It was coming up to 4pm, and I was walking down Chalk Farm Road on my way to Tea & Glory. I was going to meet up with Andrew Perryman, a certified tea sommelier, who was going to guide me through my first tea tasting. The first tea that Andrew will introduce me too is an Oolong.
As someone with a passion for tea, I wanted to increase my knowledge of teas and to share my tea journey with you. My first thought was to drink my way through all the teas at Tea & Glory, a different tea each day, and then write about each as I went along. Then I decided to slow down, and after chatting with Andrew, we decided to start with a series of tea tastings where I could take my time, learn about the teas in more depth and spend time savouring each tea. So, on a Tuesday afternoon, I am going to take part in my first tea tasting. The first tea that Andrew will introduce me too is an Oolong.
Oolong Tea – Tie Guan Yin
“So this is Tie Guan Yin …. and you smell this first”, says Andrew, reaching over with a palm full of tiny budded leaves for me to sniff. “This is an Oolong, but it is a light roasted Oolong, which is why it is green.” And that is my introduction to Oolong tea, and I know I am in the hands of an expert. I already sense I want to learn everything about this tea, from growing, picking, processing, brewing, tasting, to what food complements it.
The Story behind Tie Guan Yin
So let us start at the beginning of this Oolong tea story. Tie Guan Yin translates as, “Iron Goddess of Mercy” and is an Oolong tea from Fujian province. The particular tea we are trying is from a region called Anxi County. Oolong is one of the oldest and most famous teas in the world. “China”, Andrew tells me, “has a kind of top ten list of famous teas, and this one is on the list as one of them”. Andrew continues with the story, many, many moons ago a pious farmer had a dream. In this dream, he was visited by the Buddhist goddess who is the embodiment of compassion, known as Guan Yin. Guan Yin told the farmer that if he looked behind the Buddhist temple, he would find a great treasure. This treasure he would be able to share generously with the people and make everyone’s lives’ better. The next morning, when the farmer awoke, he went to look behind the temple, and he found a tea tree. With due devotion, the farmer took the tea tree and cultivated it. He then shared its bounty with the local people and the story of “Tie Guan Yin” was born.
Satisfied with the history of the tea, it was time to try the first infusion. The tea looks like tightly curled balls and is called ball-rolled Oolong. To the untrained eye, it looks like you would need a lot for a cup of tea. However, you only need about 5 grams, as the flavour of the tea is released when the balls uncurl in hot water.
Tea Tasting – what do you do?
As this is my first tea tasting, Andrew talks me through the process.
Step 1 Look at the liquor. In this case, the liquor is very light green, very grassy and as Andrew notes for me, “the tea is going to have a peach kind of nuttiness to it, a kind of orchid and camphor taste as well”. My curiosity is suitably piqued!
Step 2 Andrew directs me to, “Smell it first then slurp! Don’t be afraid to slurp!” I duly smell and then slurp. As I breathe out, I focus on the aftertaste and declare, “I can taste peach”. This sweet fruit aftertaste is one of the things this Oolong is known for. It is known for tasting fresh and having, as Andrew phrases it, a ‘round mouth feel’ to it.
After tasting, I smell the leaves again and note how they have started to partially uncurl. Andrew puts up the second infusion as we talk.
I learnt that “Tie” means Iron and that there are three different reasons for this being a part of the story:
1) From the look of the tea leaf. As the tea leaf is processed, the leaves go a little bit oxidised brown like iron and when the leaves are processed completely, they change colour towards iron.
2) From the weight of the tea leaf. In the story, when the farmer initially finds the tree, he notices that the original leaves were thick and heavy, “as heavy as iron”.
3) The iron statue. In the story, the statue of the goddess Guan Yin was made of iron, and it was behind the statue that the farmer found the tea plant.
Andrew breaks from our conversation to pour the second infusion. We look at the liquor and this infusion is a little darker than the first. Before I taste the second infusion, I try the first infusion again. Tea tasting is all about comparing teas and today I am comparing the first infusion with the second infusion. We could have done another couple of infusions, however, today, two will be enough. After I taste the first infusion, I drink some water to clean my palette and I am now ready for the next tasting.
I look at the leaves and can see that they have almost completely unfurled. I smell the infusion and then slurp with gusto. Immediately I notice that the second infusion is smoother. It has less of the floral notes of the first infusion. This infusion activates a different part of my mouth! The first was much more at the front of my tongue and this one is more on the palette at the top. Andrew reassures me that this is the case and agrees when I suggest that it tastes like an entirely different drink!. Andrew explains that the change is due to the stronger flavour in the second infusion. As the leaf uncurls further, there is more surface area that is exposed to the water, and so more of the flavour can be released from the leaf. I prefer the second infusion.
This Oolong is a green tea, so I ask whether the water needs to be cooler than for black tea. Andrew says yes. The water today has been around 90 degrees centigrade for the first infusion and 92 degrees centigrade for the second infusion. The slightly hotter temperature helps extract the flavour in the second infusion. Both were infused for about two to two and a half minutes.
Food to accompany Tie Guan Yin
This Oolong is a light tea and reminds me of a cross between a white and green tea. It is delicate with a subtle flavour, and I am curious as to what dishes would accompany this tea. I know the answer is not going to be chocolate cake!
What Andrew suggests is light food which amplifies the fruity (peach) freshness of the tea. Andrew’s recommendation is a hot apple pie made with a light pastry with some cream on the side. Alternatively, you could have other fruit tarts with a similarly delicate flavour, such as pear, or dried fruits or nuts.
This was a lovely tea to drink as my first tea tasting. I have to admit I thought the Oolong I was going to taste would be a black tea and was pleasantly surprised to taste such delicate flavours.
Andrew and I spend about an hour talking and tasting the tea. It was a reminder to me how when we slow down and stay present to what we are doing that the richness and depth of enjoyment around simple pleasures, like drinking tea, are available to us. Also, it helps to heighten your senses, and while we were tasting the teas, the staff were making scones in the kitchen. This tasting was, therefore, accompanied by a pleasant smell of freshly baking scones.
Andrew and I will be having further tea tasting sessions over the coming weeks which I will also share with you on my blog. He also shared much more about the process that the tea goes through from picking to pot, and I will share that information with you in another blog post.
My thanks go to Andrew for his willingness to freely share his time and knowledge about teas with me. I am grateful that I was introduced to someone who was willing to embrace my passion for tea and help me learn more about it.
If you have a favourite tea, please share it with me in the comments section. And let me know which if you have ever had a formal tea tasting session and what it was like.
Tea & Glory:
29 Chalk Farm Road, Camden, London, NW1 8AJ
Mon – Fri: 9am – 6pm
Sat, Sun: 10am – 8pm