What Is Anxi Oolong Tea?
Anxi Oolongs are partially oxidized teas grown in Anxi County. In southern Fujian Province, this area is a historic growing area for Chinese tea. Most famously, tieguanyin (or "Iron Goddess of Mercy") teas are produced here. This variety of the tea plant has been cultivated in this region for centuries. Over time, it has become one of the most well known types of Chinese tea.
Provenance and variety are the distinguishing factors for this category. But there is also much variation in harvest date and crafting styles. This means there is a broad range of flavor profiles within the group.
How Is Anxi Oolong Tea Made?
Anxi oolongs are usually tightly rolled. Before the advent of vacuum sealers and refrigeration, rolled leaves lasted longer. Rolling reduces surface exposure to air, light, and moisture. It protects the leaf from accidental oxidation during storage. Though now associated with oolongs from Taiwan, this technique originated in Anxi County. Long before tea cultivation began in Taiwan, the Fujianese were making rolled oolongs.
These teas were also oxidized to at least 30% and heavily roasted. In the humid climate of southeastern China, this was important. It reduced the amount of moisture present in the leaf, and increase the shelf life of the finished tea. This traditional darker style is known as nong xiang. That translates as "strong fragrance", a reference to its full-bodied, roasty aroma.
But modern production is now borrowing techniques back from Taiwan. The qing xiang, or "green fragrance" style, has become the most popular type of tieguanyin. We can appreciate the light and floral aromas that make this style popular. But we often complain about its popularity. The prevalence only makes it harder to find quality teas in the traditional style.
Signs Of Quality
As with other types of oolongs, the best quality tieguanyin teas come from high elevations. In the mountains of Anxi County, slow plant growth creates more flavor compounds. Also, rich soil and a sub-tropical climate create ideal conditions for tea cultivation. But high elevations limit the growing area. It is impossible to produce large quantities of these high elevation teas. Today, tieguanyin is one of the most popular Chinese teas. Demand for this type of tea far outweighs the supply of premium farms. Large quantities are grown at lower elevations. More sun exposure and faster growth cause more bitterness to develop in the leaf. Mass produced tieguanyin teas also develop more astringency (or dryness) in their brew.
The quality of craftsmanship also plays a big part in the quality of the finished tea. Every year, roasters creating the traditional nong xiang style are harder to come by. New crafters of the modern style often cut corners to increase the speed of production. It is quick and easy to roast the leaf with hardly any oxidation. But this creates a tea that is acidic and can be hard on the stomach. By contrast, a quality tieguanyin should display a smooth mouthfeel. Experienced drinkers will look for the 'finish' or lingering sweetness. This should persist long after the tea is swallowed.