Food & Wine
First comes the invitation to be a tea taster. Next is a set of tasting notes outlining aspects of flavour, dry leaves, infused leaves, liquor, smell and more - stuff that tasters should be looking for, such as, "Do the leaves look lively and have a lustrous quality, or are they rather dull?"
Then, two days before the big event, a polite email arrives to say, "Please don't apply any scent or fragrance", so nothing will distract from the subtleties of the teas.
This is clearly a serious business: the first harvest-tasting at Zealong Tea, Gordonton, with a small team of Kiwis selected to smell and sip 33 handcrafted organic oolong teas from the latest harvest, which finished in March, and rate the top choices.
The aim is to find out what appeals to the Kiwi palate, and how this lines up with Zealong staff's own preferences. The top raters will be promoted as Zealong's outstanding teas, ones that shine above the rest. They will become the benchmark oolongs that the company will aim for in subsequent harvests from its beautifully neat rows of dark-green tea bushes (Camellia sinensis).
The tasting is scheduled to start at 10am as Zealong founder Vincent Chen says mid-morning is an ideal time to taste tea, when the digestive system is relaxed.
I'm one of the chosen tasters, and I'm anything but relaxed. I'm worried I won't be able to detect the nuances and differences between the brews. Will I know whether the aroma of the wet leaves is sweet and smooth, with a faint cut-grass undertone? Will the liquor display bright, crisp, deep or dull greyish colours? Will I feel any taste at the back of my throat?
If this sounds knowledgeable, it's only because I've been swotting the notes.
But it's all organised. There's no ducking out, and five tasters assemble at Zealong at the appointed time. A quick who's who, with tea-drinking credentials:
- Alan Sanson, Waikato District Mayor: "Black tea, Dilmah, about two cups a day." Sanson's assignment this morning is a bit different from a previous adjudicating role at Port Waikato's popular annual whitebait fritter competition. "We taste about 20 fritters, " he says happily. "They are so diverse. You always find a winner."
- Cameron Douglas, of Auckland, wine man, master sommelier: "Earl grey, no particular brand. I drink more coffee than tea."
- Mat McLean, owner-chef of Hamilton's award-winning Palate restaurant: "Herbal teas, I mostly drink them at night on my days off."
- Dai Henwood, comedian, from Auckland: "Six or seven cups a day. I'm a big tea fan. It's a pleasure to drink tea. In the morning, it's the standard white one, then through the day, I drink fermented and oolong teas."
Henwood's been drinking tea since he was about five. "It keeps me calm. It's good for your soul." He only uses teabags when he's being extremely lazy.
* Me. I'm a newspaper reporter and a longtime Dilmah drinker, with a splash of milk. My first cup of tea must be taken early in the morning while tucked up in bed with the newspaper. It is a ritual of several decades, and I get grumpy if this doesn't happen.
None of us has taken part in a tea tasting before, although Douglas, the respected wine man, clearly has skills suited for this task.
Chef McLean's palate (no pun intended) will no doubt come in handy.
Henwood is the only oolong drinker among us, but we're here to learn as well as give feedback, so we're briefed on this noble tea before we start tasting.
The best oolong is traditionally grown in the mountains of Taiwan and southern China. Tea drinkers with refined tastes can pay $11,000 a kilogram for top leaves.
Gordonton's oolong - and boss man Vincent Chen - are both a long way from their homeland of Taiwan, transplanted in a leap of faith to the Waikato to establish New Zealand's first oolong tea estate.
The Chen family's dream is to create an international reputation for its brand, launched in December 2009 and now sold in several countries.
They want to make New Zealand tea as world famous as kiwifruit.
Chen's vision dates to the early 1990s, when his father, Tzu Chen, was in Hamilton to establish a property development business. Tzu noticed a camellia bush flourishing in his neighbour's garden, and was intrigued by the similarity between that camellia's leaves and his beloved oolong tea leaves.
Tzu Chen saw an opportunity. He thought if camellias were well suited to the Waikato climate, maybe there would be the right combination of rainfall, sunshine, soil and temperature for oolong here.
Today, the flourishing 48-hectare Zealong plantation is a familiar sight in Gordonton Rd, and the 2011-2012 harvest was picked in about 60 days in November, January and March. Zealong brought in 20 tonnes from its 1.2 million tea plants.
The teas are batch-processed from each day of picking, and there are more than 90 oolongs from this harvest. This is too many for us to taste in one round, so staff have shortlisted 33 teas - 10 each of the pure, aromatic and dark teas, and three of Zealong's new black (see sidebar).
Zealong staff admit they don't know how the tasting will go, but they are confident we will find the teas that stand out from the rest.
Public relations adviser Jeff Howell says the Kiwi market is the hardest for Zealong because of the narrow view of what tea is. In his case, he jokes that he blames his English grandparents, who made tea so strong you could stand your spoon up in it, served, of course, with milk and sugar.
Such influences, Howell says, get in the way of our understanding of oolong.
Zealong marketing executive Fabien Maisonneuve gives a few tasting tips, the most important for me is to take a small sip of tea, then breathe out through your nose while the liquid is still in the mouth, allowing the aromas to meet the back of the palate.
With taste being closely related to the sense of smell, it is sound advice. It works.
We've done the preliminaries. We're on our own with scoring sheets to rate the teas one to seven for appearance, aroma and taste. It is compulsory to fill in the comments sections, and there will be "no opinion exchange" between the tasters.
There are 33 numbered teas, brewed and dispensed into elegant white porcelain bowls, each with accompanying leaves for inspection. We're to start with the unroasted pure, work our way through lightly roasted aromatic, then dark and full-bodied black.
Now to start sniffing, sipping and swishing.
"You can make as much noise as you like, " adds Maisonneuve as we dive in.
It's confusing at first. One dish of tea leaves looks pretty much like the next.
But the tasting notes have been helpful, pointing out that silver or yellow tips mean more powerful fragrance.
I start looking for this, and other differences appear. Some leaves are more tightly balled and compact than others. Some are uniform size, and some are more irregular.
We pick them up, sniff them, sniff the liquor, taste the brew, sip, swish, breathe out, catch the aromas, score and write comments.
We've been told to simply trust our tastebuds and, sure enough, they seem to be working. Although there is no collaboration, it appears - with some nodding and murmuring - that we just know when we find our perfect tea.
Sanson notes this first, almost like an "aha" moment as he sips. Later, someone asks him why it was his personal best. "I don't know. I just liked it." Fair enough.
No 7 is my favourite in the pure range. I think, to use newly acquired terminology, I like it because it has a perfect balance of sweetness, spiciness and a little bitterness (from the tannins and caffeine). The aroma is sweet and floral. It works for me.
On we go to aromatic, and my new- found confidence evaporates. I'm scoring too high, I've given four teas the same mark, but No 10 is probably my favourite.
I go back and try it again, but I'm now a bit confused. I write "mellow, fragrant, honey". I think that's what I get.
But the moment of recognition returns, the toasty flavours of No 2 in the dark range, and the deep, rich, fruitiness of No 3 in the new black.
It takes more than an hour. Vincent Chen collects the numbers of the personal bests. We've scored some the same, and some line up with Vincent's own top picks. The result for dark is less clear - only two tasters picked the same personal best. This is No 4. Chen tastes it again and declares it the winner.
Douglas comments that this had a lot of fruit on the nose, and was floral, fruity and scented on the palate.
"It had great balance."
McLean liked it for its darker flavours, describing it as "soft, gentle and complex".
We're talking tea here, not wine, but such descriptors now seem highly suitable for the fragrant, sweet golden, amber and toasty teas we've just been drinking.
One of the nicest things about these oolongs is that they're growing in our own backyard in the Waikato.
Because of Zealong's meticulous recording and batch processing, every pack can be traced back to the day and block of pick.
Chen points north out the window to where my favourite No 7 Pure comes from - "Block 2, in front of that white house over there" - and tells us it was picked on a cloudy spring day - November 23 last year.
No 5, the top aromatic, is also from a northern block on the plantation, picked on a sunny day, November 30.
Location and the weather on picking day are important, Chen says. Everything affects quality and taste.
The tasting team has a debrief over lunch at Zealong's Camellia Tea House. It's been intense, challenging, interesting and enjoyable - the words fly around the room. Douglas and McLean liked the dark best, while Sanson found the aromatic more to his liking.
Douglas probably sums up for all of us when he says, "Whatever gets you, it gets you instantly".
It bears out what Maisonneuve said at the beginning: "The best tea is the tea you like the best".
So when the waitress asks me what tea I'd like with my lunch, I answer quick as a flash, "Pure, please".
- © Fairfax NZ News
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