07 December 2009

Going Green

I'm lucky to be in Taiwan during tea competition season.  I prefer winter season teas to spring season ones; I think they have more body, but sometimes at the cost of smoothness and/or fragrance.

I've already tried some competition-grade Alishan and Baozhong, among other teas.  After several seasons of trying various competition-winnings teas, I am certain that the general trend for teas is becoming greener in taste.  Oxidation and roasting levels are lowering.  Judges are, in theory, reflecting upon the taste demands of consumers.

The trend of going green in teas is a shame.  Greener teas require less work and don't need as strong of a tea base to produce (although the best ones will still have a very good tea base).  Producers are incentivized to do less work and create teas that are closer to the green tastes of winning teas.  More and more tea fields are maximized for production versus quality, and the result is inferior grade product.  Over time, tea masters lose their skills, and the art of roasting - which is all-important for oolongs - will diminish.

My Tieguanyin teacher is currently preparing for the competition.  The submission of teas is tomorrow.  He is one of the few tea producers left in Muzha that makes non-blended, high-roast TGY.  We worked on the 2nd roast of his tea all day yesterday and now that he's 2/3 of the way towards completion, I already know he won't win any awards.  I've tried winning teas for years and they are light-to-moderate roast, mid-oxidation with a very strong and clear fruit fragrance that is a major characteristic of the tea.  The brew tends to be closer to yellow than the traditional orange. 

Anxi, the birthplace of TGY, produces tea that is so green and fresh that it makes me feel nauseous.  It is difficult to find a skilled master roaster there nowadays.


"It's too green, I don't like it.  Ng...just too green, what a shame."

The Elder had just come back from Pinglin where he was working with some Baozhong specialists prior to the recent competition.  I told him I thought such was the trend for all Taiwan teas, but he said that you can still find really good traditional-style production, although I think it's a bittersweet story.  Since there's less demand for traditional-style oolongs, the prices aren't as high as ones that are competition-style.  However, the cost to produce old-school teas, in terms of labor & resources, is higher, so the tea farmers that don't "sell out" make less money.  There are still some random, old-school holdouts that refuse to go with the tea trends, but they're dying out.  Others simply must make tea that sells to support their families - very understandable.

"It's just tea" you might say, and you wouldn't be wrong.  However, tea is an integral part of the culture here; it's a philosophy, an art and a symbol of identity and pride.  Everyone in Taiwan knows that their high mountain teas are world famous and they tout that with pride.  There are permanent exhibits on teaware at the National Palace Museum, and it's a rumor that if the deal goes through, a Chinese consortium may buy an entire mountain in Taiwan to produce high mountain teas. 

On my way now to Dong Ding to try competition teas; they should be doing it later this week.  No revival of Hong Shui style there, although competition-style DD hasn't gone as green as many other teas.  My teacher's nephew will submit for the competition and he generally wins in some category.  I congratulated him last winter on receiving a 2nd place prize and my teacher nearly smacked me on the head.  His nephew dared not to raise his head.  That tea base was very good, my teacher said, and it should have won 1st place or higher if his nephew had taken the time oxidize and roast with complete focus.  Talk about pressure!


  1. You wrote: "The trend of going green in {oolong} teas is a shame."
    I wonder: Do you think that if more and more people start buying, blogging and talking about well-made oolongs with traditional roasting, that the trend could be reversed? Or, do you think it's already too late and that my daughter's generation will not be able to find any well-made traditionally-roasted oolong?

  2. Even though you mentioned in earlier posts that your Dong Ding teacher mentioned that the winter season tea is fine, how did you find the quality when tasting the competition teas? I've read (I think on Tea Masters) that quality has declined a bit because of bad weather conditions.

  3. The greening of oolongs is quite a bummer, especially since it seems to be extending everywhere, including Wuyi, which is just bizarre. Tea processing has been constantly changing for tea's entire existence, though, so it's not really a surprise. When you know what you like and it gets harder and harder to find, it's tough not to wish for a time machine. Hope you're still having a good time over there!

  4. I think so.

    It's not just a shame that the tastes have changed (although I do prefer more body) but that the skills will go with it. It's already difficult to find good, traditional style tea. However, I did get re-assuring news from some experts in central Taiwan. They said there's an interesting trend of younger people coming back from the big cities, and in some cases, out of the country, to learn to make good tea with good skills. I asked nearly every tea expert I've met in the last week and while they all agreed that it's hard to find really good, traditional-style tea, there will always be a market for it and they don't believe that we will lose good tea, at least in our lifetimes.

  5. Maitre_Tea, I didn't taste as many competition Dong Dings as I expected to. The taste of the winning teas is definitely changing like many other things. The quantity of tea grown in Dong Ding is decreasing, and now, a relatively small fraction of people there actually make tea professionally. Many grow tea, but it's not turned into good oolong. There is now Dong Ding pork, coffee, fruits/veggies, etc....

    Anyway, regarding tea quality. Winter and Spring always have different tastes, but it's been my opinion that at least for good Dong Ding, good tea from both seasons can be blended to complement tastes. Most Dong Ding (and likely most oolongs as well) that is bought and sold now is blended anyway, so a superior tea in the hands of a true expert will result in something quite special. However, such a blend is rare, as people generally blend a bit of good tea with a lot of lesser teas to balance taste, increase price and quantity of salable tea. This winter's Dong Ding that I tasted was thinner than last year's. With limited production of high mountain teas (and those teas have a higher price point) I heard that some farmers in the area shipped their leaves off to high mountain tea makers. The two teas can be made with the same leaves (since much high mountain is Qingxin varietal, as is Dong Ding), although Dong Ding can also be made with Ruanzhi and in some cases, Qingxin Da Mou.

    Bad weather is kind of true for Dong Ding, but bad means that it has been too dry and nice. While it was 27 degrees in Seattle, Dong Ding was nearly 70. In past years, there would be more moisture around this time. I went to a tea lecture here last year and learned that the coldness and wetness of winter increases certain compounds in tea, such as catechins, that contribute to the "body" of tea. Without such conditions, it's no wonder that tea can turn up a bit thinner.

  6. Thanks Zero. I just got back from Nantou. I have to say that Shanlinxi's tea fields are really beautiful.

    I can't drink tea that is too green, it makes my stomach hurt. That seems to be true with most people as well - must be some compounds in the tea that does that. There is a slow-growing (but still small) market for not-so-green teas (but can still be pretty green), which has resulted in poorly roasted teas. Great Wuyi teas, as you probably know better than I, have a beautifully rich body without the interference of high fire. However, I've tried too many bad wuyi teas with a weakly-oxidized base that has been over-roasted to compensate. Boo bad teas.

    You're absolutely right, it's bittersweet to find an excellent old tea.