Jun 29, 2011

Taiwan "style" Oolongs (0) - why they caught my attention

Taiwan "style" Oolong, with the stress on "style", meaning these teas are not from Taiwan, but use the same cultivars and techniques as for Taiwan Oolong.

I have been interested in these Taiwan "style" oolongs for a few years, due to a series of facts that I've observed:

1. Taiwan style oolong is raised extensively in Asia - including Zhejiang, Fujian, Sichuan, Yunnan, and more provinces in China, also including Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and probably more Asian countries. And now the oolong raised in New Zealand is a rising star!

2. Taiwan oolong is often more expensive in mainland China than in US - considering the transportation distances, this is quite odd. When I go back to China visiting family and friends, I often gift them with Taiwan oolong. The tea was purchased from Taiwan, shipped to US, and then carried by me to Beijing. Probably in future, Zealong will also travel across oceans like this. My friends in northern China often resent about how hard it is to get good, authentic Taiwan oolong, not because there is none in the market, but because the market is flooded with a lot more fakes. When they get some good, authentic ones, often the prices are shockingly high.

3. There is a lot of Taiwan style oolong produced in China. Oddly, this doesn't help bring down Taiwan oolong price in China, but cause authentic Taiwan oolong to be more expensive, as there is much less authentic than inauthentic. Quite a few of my Chinese friends say, you can't get authentic Taiwan oolong for a price lower than $$$ - but this doesn't make much sense to me, because buying a tea for a price three times higher than its price in Taiwan local market doesn't make it more likely an authentic Taiwan oolong. Some fake oolong products are packaged beautifully and have rather high prices, because there are people buying them.

4. In Fujian, including Anxi, home of Tie Guan Yin, there are quite a few plantations managed by Taiwan tea professionals. The cultivars, core staff and equipment are all from Taiwan. I heard such kind of plantations exist in Vietnam and Thailand too, and imagine they can produce very high quality tea. However it's hard to get their quality confirmed, as rarely one can find products plainly labeled as Taiwan style oolong made in Vietnam or Fujian. But with time being, I did find a few Taiwan style oolongs made in Sichuan and Yunnan and honestly labeled so.

5.  So far in China, many people are crazy about Taiwan oolong, but probably more people buy fake products than authentic ones. In spite of all the efforts of some producers in making high quality Taiwan style oolong, no such product has yet become very popular in the market. Ironically, low quality Taiwan style oolong with fake labels often sells better than high quality Taiwan style oolong with honest labels.

6. Supposedly there is some high quality Taiwan style oolong produced in Fujian. But so far I haven't seen one that catches my attention. A friend of mine, a Tie Guan Yin seller, once tried to source some "famous" (or "infamous") high quality Fujian "Taiwan style oolong" for his store. He failed to do so, because, as he told me, he couldn't afford buying Fujian produced Taiwan style oolong for almost the same price as authentic Taiwan oolong. According to him, the tea was almost as good as, and as expensive as, authentic Taiwan oolong. The price was not entirely based on production costs, but rather because the producer could easily sell it to other vendors as "authentic Taiwan oolong". My friend figured he wouldn't be able to sell it for a high price as Fujian oolong, since consumers wouldn't like to pay such a price for a Taiwan style oolong that's not made in Taiwan. He wouldn't want to label it as authentic Taiwan oolong either, because no matter how good it is, such kind of labeling is deceiving behavior.

7. There are a lot of fake Taiwan oolong in Taiwan market too. A Taiwan tea farmer I know once told me how disappointed he was to learn that a wholesaler he had known for a long time started to shift most business to "imported" oolong. I don't know how common this phenomenon is. But there is a tea I bought directly from a Taiwan wholesaler that I highly suspect is "imported".

8. So far I haven't learned of any reasonable way to distinguish an authentic Taiwan oolong from Taiwan style oolong made in other places. In reality, there are many ways to detect the physical appearance, processing style and flavors of the tea that are "typical of authentic Taiwan oolong" or "typical of fake products". But all these criteria evaluate the quality, but not source of the tea. Surely there is a much higher proportion of top quality tea among authentic Taiwan oolong, and Taiwan style oolong is more likely to be of lower quality, because Taiwan has the best natural and technical conditions for its oolong. But there is also low quality authentic Taiwan oolong and high quality Taiwan style oolong, and there are products of equally high quality and from very different sources. If a tea is from a Taiwan oolong cultivar, the plantation is managed by experienced Taiwan tea professionals, and the leaves are harvested and processed by skillful Taiwan tea workers (such tea is not rare out of Taiwan), then how can one tell if it's from Taiwan or elsewhere? I can't think of a way to tell. In recent years there are authentic Ali Shan Oolong with DNA certification. But as I've spent more than few years studying biology, I've found this DNA certification thing doesn't make biological sense. It sounds more like a mental comfort for people who see DNA as mysterious and ensuring. In another aspect, this DNA certification thing also reflects how much fake products have interfered with the market of authentic products, so much that people have to try every way possible to certify the authentic ones.

9. Considering all the energy and brain work it costs to make fake labeling, to market a fake tea as authentic and to produce the tea to begin with, I wonder why such energy and intelligence can't be used on making some tea of solid quality. Can't people make good money at all with honest labeling and price consistent to quality? I guess I am not the only one wondering so. On the other hand, I also wonder why fake tea sometimes sells better than honestly labeled Taiwan style oolong of higher quality. Is it because the label is even more important than the quality in eyes of many buyers?

10. I have been thinking of above issues for a long time but hadn't tried to sort out my thoughts. This writing is largely inspired by Zealong, the New Zealand Taiwan style oolong. I obtained the three products of Zealong last year but had been flooded by a lot of other tea samples since then and didn't get time to try these Zealongs. Then the recent interesting reviews and discussions on Zealong by Mattcha and Sir William reminded me of this tea and inspired me on thinking and writing a little more about Taiwan style oolong.

A tea professional I highly respect once said, There is no best tea. But authenticity is the basic and ultimate standard for tea. I appreciate the effort of some tea professionals in making high quality Taiwan style oolong and labeling it as what it truly is. I believe most of them have genuine interest in making tea, not just making money. So far, no such product has achieved huge market success yet, and the market sometimes even encourages fake labeling. But I guess people involved in fake labeling have limited professional future in tea making, and people who are truly interested in making good tea always have a chance to succeed in the market. Currently Zealong seems to have a bright future. I am curious to see if some other Taiwan style oolong will catch up with it.

So this is basically why Taiwan "style" oolong has caught my attention. I will go over a series of such products and here is the plan:

1a. Zealong Aroma - I've got to put it in the front because it's probably my favorite Taiwan style oolong so far.

1b. Zealong Dark & Zealong Pure.

2. Yunnan Ji Bian oolong - Qing Xin (Green Heart) Oolong cultivar from Taiwan, 2300m plantation, certified organic, I have to try it no matter what!

3. Sichuan High Mountain Oolong

I will add more if I think of more :-D


Alex Zorach said...

This is a really interesting post. I am actually trying to get at this issue with RateTea.net's separation of region and style.

Lately I've been feeling a bit unsatisfied with the way I've classified styles of oolong on RateTea.net though, and I would be very grateful for your input as you are someone whose knowledge and perspective I respect the most on this subject.

My problem is...what exactly are the styles? I list some varietals as a style, like Tie Guan Yin, but then there are the different roasts and levels of oxidation, traditional processing vs. modern. And then there's a broader category of "High mountain oolong", I also have a category for "Jade Oolong" which is mostly Dong Ding. I don't know how to list things like Ali Shan. I worry this part of the site has become a bit inconsistent, so if you have any ideas, I'd be curious to hear them!

Gingko said...

Alex, that sounds like a Pandora's box! :-D

But indeed I think you've already done a very good job of categorization on ratetea.net. Maybe there is no perfect way to do it, as the styles change over time and can be categorized from different aspects.

A big challenge is, quite a few commonly known terms are man-made and not strictly based on the properties of specific teas. Such as Jade Oolong, Milk Oolong... Some terms are blurred in utilization, such as "high mountain oolong". Since so many people use them in different ways, it's impossibly disregard them, and nearly impossible to give them a standard definition.

If you struggle with more specific meanings of styles, maybe you can consider introduce more categorization parameters (as what you have done with region)? For example, for each oolong, the search-able "variables" can include region, level of oxidation, level of roast, leaf shape, flavor profile (this is hard to define though)... But these are just some random thoughts at this moment. I don't know if this will confuse a lot of users though. I will write more to you if I think of more :-D