Oolong tea leaves, especially Wuyi oolong (Yancha/岩茶), are the most distinguishable among all tea categories.
Oolong tea leaves are visibly broader, thicker and darker. Depends on where and how fresh leaves are processed, oolong leaves are either rolled into a long and narrow shape or a sphere shape.
In tea-making, when leaves are rolled into shapes, they’re called Tiáo Suǒ (Chinese: 条索, meaning: the form and the shape of dry leaves). From the state of dry leaves, we can discover some quality-related facts of an oolong tea. Today, let’s discuss whether we can tell an oolong’s quality from its dry leaves.
Before we start, we’d like to address that the best way to judge a tea is always to taste it. It’s impossible to accurately determine the quality of a tea from just dry leaves.
We’ve seen some online “tea experts” commenting on an oolong tea’s origin, age and tea-making skills all based on a single photo of dry leaves. Honestly speaking, these comments are not responsible or plausible.
First of all, when judging an oolong’s dry leaves, we mainly check how well-balanced and well-proportioned tea leaves are. Furthermore, oolong cultivars have different leaf sizes. Sometimes we can infer the cultivar from dry leaves. For example, Shui Xian has bigger leaves. Just from the size of dry leaves, we can tell a Shui Xian leaf from Rou Gui leaves.
In terms of the age and the place of origin (e.g. which tea mountain field a tea is from), dry oolong leaves can tell us nothing.
In this case, what can we find from dry oolong leaves?
First, it’s the quality of the harvest. Premium oolong tea should have strong, tight, well-proportioned and unbroken dry leaves. More specifically, we want dry leaves that are twisted like strand ropes. At the same time, the tightness of dry leaves has to be well-balanced. So when leaves are infused, they can slowly extend.
“Well-proportioned” means that tea leaves should have similar sizes and shapes. If leaves from the same bag have various length and width, it means that this tea used low quality harvests for tea-making.
The integrity of dry leaves is another good indication of quality. Premium oolong teas have more unbroken leaves (especially for Wuyi oolong). Of course, after rounds of roasting, oolong tea leaves have extremely low water content. Any large vibration or collision will cause tea leaves to break or snap. During packaging, shipping and storage, some oolong leaves’ integrity might be compromised.
It’s normal that oolong teas have a small amount of broken leaves in the package. In fact, the standard tea-making allows about 15% broken leaves exist in package.
Second, the color of dry leaves tell an oolong’s level of roast. The roasting process is brutal. A heavy roast takes tens of hours. After the roast, oolong leaves usually display three lusters: black bloom, greenish auburn, and “dull”.
Usually, oolong teas with midium to high roast, such as Rou Gui, Shui Xian, and Iron Luo-Han, display a charming black bloom luster. Oolong teas with low to mid level roast, such as Huang Guan Yin and Golden Peony, often develop a greenish auburn color. These are preferred colors. Oolong teas with a “dull” luster, however, are over-roasted to a “dead” state.
Finally, dry leaves are the first and the most direct expression of an oolong. Although dry leaves can’t tell us everything about the quality of an oolong tea, they can certainly show us the most obvious flaws of one.
In most tea stores, you can’t really fully sample the tea before you buy. Learning how to check dry oolong leaves can help you get a preliminary assessment of an oolong tea.
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