Blog 120: What’s the Official Standard for Wuyi Oolong (Yancha)?
In the industrial age, everything has a standard. When we purchase a car or a cell phone, we expect an exact same copy of what we see in showroom. But when it comes to tea, or any other major agricultural products, we cannot possibly expect getting the exact same product.
Therefore, many tea lovers believe that there is no standard in tea, and we can all judge a tea simply based on our personal preferences.
Of course, this is not true. All tea categories have standards. In China, there are even national standards for tea products. However, tea markets outside China have all kinds of wild standards, and many of them solely focus on the taste. Just weeks ago, we came across an online tea reviewer who’s completely confused about the basics of oolong tea and black tea. But still, it didn’t stop him from publishing his own version of “a good Wuyi oolong”.
As a tea producer and a tea business, it’s not appropriate for us to argue with those bizarre standards by self-claimed “tea experts”. In stead, we’d like to share the absolute authority in Wuyi oolong: the national standard of “Wuyi Rock-Essence Tea/Wuyi Oolong (Yancha)” (Standard Publication Number: GB/T 18745-2006).
In the national standard, Wuyi oolong (Yancha) has 4 major assessments: the appearance, the aroma, the soup color, the leaf bottom (Yè Dǐ).
There’s a professional term when we talk about dry leaves: Tiao Suo/条索. Tiao Suo refers to dry leaves before the infusion. In Chinese, Tiao Suo literally means “string ropes”.
In Wuyi oolong (Yancha) tea-making, fresh leaves first go through shaking, rolling and drying processes. After this preliminary tea-making, fresh leaves are transformed from soft leaves to a dry, rope-like shape.
A standard “Tiao Suo” is tight, complete, and well-shaped. The tightness is often a great indication of a good tea-making. Tightly rolled leaves are easier to transport and store. However, Wuyi oolong (Yancha) leaves are roasted. After the roast, leaves have an extremely low water content (3%-5%), and they break apart easily in shipping.
It’s entirely normal that a bag of Wuyi oolong (Yancha) has some broken pieces. But if you can’t find one single complete and well-shaped leaf, it means that this tea was not carefully made, stored or packaged.
The aroma is Wuyi oolong’s special way of expressing its character. As a matter of fact, Wuyi oolong (Yancha) has the strongest fragrance in both dry and wet state.
The aroma reveals 3 crucial information: the tea mountain field, the tea-making, and the storage condition.
If tea leaves are harvested in a tea mountain field with plenty sunlight, they’d have a vivid and dominating aroma; if tea leaves are harvested in a relatively secluded tea mountain field with less sunlight, they’d carry a less intrusive and more refreshing aroma.
With appropriate tea-making techniques, no matter where fresh leaves are harvested, they’d all have a complex mix of floral and fruity fragrances. Depending on the cultivar, some Wuyi oolong (Yancha) might carry a few more fragrances. (e.g. Rou Gui’s cinnamon fragrance.)
A good Wuyi oolong’s aroma lasts the entire life of the tea. Those Wuyi oolong that have a short-lived aroma (less than 3 infusions) are not up to the standard.
The Tea Soup
The tea soup/茶汤 is the child of dry leaves and hot water.
When dry leaves get in contact with hot water, tightly rolled leaves start to expand to its original shape. At the same time, the tea soup begins to display a charming amber color.
Heavily roasted Wuyi oolong has a reddish orange color, and lightly roasted Wuyi oolong has a bright yellowish orange color. But regardless the roast level, the tea soup should always be clear and bright.
(Please see our Blog 77 for more on this topic)
The Leaf Bottom
The leaf bottom, or 叶底/Ye Di, refers to tea leaves after many rounds of infusions, and it shows the most authentic quality of tea leaves.
Tea leaves are supposed to be full of water. When tea leaves are dried and packaged, they’re in a state of deep sleep. The infusion of hot water revives tea leaves back to its natural state.
Our day is often decided by the state when we wake up. If we wake feeling energetic, we usually have a more productive day. Just like people, when tea leaves wake up, “the leaf bottom” shows how “alive” it still is.
A standard leaf bottom should be soft and bright as if it’s just out of a jar of oil. This indicates that tea leaves have a great breathability. “Dead leaves” generally have a dark and matt reflection. Besides the brightness, good leaf bottom also shows a “red edge” on leaves (see pic below). This is more visible on lightly roasted Wuyi oolong.
(See Blog 59 for more details on the "Leaf Bottom")
These 4 assessments represent the most important requirements for a standard Wuyi oolong (Yancha).
By now, you’ve probably noticed that we didn’t mention the taste at all. That’s because as a tea category, Wuyi oolong doesn’t have a standard taste. Different cultivar has different tastes. But as long as a Wuyi oolong fits the 4 requirements above, it’s a qualified good tea.
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