We live in a period of great Oolong tea boom,
A period where searching “oolong tea” on Google returns more than two and a half million results.
As much as this contributes to a greater awareness of the taste and benefits of drinking Oolong tea,
This also leads to the paradox of choice,
Where too many selections actually paralyse us from making the right decisions.
With so many Oolong tea stores online to choose from,
How do you steer away from the fake or poor quality tea leaves,
And learn to make informed choices that will help you discover new, reliable and endless supply of Oolong goodness.
Based on Oolong tea manufacturing knowledge passed down through generations of my family,
We will share a few quick tips on how to find the most traditional Taiwan loose leaf Oolong teas.
Before we go on,
We will answer the first question that pops into everyone’s mind.
Tea bags or loose leaf tea?
Tea Bag vs Loose Leaf
If you cut open a tea bag with a pair of scissors, you will find the tea bag leaves are mostly dust and twigs from broken tea leaves.
While the loose leaves are usually machine harvested or hand-picked to retain bigger and fuller tea leaves.
Taiwan Dong Ding Oolong tea from left) tea bags, just pieces of broken tea leaves, and right) bigger, fuller loose leaf tea.
Cheaper prices of tea bags are reflected in the lower quality broken leaves, which are without most tea essence and aroma, resulting in much bitter brews.
Another drawback of a tea bag is the constraint it puts on the leaves during steeping.
To get the best Oolong tea flavour from leaves, they need room to expand, unfurl and “swim” in the water while steeping.
The room that a tea bag doesn’t have.
The flow of water is also limited by the bag itself, making it difficult to release the full tea flavours without repeatedly swirling and squeezing the tea bags.
On the other hand,
Steeping loose leaf tea allows the leaves plenty of room in the cup to unfurl and expand,
Resulting in aromatic brews steep after steep.
How to Choose Quality Loose Leaf Taiwan Oolong Tea From Appearance
Without years of training and understanding about growing and manufacturing Taiwan Oolong tea leaves, it’s very difficult to judge the quality of good tea leaves by sight only.
But the first impression of the loose leaf tea is still quite important.
Whether it is rolled or twisted tea leaves,
The colour should be vibrant under a light, with sandy green, and frosty white textures.
Like the surface of a frog’s skin.
Shan Lin Xi High Mountain Oolong Tea leaves with green and frosty texture.
If you notice a sliver of red edges, it is a sign the leaves have been properly roasted during the making of the Taiwan Oolong.
The shape of the leaves depends on whether they are hand-picked, in full-leaf shape, or machine harvested, a mixture of leaf fragments and twigs.
Best Oolong tea leaves, such as Shan Lin Xi High Mountain Oolong, are usually hand-picked to emphasise the full “high mountain flavour”.
Machine harvested loose leaves are usually cheaper in price,
But watch out for the twig-to-leaf ratio, to make sure you are not deceived into a batch with more twigs than leaves.
A reputable supplier should properly screen the leaves for twigs to keep the twig-to-leaf ratio at a reasonable level.
How to Choose Quality Loose Leaf Taiwan Oolong Tea by Touch
Once you have thoroughly inspected the shape and colour of tea leaves, let’s move on to the touch of Oolong tea leaves.
High quality rolled leaves and twisted tea leaves are processed differently and therefore feel different by touch.
As you grab a fistful of rolled tea leaves, the leaves should feel dry and stiff.
If loose leaves are soft and tender (a sign of excess moisture), it means the tea leaves have not been dehydrated properly, and would create a bitter tasting brew.
Rolled Shan Lin Xi High Mountain Oolong leaves feel dry and stiff.
As you hold twisted tea leaves in your hand,
If the leaves are rigid and prickly,
It either means the tea plants were harvested too early, so you can feel the youth of the plant stems against your skin,
Or the tea leaves have not dehydrated fully.
Twisted tea leaves of quality Red Jade Black Tea should not feel prickly.
Immature leaves and leaves not dehydrated enough both create bitter tasting brew.
Just before you start steeping your tea leaves, there’s one more tool you can use to judge the quality of Oolong tea.
Your sense of smell.
How to Choose Quality Loose Leaf Taiwan Oolong Tea From Smell
When it comes to smelling Oolong teas,
It’s common to only relate tea smell with the brew, the aromatic, fruity, “high mountain freshness”.
But there is also a way to distinguish the best Taiwan loose leaves before you start boiling the kettle.
The trick is to hold a fistful of loose leaf teas, and take three deep breathes to inhale the smell of tea leaves in all its refreshing glory.
Take three deep breaths to inhale the aroma of Taiwan Milk Oolong Tea leaves.
Inhaling the smell of leaves can distinguish the best from the average, and see if the Oolong freshness lasts all the way through to the third breath.
While the smell of lesser quality leaves change, or contain hints of grassy smell (a sign of premature tea leaves) by the second breath,
The aroma of the best Oolong tea leaves should persist, and become stronger and fuller as you take your second and third breaths.
Once you have picked out your favourite loose leaves with your nose,
It’s time to steep the Oolong tea and get down to the business end,
How to Choose Quality Loose Leaf Taiwan Oolong Tea From the Brew
If you are like me,
I get so excited when I put on the kettle, start counting the bubbles floating to the surface,
And watch impatiently as the water temperature gradually rises up to boil.
As soon as the light switches off on a boiling kettle,
It’s tempting to grab a handful of tea leaves and begin stuffing your teapot.
To find a great batch of Oolong tea, we recommend throwing in just 3 g of tea leaves in 6 oz (177 ml) of boiling water.
Then we wait, for five minutes.
During this time, you would use a ceramic spoon to move tea leaves around the brew to inspect the leaf shape and brew colour.
Use a ceramic spoon to stir and inspect the Taiwan Milk Oolong brew.
Common defects include murky brew (a sign of under-baking), broken and burnt leaves (over-baking).
A great brew from the best Oolong tea should have vibrant colours, ranging from light yellow, bright yellow, golden to amber, depending on the types of tea and manufacturing processes.
After the five minutes is up,
Pick up the spoon and smell it.
A brew from the best Taiwan tea leaves should produce an aromatic spoon, even after the brew has cooled down.
As you take small sips of Oolong tea brew, watch out for hints of grassy smell (a sign of premature or half-baked leaves) which is usually followed by uninviting bitter taste.
In summary, if you follow the four tips:
Inspect leaves for sandy green textures
Feel the loose leaves for dryness and stiffness
Take three deep breaths and look for persistent aroma
- Use a ceramic spoon to stir and look for aromatic spoon
You will be able to distinguish the best Taiwan Oolong tea from the average, and take your first step toward becoming a tea connoisseur.
If you have more tips on tasting loose leaf Taiwan Oolong, please let us know in the comments below.