Much like wine, the world of tea offers an incredible range of flavors and tasting possibilities. While Japan is renowned for its production of green teas like sencha, it also cultivates a small selection of oolong teas. Unlike green and black teas, which are typically considered at opposite ends of the tea spectrum, oolong tea occupies a unique position, bridging the gap between the two and offering a diverse array of flavors and experiences.
Oolong tea falls somewhere in the middle of the oxidation spectrum, between green and black teas. Green teas are usually less than 8% oxidized, while black teas undergo oxidation of 85% or more. Oolong tea, with its oxidation level ranging between 8% and 85%, showcases an extensive variety of flavors due to this broad range.
The leaves used for oolong tea are more mature and resilient, enabling them to withstand the necessary processing required to achieve the desired characteristics of oolong tea. As mature tea leaves naturally contain less caffeine, oolong tea consequently has a slightly lower caffeine content per cup. Each brew of oolong tea truly offers a unique experience, and depending on the variety of oolong, multiple cups can be brewed before discarding the leaves.
In contrast, sencha differs from oolong in several ways. It is one of Japan's beloved teas, easily recognizable by its vibrant green color and grassy, occasionally bitter taste. Unlike matcha, which consists of ground tea leaves, sencha is made from whole leaves that are infused in water. These leaves are typically harvested before reaching full maturity, resulting in a higher caffeine content and, in some varieties, elevated levels of nutrients and amino acids. One notable characteristic of sencha is the amount of time the leaves are shaded for before harvest, which can be up to 21 days. This shading process significantly influences the flavor profile of the tea. Unshaded leaves can result in a dry or astringent taste, while shaded leaves produce a more mellow or sweeter brew.
After harvesting, sencha follows a different preparation method compared to oolong tea. For green teas, it is crucial to halt the oxidation process. To achieve this, sencha leaves are typically steamed for a short period, effectively stopping oxidation. The duration of steaming can also impact the flavor, ranging from 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Following this step, the tea leaves are tightly rolled, giving them their signature appearance.
Both oolong and sencha teas offer a wide range of taste profiles, and exploring these teas with care and curiosity will undoubtedly yield a fruitful and enjoyable experience. Adjusting steeping time, water temperature, and tea quantity can unlock a whole new world of flavors, making the exploration of teas an exciting and worthwhile endeavor.
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!