Updated: Oct 18, 2018
In our last blog (Part I), we introduced the charcoal burning procedures and briefly explained the first round of roasting in Wu-Yi oolong tea making. Today, we’ll pick it up from there and continue our journey in the roasting process.
Normally, there are three degrees of roasting: light, medium and heavy. In tea making, “light” is called Qīng-Huǒ (Chinese: 轻火, meaning light fire); medium is called Zhōng-Huǒ (Chinese: 中火, meaning medium fire); heavy is called Zhòng-Huǒ (Chinese: 重火, meaning heave fire). Different from its literal meaning, lighter or heavier roasting doesn’t refer to how tea is roasted, but rather how many rounds of roasting tea has. Lighter roasting has fewer rounds of roasting, and vice versa.
One round of roasting typically takes 10 to 12 hours. After each round of roasting, baskets of tea would have a period of time to cool down. A heavier roasting takes at least 30-36 hours, excluding the cool down time. As we have discussed at the end of “Part I”, tea makers must constantly check on tea leaves during the roasting by drinking and tasting them.
So, what decides how heavy a oolong tea should be roasted? There are multiple factors, such as the preference of tea makers and the request from customers, but the biggest factor should be the tea plant. If you have read our previous blog, you might remember that despite all Wu-Yi oolong teas have the same tea-making process, they are actually from different tea plants. Different tea plants have different growth rates. The faster a tea plant sprouts, the fewer rounds of roasting its leaves can endure. For example, Yellow Goddess, also called 105 by its production series, sprouts between early and mid April. Because of the early sprouting, fresh leaves of Yellow Goddess cannot have many rounds of roasting. Rou-Gui and Shui-Xian, on the other hand, have a longer growth period, thus they can be roasted multiple times to have a much stronger and more diverse flavors. This is also why more seasoned tea drinkers prefer heavily roasted Wu-Yi oolong tea for its complex and fascinating multi-layer tastes and aromas.
After rounds of roasting, the green-tea-like “grassy” smell and taste in Mao-Cha (half-processed tea, Chinese: 毛茶) is gone. In stead, the charming fragrance and flavors of Wu-Yi oolong rock tea (Yan-Cha, Chinese: 岩茶) become more and more appealing. The roasting process also brings out “Yan-Yun” (Chinese: 岩韵, meaning the elegant smell and taste of rocks), a term that describes the taste that tea leaves inherit from the growing environment. Most tea lovers think that “Yan-Yun” is something tea leaves carry at all stages of the tea-making. Many tea lovers also believe that as long as fresh tea leaves come from famous production areas, such as the Zheng Yan area, tea must have impressive Yan-Yun. However, it is the good roasting process that unleashes the Yan-Yun in tea leaves. Without proper roasting by experienced tea masters, Yan-Yun is just a fancy name in tea culture.
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