Part ritual, part tasting
Warming the gaiwan
The tea drinker's spit bowl
Start with lighter teas
High mountain oolongs are some of the finest teas in the world. They come from a few select regions of Taiwan where the misty air and drastic temperature fluctuations are ideal for creating light, abundantly aromatic teas with strong floral, fruity, and woodland flavors.
All oolongs are partially oxidized. Some, like this light variety, are pretty close to green tea. More heavily oxidized varieties carry roasted flavors more like black tea.
Passing the tea
Waking up the tea
Rinsing does a few things at once: it gets rid of some of the caffeine, washes away dust, and opens up the leaves so the real first steeping extracts better flavor. This rinse is discarded, but the leaves have plenty of life in them yet.
Sniffing the fairness cup
Finally, a cup of tea
The second and third steepings reveal much more about the tea's character. Since this is a lightly oxidized, unroasted tea, its flavor is almost vegetal with a naturally green sweetness. The fourth and fifth steepings emphasize the finish, which are exceptionally smooth in high mountain oolongs.
Feeling the leaves
Charcoal Roasted Lisan Oolong
Roasted Tie Guan Yin
Our tea master explained the shift: roasting is time-consuming, expensive, and difficult to get right. Screw it up and you've ruined an entire batch of tea. Selling unroasted is a safer bet. Over time, tea drinkers became more accustomed to to the taste of unroasted Tie Guan Yin, and the roasted version is harder to come by.
It's not like one form of Tie Guan Yin (or any other tea, for that matter) is better than the other. Roasting brings out more baked, coffee-like flavors in the leaves while unroasted teas have a lighter, greener character. It's really up to your tastes.
Even though this was a roasted tea, it didn't brew up dark and malty like black tea. It's still all about exceptionally aromatic elements, a smooth finish, and a complex bouquet of flavors.