In our previous post, What Is ‘Artisan’ About Artisan Tea?, a discussion was initiated about what actually is involved in the making of tea that qualifies as artisan. This post will continue exploring that question by taking a more detailed look at recent trends in Oolong Tea production in Taiwan.
The first post stated hands-on shuffling of the leaves during the their extended primary oxidation process as a prominent factor in making an Oolong that represents traditional knowledge, skill and pride. This repeated hands-on shuffling causes the leaves to “wake up” by repeatedly stimulating circulation that results in a more even oxidation and wilting of the leaf. It basically prevents a kind of vegetal rigor mortis from occurring. Later stages of processing – namely rolling, post-oxidation, and roasting of the leaves – were also mentioned as significant factors in the making of a Traditional Artisan Oolong Tea. So let’s take a closer look at what those later stages of processing entail, and how they have changed in recent years.
The most pivotal step in the making of Oolong Tea is when the leaves are exposed to high temperatures to cease the oxidation process incurred by naturally existing enzymes in the leaf. This is called 殺青 (sha qing) or “kill green” in Chinese. Following this step, the leaves begin their second major processing phase of rolling and drying. The step following “kill green” is known as primary rolling. This step is not employed in the making of High Mountain Oolong, which entails much less oxidation of the leaves to produce an unroasted, green Oolong.
Primary rolling follows the primary oxidation phase and the “kill green” step mentioned above and in the first post. It’s worth noting that many farmers have altered or even omitted the primary rolling step in the making of Dong Ding Oolong, which is the most popular modern representative of a traditionally made Oolong in Taiwan. This is one example of how the production of more traditional types of Oolong is changing.
The purpose of primary rolling is to evenly distribute the moisture content in the leaf so that the oxidation is more uniform throughout the leaf as it is dried and rolled in the following steps. It should be noted that oxidation continues even after the “kill green” step, although to a much lesser extent, since the living enzymes in the fresh leaf are no longer active. The gentle pressure and rolling of the leaves breaks down the cell wall structure and allows for the moisture to dissipate evenly. This is said to result in a more balanced, full flavor and higher viscosity in the brewed tea.
Some tea makers have modified primary rolling methods by using a slightly higher temperature in the “kill green” step, then wrapping the leaves in a cloth to make a ball to do the primary rolling step. This alteration has its own logic in producing more reliable results in the final product. Changing the technique while maintaining the effect of a given step in the process seems reasonable enough. However, other tea makers have eliminated the step entirely, claiming that it is unnecessary to attain the desired results in the finished product. This latter stance is where a line might be drawn between traditional and contemporary methods of making Oolong Tea. Methods that have been developed over generations and then significantly altered by eliminating whole steps in the process are at least open to a degree of controversy over what makes a tea artisan or not.
After primary rolling is the primary drying phase where the leaves are put on a conveyor belt type machine and slowly move through a multi-level enclosed track at low heat to deplete moisture. After primary rolling and drying, the leaves are left to sit for the remainder of the night (usually less than six hours) where the moisture naturally gets redistributed through absorption into the drier sections of leaf – namely, from the stem and center to the periphery. In the morning, secondary rolling and drying begins, and this is where more significant changes have occurred in just the last few years.
The secondary rolling phase is quite labor intensive and physically demanding. Tightly wrapping the semi-dried leaves into basketball sized spheres in durable cloth to be pressed and rolled on a special machine became a service that was subcontracted to crews who specialize in this process. The fact is that tightly rolling tea leaves into a semi-spherical shape as a standard mechanized processing method was a Taiwanese innovation that happened about 30 years ago. This was done to protect the integrity of the leaf and prolong shelf life by preserving freshness. So this can be seen as a modern innovation of Artisan Oolong Tea making.
Just recently however, secondary rolling has been significantly altered by a machine that was invented in Vietnam, where these professional crews specializing in secondary rolling do not exist. So the Taiwanese tea farmers who established tea farms in Vietnam had to find a solution to this dilemma in order to produce tea in the same fashion as Taiwan Oolong. This resulted in the invention of a hydraulically powered compression device that squeezes the semi-dried tea leaves into a 2-foot cube. This essentially accomplishes the same task as the initial phase of secondary rolling, but with noticeably less finesse and much less labor. There is controversy over this method regarding the compromise in quality that results. However, the dwindling population of skilled workers willing to do the grunt work has made this new machine a standard device in virtually all modern tea factories in Taiwan within the last five years. There are still tea makers, however who will not use this new device. This is another significant factor in how artisan tea making in Taiwan is being changed by modern trends in the tea industry.
In the next post, we will explore the art of roasting – a mysterious skill that is so essential in the making of a Traditional Oolong Tea.
Images courtesy of the author.