Traditional Oolong Production: A Showcase
The production of oolongs varies from one region to another but the most traditional approach seems to illustrate best the characteristics of the governing concepts behind all variations. This article describes the production of Fenghuang Dancong ( fèng-huáng dān-cōng 鳳凰單欉 ), aka Phoenix oolongs, the most ancient form of oolongs production practiced today.
Two major groups of cultivars used in the Phoenix area today are Shuixians and Wulongs (1). The former yields most of the popularly available Phoenix selections so we shall talk about it here, and leave the latter to another piece of writing.
Shuixian in Chinese actually refers to Chinese Sacred Lily (Narcissus tazetta), a sweetly fragrant small white flower customarily displayed in the household during Chinese New Year. Its cleansing aroma is one of the best-loved delights of the festival. The flower name is borrowed because the tea made from these tea plants do have that similar kind of aroma. Actually in the last hour of the fermentation stage in production processing, the aroma is so intense that you would think you were totally submerged in a sea of blooming lilies.
The progenitor plant, a wild tea plant called “Hong Yin”, still grow in the wild in this area and a few producers are still making tea from it. Some scholars believe that the “She” tribe 畬族, an indigenous mountain people, was first to employ it to make tea in the oolong approach over 1,000 years ago.
The last known audit in 2000 says there are over 80 Shuixian cultivars used locally. Since the growth rate and budding time differs quite dramatically between cultivars, plucking for first flushes can be spread from end of March to late May. This is good for the farmer because he can time his production focus across a range of different cultivars, minimizing the scale of his labour force and hardware setup. This is critical to enable these small family run tea production farms to continue operating in the economically reasonable fashion that is. Almost all producers in premium production areas are such small farms.
plucking and sun-withering
Better quality Phoenix is usually plucked on a sunny day just before or immediately after midday. When there is good sun, the young leaf cells expand fully, and the leaf face is glossy, plump and healthy, and free of dew. Leaves plucked under such conditions retain the most sap needed for the taste and aroma producible through the lengthy traditional oolong production process. This practice is very different from that of green teas, such as “Dragon Well” ( i.e. Longjing ), which requires the leaves to be extremely young and fresh, and tender during early morning Spring cool air. For oolongs, such as the Phoenix teas, the leaves have to grow to a certain size in order to be chemically optimized to deliver their maximum quality. That is why the spring harvest for green teas is usually a lot earlier than oolongs.
The plucked leaves are very thinly spread out on flat bamboo sieves to wither under the sun, and are turned over a couple of times to allow even ventilation. This step is likely to have taken from the ancient tea drying method, sun-baking.
Unlike the ancient method, in oolong making, the leaves are removed from direct light after 2~3 hours and are allowed to cool before being sorted ready for the next stages. This “liang qing” (i.e. airing of the green) process allows the leaves to re-hydrate and turn plump again for the next step.
After the leaves have been cooled and sorted (usually after dinner time in these Phoenix villages where it gets dark quite early), they are to be partially fermented. The process takes place throughout the night for a duration between 7 to 9 hours, during which time the tea master has to rattle (4) the leaves briefly for about 5 minutes at regular intervals of one and a half to two hours, each time gradually increasing the vigor of the process.
This “rattling” of the leaves causes the edges to rub against each other, thus gradually breaking the cell walls and triggering a series of chemical reactions as the plant enzymes and other leaf constituents (such as protein, amino acids, polyphenols, carbohydrates, etc) come into contact with each other. The result is visually evident when a thin reddish rim begin to appear in the leaf. Somehow, the West has called this oxidation process “partial-fermentation”. The locals call it “zao qing”, making of the green.