior quality.

    This method of course revolutionized the tea industry in much the same way that mechanization changed the world during the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, this revolution in efficiency was at the expense of quality in favor of efficiency, volume, and uniformity. 

    Camellia Sinensis Sinensis vs. Camellia Sinensis Assamica

    Most black teas are made from the tea plant camellia sinensis var. assamica. Assamica is native to both India and the Yunnan Province in China, and it was the discovery of assamica in India that allowed the British to establish the tea trade in that country. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, with sinensis referring to China, literally means Chinese tea plant. Today, there are many different cultivars from both var. sinensis and var. assamica grown to produce teas and you will find both varietals in multiple regions. That said, it is safe to assume that if you are drinking a black tea it is likely var. assamica, even if it's not from the Assam region in India!

    How is Black Tea Different from Green Tea?

    Black tea and green tea differ in one major area: oxidation. In green teas, the natural enzymatic oxidation is halted after withering using either steaming (Japan) or panning (China). This additional step of heating the leaves until the enzymes that cause oxidation lose their potency is essential in keeping green teas, well, green!

    What is the Best Black Tea? (Black Tea Grades)

    As with many things, what you think is the best black tea will be subjective and based on your own tastes. With that said, black tea grades are not necessarily an indication of quality, though it is true that most whole leaf teas will be of better quality than crushed. This is because whole leaf teas brew a more nuanced and aromatic infusion while broken and crushed leaves result in a darker liquor with a flatter flavor profile. 

    The three major tea grades are: whole, broken, and crushed, referring to the state of the leaves. 

    If you’re looking for a way to differentiate your whole leaf teas, in China the quality of tea is usually indicated by growing region and producer. You will find that terroir (the character soil conditions impart to a tea) is an excellent way to determine whether or not you will like a particular tea. Both Yunnan and Fujian Provinces are renowned for their black teas and are an excellent place to start your explorations!

    In India, the British and Dutch traders established a complex grading system based on the size and quality of the leaves. 

    Some key grading vocabulary:

    • Tippy - the presence of flowering buds
    • Golden - the tips (buds) that turn golden after oxidation
    • Flowery - the floral aroma released by buds
    • Orange - a historical reference to the first European importers of tea: the Holland-Nassau Dutch royal family 
    • Pekoe - meaning “white down,” pekoe comes from pak-ho and refers to the final bud on the branch typically covered in a fine, white down.
    • Quality Indicators: Special, Finest, 1

    The producers will use the first initials of these grading terms to indicate the quality of the tea. Sometimes they will add Special, Finest, or the numeral 1 to indicate exceptional batches. 

    Our Ceylon Orange Pekoe, therefore, is not an orange flavored black tea, but a whole leaf black tea with buds from Sri Lanka (colonial name: Ceylon)!

    How Do You Prepare Black Tea?

    While there is definitely room for nuance in the preparation of black teas (for example, some First Flush Darjeelings may benefit from a shorter steep and cooler water), most black teas may be brewed for 3 minutes with water that’s just under boiling at 205°F.  

    We recommend 5 grams of tea to 16oz of hot water (this is our standard to-go size at our tea bar). Most mugs at home will hold about 6-8oz of liquid and use 2-3g of tea. Don’t forget whole leaf teas may be re-steeped several times in the Western method at increasing time intervals. 

    For traditional brewing, you will fill your Gaiwan or Yixing about 1/3 full and brew at 205°F for about 45 seconds to 1 minute. Full leaf black teas brewed in this manner will steep 5-6 times at decreasing time intervals as the leaves open more fully. 

    Shop Loose Leaf Black Teas Online Green Button with Saratoga Tea & Honey Bee

    Sources: 

    Gascoyne, K., Marchand François, Desharnais, J., & Américi Hugo. (2016). Tea: History, terroirs, varieties. Firefly Books. Ltd.