I usually start my Sunday mornings with a nice pot of flavored black tea, since Sundays are the only days I’m sure I’ll have time to drink it. On a recent Sunday, however, I stepped out of my routine and decided to steep some Zealong Dark tea from the Chicago Tea Garden. Zealong is a naturally grown oolong from New Zealand, and is the only tea grown in New Zealand. I enjoyed reading the story of it on the Chicago Tea Garden’s website, and that’s why I had decided to order some.
The Zealong Dark has leaves that have been roasted repeatedly, and the smell of the dry leaves definitely reflects this. The leaves are a variegated dark green and tightly coiled, with a nutty, vegetable-y sort of smell. I followed the steeping instructions carefully, steeping the first cup with one teaspoon of tea and 195 degree F. water for 30 seconds. This gave me a lovely, pale golden liquor, with the scent of nutty broccoli (although that sounds kind of like a crazy vegetable, and this definitely wasn’t that!). My first sip brought a smile to my face, as the nutty flavor came through, with just a hint of a vegetal taste. There was hardly any astringency in the tea – it had a smooth, buttery mouth-feel, but didn’t cling to my palate.
The second steeping (45 seconds at 195 degrees F.) yielded a smokier aroma, and a more buttery, nutty / smoky flavor in the tea, and just a hint of a vegetal taste. It was a bit more astringent than the first cup, but not unpleasantly so. By this time, the leaves had uncurled quite a bit, but still had body. The third steeping (1 minute, 195 degrees F.) gave me a cup with a very pronounced smoky hazelnut aroma, and a predominantly smoky, buttery, nutty flavor. By this time, the vegetal flavor was almost gone, replaced by the smokiness and the more obvious nuttiness. I stopped after three steepings, although I think the leaves would have stood at least one more.
As I write these descriptive terms, it brings me back to the Specialty Tea Institute (STI) class I took on oolongs a couple years ago. Up until then, I hadn’t had much experience with oolongs, and expected them all to be the very vegetal type that I had first encountered. To find that there were oolongs that could be described as yeasty, buttery, fruity, nutty, or smoky was a revelation to me! The descriptions are often like descriptions of a glass of wine, which I realized again at a wine tasting I attended the day before my Zealong Dark experience. Developing my palate for tea has given me an even greater appreciation of wine. Thinking about how the influence of the terroir, weather conditions, and processing methods can alter the flavor profile of either wine or tea makes drinking both of them much more interesting!