Blind Tasting Set #3

Unlike other blind tasting sets, here, we've already revealed the two categories the taster is comparing between: Minnan (i.e. South Fujianese) and Taiwanese oolongs. Though this can encompass some range of flavors, the taster isn't helped by the shape of the leaves, which are all rolled, nor their color, as we've chosen all lightly oxidised and roasted teas, making this a very nice comparison of regional styles (not merely terroir, since cultivars and processing tend to differ as well).

Even if one is familiar with oolongs from both areas, tasting the distinctions can be tricky; nevertheless, with these four teas, some patterns begin to emerge. Let's take a look:

Tea #1: Qing Xiang Tieguanyin

  • Meaning: 'Clear scent iron Guanyin'
  • Origin: Longjuanxiang, Anxi County, Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China
  • Cultivar: Tieguanyin
  • Harvest Time: 5 October 2020

With such a light, verdant flavor in the infusion, one might even be tempted to imagine it was produced by a green tea, if it weren't for a distinctive, very high top note: perhaps the sourness of green pears paired with a soft florality, like violets. This acidity is more piquant than even that of green teas, and tends to mark the Qing Xiang style of Tieguanyin.

Tea #2: Li Shan Light

  • Meaning: 'Pear Mountain'
  • Origin: Cuifeng, Lishan, Heping District, Taichung City, Taiwan
  • Elevation: 1700–1800 m
  • Cultivar: Qing Xin
  • Harvest Time: Spring 2020

Though somewhat softer in character than the Tieguanyin above, this Li Shan also shares a certain acidity, like that of tangerine juice, and very fine floral aroma.

Tea #3: Xiping Tieguanyin

  • Meaning: 'Xiping iron Guanyin'
  • Origin: Xiping, Anxi County, Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China
  • Cultivar: Tieguanyin
  • Harvest Time: October 2017

With a few years under its belt already, the acidity of this also Qing Xiang-style Tieguanyin has become somewhat mollified, and in its place a buttery note has emerged, making it a little less obvious than its counterpart above.

Tea #4: Machine-Harvested Ali Shan

  • Origin: Alishan Township, Chiayi County, Taiwan
  • Elevation: 1100–1200 m
  • Cultivar: Qing Xin
  • Harvest Time: Spring 2020

This oolong has been harvested by machine, rather than hand-picking, but is still fairly high-quality, with large, densely rolled leaves and smaller fragments sorted out. Though quite green in appearance, it seems to be the most intensely-flavored of the bunch, with even a mild bitter greens flavour and nuttiness. Both the dry leaves and the infusion exhibit a telltale fragrance, a soft spiciness a bit like cinnamon or rich olive oil, that is quite typical of Taiwanese oolongs.

 

Summary:

While these four teas are far from an exhaustive survey of the rich varieties that can be found in their respective regions, they nevertheless begin to illustrate some of the characteristics that typify these oolongs, even though there has been a lot of cross-pollination of cultivars and processing methods, and even though a couple of these teas begin to approach one another in flavor.

Though the prompt for this tasting set was oolongs from Minnan versus Taiwanese ones, the representatives from South Fujian are from an even narrower area, Anxi, and both use the Tieguanyin cultivar processed in the now-popular Qing Xiang style. There is good reason for this choice, since we wanted to challenge the taster more than offering a much more oxidised tea, like Bai Ya Qi Lan or Jin Mudan, in comparison to the lighter Taiwanese ones. If one has tasted a Qing Xiang Tieguanyin, however, Tea #1 will likely have been quite recognizable, given a distinct sour note that is rare to find in any other type of tea. The other Tieguanyin, Tea #3, was significantly trickier because this note is muted in favor of warmer flavors.

On the other side of the channel, Tea #2, our Li Shan Light, might similarly have been more difficult, and its mild, floral infusion with a distinct acidity resembles the Qing Xiang style quite a bit. The acidity is of a different flavor, however, and instead it shares something with Tea #4, an Ali Shan, that is very common in Taiwanese oolongs: a slight spiciness with a viscous mouthfeel reminiscent of olive oil. The texture of the Li Shan is a little thinner, but the Ali Shan displays this to a fuller extent, making it likely quite recognizable to those who frequently drink Taiwanese oolongs. Like the two Tieguanyin, these teas share a cultivar, Qing Xin, but this distinctive note can also be observed in Taiwanese teas made with other common cultivars, such as Jin Xuan, Si Ji Chun, and Dong Ding.

How did you do? Did you find the division difficult, or readily apparent? We hope you enjoyed the tasting process in any case, and that you've gained some sense for the distinctions, as well as the similarities, between these two categories.