What Is Rock Tea?
Rock tea received its name not only because it grows in this incredibly rocky, mountainous area, but also because it inherits an unmistakeable “rocky” taste, thanks to the soil which is known to be rich in minerals, and the precise roasting process which it goes through. (Read more)
Wuyi Yancha Tea Processing
One of the things that makes Wuyi Rock Tea different from all other oolongs is the roasting process that it goes through. This process is not only one step, but a few distinguished steps.
When yancha is only in the first stages of processing it's still quite vegetal and floral, much like a green tea. Only at the end of the processing will it gain its characteristic taste that we all love.
Not all teas are roasted using the same techniques, for Wuyi yancha charcoal is used, or the hot ashes from the charcoal in particular.
First, the charcoal is burned for over 12 hours until they become pure white, with not a speck of black left. After that, the residual heat from the ashes is what is used to gently “roast” the oolong tea leaves.
In fact, the ashes needed for roasting yancha are so hot that the heat usually lingers for over 2 weeks, during which the roasting process is performed. After the 2 week period is over, a new batch of charcoal ashes is prepared.
To roast the yancha leaves special bamboo baskets are used. They are thin enough to allow the heat to touch the leaves but thick enough not to burn them. Furthermore, anywhere from 5 to 8 pounds of tea leaves are roasted at one time to prevent burning. Similarly to the initial burning of the charcoal, the roasting itself also lasts up to 12 hours at a time!
Now, this is where the hard part comes in: during the 12 hours, the tea leaves get flipped every 30 minutes to ensure an even roast. This is a reminder to us that as soon as the tea season starts, there is practically no rest for the tea farmers.
Working in a hot room of 50 °C (122 °F) the tea masters need to flip all of the 5-pound plus tea baskets carefully, each time brewing and tasting the new batch of tea to check if the roast has reached the right level. The first thing to look for is the disappearance of the characteristic grassy taste that non-roasted green teas possess.
Most oolongs are categorized by three stages of roasting: light, medium, and heavy (or dark). While light roasted oolongs refer to those teas that have undergone minimal 12-hour rounds of roasting, heavy oolongs can undergo multiple rounds, with the norm usually being 3, making it a total time of 36 hours of roasting.
How Oolong Tea Is Processed: The Roasting Of Rock Tea in 5 Steps
- The tea leaves are carefully harvested
- The tea leaves are sun-dried then processed into a half-processed tea called mao cha
- Special charcoal is burned over 12 hours until it is pure white
- Oolong is roasted on the residual ash heat in rounds, up to 36 hours, in large bamboo baskets
- The tea leaves are flipped every 30 minutes and the tea is tasted to see if it has reached the proper roast
What Determines How Long An Oolong Will Be Roasted For?
Aside from popular demand and the personal preferences of the farmers to determine the roast time, there are also certain guidelines which are followed.
The most significant variable for this will be the tea bush itself. In general, an early spring tea will end up with a light roast, while later sprouting tea bushes might undergo a heavy roast of many rounds.
Although some people like to stick to the fresher tastes, many tea connoisseurs who have been drinking tea for a long time opt for heavy roasts, slowly unraveling and paying attention to each subtle flavor within the many layers.
The ever so precise and long roasting process of Wuyi rock tea is what leaves us with the yan yun (charming rock rhyme) that we all crave for. Only after the roasting process is finished will the tea leaves finally transform into their final form, which we can recognize as quality yancha.