Saturday, May 10, 2008

Review: Adagio's Oolong #40

Tea marketing experts go to great lengths to describe the distinctive flavors of their tea. I especially like watching the inelegant handling of green tea. You can practically see the author squirming as they candidly pen words like "grassy", "fresh" or "a bit lawny" - diction oh so appealing to American palates. But nobody ever taackles the Gordian dilemma of Oolong tea. Nobody attempts to describe what an Oolong really tastes like. Lectures and essays about its production are common through out the tea interwebs and tea books. But no flavor profiles. Part of the problem is the broad definition of "Oolong" or "Wulong" which covers so many different styles and methods that it's about as specific as saying "Tea tastes like tea." You could argue that there are flavors common to all Oolongs, but I prefer not to make assumptions, even for the sake of tea newbs. See, I used to think all Oolongs were related in taste by a mellow graham cracker like flavor, but Adagio's Oolong #40 quickly dispelled that erroneous take. Think tropical flavors and daring cuisine. Think of sultry breezes and ocean spray. This Oolong is far from the misty, rocky crags on Formosa guide books - it is a vacation from Oolongs, so to speak, and evidence of why nobody will even try to describe what an Oolong tastes like.

"Oolong tea from Taiwan. Formosa, meaning 'beautiful' was what the Portuguese explorers called this island. The oolong tea grown here continues to be called as such. The intense pungency and exquisite bouquet of Formosa Oolong tea is regarded to be the finest in the world. However, only the finest of Formosa teas warrant the label of 'fancy' grade. This is such tea. Our 'Oolong Symphony no. 40' has dark, silver-tipped leaves and produces a mesmerizing cup of delicate peachy notes and warm, soothing flavor. Well deserving its nickname as the true champagne of teas."

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Adagio spares no flattering words for this, their second highest rated Oolong, bested only by their premium Jasmine Oolong. I'm prone to agree. Though I can't justify why this would be fancy or fancier than other Oolongs, I can attest to its delicious deviance and distinguished style. It is a tea to remember.

Leaf & Liquor: At first glance Oolong #40 is not a single type, color and shape, but a colorful blend of greens and browns. Some leaves are more curled than others, and the breadth of colors covers light copper patina to moss green to timber brown. A healthy steep makes a healthy auburn color (one color), with a rich hue glowing like a large topaz gem. It also exhibits a good clarity, and somewhere in its dark and pensive depths the Oolong #40 takes on a color borrowed from a black tea. Most Oolongs I've had opted for a lighter shade of straw, but the Oolong #40 dispenses with the pale particulars and buckles down with a deeper tan.

Raw & Steeped Aroma: All that starry eyed tropical nonsense in the opening of this review? That comes into play here in the aroma. I dipped my nose for a quick whiff, expecting more of the same (but good!) Oolong olfactory opulence to hit my nose. I was completely off guard, then, when I caught the most curious smell. It was something familiar, but so far removed from the world of tea that I had to sit back and re-open my aroma palatte to find out what it was. Of course! Sweet coconut milk! The Oolong #40 conjured vivid memories of coconut shrimp plates of the past, but above all a smooth, sweet and silky scent of coconut milk, or maybe even sugared shredded coconut. Samoa cookies? Whatever your sugary coconut dish of choice, this smells a lot like it. I also catch a supplementary aroma of mochi, or those not in the know, flattened, pounded, glutinous rice, widely known as a common Japanese festival food and a hazard to dry throated elder persons. It's delicately and slightly sweet, and perfect for the timid palate. The coconut is neither overpowering nor weak, casting the perfect balance of intensity with a straightforward, appealing smell. I've never experienced anything quite like Oolong #40's aroma, which quickly puts it on a list of teas to have again.

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Flavor & Palate: But like so many good teas, the hype of the aroma doesn't last through the tongue test. That coconut cream milkiness makes a brief return in the palate and the taste, with the slightest vestigial nub of the coconut flavor, but the tea is otherwise stripped of its fanciful fragrance. While the taste might be bowlderized of it's better flavor, but the palate is not so destitute. Still heavy and slow, the tea's body sits dutifully on the tongue. Unexcitable, unremarkable, it waits and ponders, breathing a heavy sigh. It's slow and ponderous crawl extends to the drinker, too, who can't help but slip into a semi-meditative state. A tranquilizer Oolong #40 is not, but it is a fantastic relaxant. As I write in my notes "Light, almost imperceptible, but with a nice weighty palate and the ability to focus the unfocused mind." Even bereft of flavor it is still gladly taken with book, movie or writing session.

As usual, my review concludes with a lesson of morality (Wheel of Morality, Turn Turn Turn, Tell Us The Lesson That We Must Learn) but today's is dead simple. That an Oolong is only a name, and a very unfair one. Maybe this is another example of Edward Said's Orientalism - Westerners slapping labels on foreign phenomenon, simplifying them, and keeping them at arm's length. We lack the recognizable vocabulary to differentiate between Oolongs. As (hack) writers we struggle to put a tea's flavorful depth into words that English may not be prepared for. We always urge someone to just try it, just take a sip, because whatever we say will not suffice. This is all telling, then, why Oolong will forever remain a mystery on tea house menus. "Oolong Tea: C'mon, Just Try It." And that certainly applies to Adagio's Oolong #40; a tea set apart from its so-called Oolong siblings in aroma and even a little in flavor.

2 comments:

Salsero said...

Graham cracker I like that. Sometimes I think light oolongs have a tapioca flavor. Nice review of this darker version of oolong.

loose leaf tea lover said...

Sounds yummy. Im still trying to distinguish good oolong loose leaf tea from not so good. Ill try this one.