Deconstructing (and Drinking) Dancong Oolong Maocha

Maocha, in Brief

Once you get about knee deep into tea, you might find the word “maocha” on tea sites here and there. To put it simply, maocha is tea that has been left in some kind of rough, unfinished state.* It’s fit to drink, but usually it’s not what ends up in the consumer’s cup.

*The degree of finish denoted by the term maocha  differs depending on tea type. For example, puer sold as maocha has usually finished all processing steps excepting being formed into a cake. Whereas the maocha forms of other types of tea are usually unsorted and/or lacking some other processing step.

What's in dancong oolong maocha

So what exactly does maocha look like, specifically in the case of dancong oolongs?

This tea is an unroasted milan dancong oolong. (Tea is from the March 2019 selection of the White2Tea club.) The appearance of the tea is rough – clearly, maocha in this case refers to unsorted tea. I noticed a large number of huangpian (yellowish/variegated rough, large leaves) and sticks in addition to dark, twisting, typical-looking dancong leaves.

Usually the presence of huangpian and sticks in tea is considered a sign of low quality. But why is that? What do these elements contribute to the tea that makes it less desirable?

The obvious answer is that unsorted tea simply looks less beautiful. It’s well known that the most even-looking tea fetches the highest prices (think of the bud only or bud and one leaf pick of top quality green teas).

But putting aesthetics aside, might there be a taste-related reason for sorting out huangpian and sticks? To answer this question, I decided to sort out the maocha into its constituent parts and examine each part individually.

Sorting the Maocha

I dumped out my bag of milan dancong maocha and painstakingly sorted through 22g or so. I don’t remember how long it took me to do so, but it was long enough to think about all the labor needed for this step, something which is usually invisible to the end consumer. 

From my original ~22g of maocha, I sorted out:

Sticks: 2.21g

Yellow leaves: 5.76g

Standard leaves: 13.80g

I was a bit surprised that huangpian material constituted over a quarter of the mass of the unsorted tea. I wonder if this percentage is representative of the amount typically present in dancong oolongs, or unsorted tea in general.

Close up of huangpian (left), standard leaves (middle), and maocha (upper right). Huangpian is lighter colored than the standard leaves with a rougher, dryer looking texture.

After sorting the maocha, I gave each pile a good sniff. To my surprise, the sticks smelled quite good. Peachy fruit with a scent of hay. The huangpian had an earthier hay-like scent with only a suggestion of fruit. The standard leaves gave off a light, fresh green hay scent. Of the three, I found the scent of the sticks to be the most balanced and appealing.

But tea isn’t just for smelling – it’s for drinking! To get to the bottom of why sticks and huangpian are typically sorted from dancong productions, I decided to blind taste test each category separately.

The Test

I’ve designed this page so that you can follow along with the tasting using pictures and graphics to represent aspects of each tea. Some graphics have extra information in a drop down box underneath. You’ll have to trust my judgement when it comes to relaying this information correctly. But even with that caveat, I hope there’s enough information that you can form your own opinion.

The parameters for this tasting were:

– 2.21g of each part of the maocha (standard leaves, huangpian, and sticks) in an identical 100ml porcelain tasting set. The tasting sets were marked on the bottom with what part of the tea they held, and the tea was placed into the corresponding set. These sets were blindly mixed and filled with water, and then marked with a letter on top. The tea liquor was poured out into a cup marked with the same letter.

– each tea steeped for six mins with 98C reverse osmosis water with pink rock salt added (TDS of 54 ppm)

Can you guess which letter represent which part of the maocha via the tasting note hints below? My guesses and the answers are in a couple of drop down boxes near the bottom of this page.

LIQUOR

A

oolong maocha Liquor A

Sweet, butter. Hints of sweet florals like honeysuckle. Scent fades away as the tea cools.

B

oolong maocha liquor B

Has a medicine spice note. Reminiscent of licorice, sassafras root. Peach notes come through later.

C

oolong maocha Liquor C

A few shades darker orange than B. Scent is deep rich peach. Much stronger scented than A.

AROMA

A

roots aroma

Roots. Sassafras. Burdock. Medicinal. These types of earthy aromas.

B

peach cotton candy oak leaves aroma

Deep stewed peach notes. A bit of earthiness like oak leaves. But then the aftertaste becomes lighter and more pleasant. Refined sugar, with a hint of peach.

C

roots metallic peach aroma

Medicinal root flavors with an underlying sharp metallic taste.  A faint aroma of peach that strengthens in the aftertaste.

FLAVOR

A

bitter sweet flavors

Bitter then sweet, but never approaching the sweetness of b. Flat-tasting (the pitch of the taste never rises or falls).

B

bitter then sweet

Much sweeter and more complex than the others after the initial bitterness fades. A rich fruitiness, a light touch of white sugar. 

C

bitter sweet flavors

Stronger bitterness than A and B.  Fades to a hint of sweetness much later.

TEXTURE

A

soft rocky cooling texture

Soft. Getting a bit of rockiness in the back of the throat, and a tingling in the mid tongue.  Cooling.

B

watery soft texture

Watery. But also soft. But mostly watery.

C

dry watery texture

Drying in the mid tongue. Watery.

BODY

A

medium light body

B

light body

C

light body

BALANCE

A

Balance favors flavor and texture. Some aroma is present but is entirely one note.  

 

B

Flavor and aroma. Much more complexity to the aromas than in the other two. No hint of that medicinal root taste, and the bitterness remains at a pleasant level.

C

Flavor. Much stronger than A, but this means the unpleasant bitter root medicine flavor are amplified. There is some sweetness later on with a touch of a peach flavor, but it’s hard to notice through the medicinal root flavors.

The Reveal

Spoiler alert! Don’t click the buttons below until you have finalized your guesses about which tea is which.

A – Sticks.  The fullest body of the three, paired with deep medicinal root notes. Pleasant in that the bitterness is not overwhelming, and the texture is quite creamy. Some sweetness arrives later, but overall everything is simplistic. Feels like drinking a medicinal drink.

B – Standard. Has the most complex changing aftertaste of the three. The body is quite light and the texture a bit watery, but the aromas are good. Light peach flavors with a sweetness that’s almost airy in the aftertaste. 

C – Huangpian. An overwhelming medicinal bitterness. Texture is watery but drying all over the mouth. One note. The aftertaste eventually becomes sweeter but less so than A and B.

A – Huangpian

B – Sticks

C – Standard leaves

Conclusion

Yet again I’ve guessed wrong by allowing my preference for aromatic teas to overwhelm logic. Logically, the most desirable part of the tea (the standard leaves) should have the most stuff (chemicals) in it, producing a tea with the strongest flavor (tea C).

But not necessarily the best balance – the standard leaves were overwhelmingly medicinally bitter. (It’s worth noting here that dancong oolongs are not typically drunk unroasted like this one; perhaps part of the reason for the roast is to curb the bitterness present in these teas.)

The huangpian was less complex aromatically than the standard leaves, but had an interesting texture and slightly thicker body.

But what was up with the stems? I was quite shocked that the liquor from the tea sticks was so complexly aromatic and sweet.

After a bit of searching, I found that Akira Hojo of Hojo Tea had posted his own experiment drinking tea with and without stems. Although his experiment featured sencha, he also notes that the stems add a sweetness and roundness to the body of the tea.

Another article, this one on Taiwan Sourcing, mentions the role that stems play in adding sweetness and aroma to some types of oolongs. It also describes how certain processing steps use stems to maximize specific flavor profiles.

Bringing it back to the tea at hand, my hunch is that this particular oolong benefits in the cup from the addition of stems and huangpian. While the standard leaves alone are more visually appealing, the tea feels unbalanced. The huangpian is capable of adding more texture and body, and the sticks gives a wider aromatic range and sweetness to round out the strong bitterness.

From left: A couple examples of 1) huangpian 2) sticks/stems and 3) standard leaves

Addendum - More Fun with Maocha?

This maocha deconstruction was a fun, educational taste test, and one I hope that others will try if maocha is available.

If there’s enough leftover tea after the first tasting, a great follow-up palate test is drinking the sorted tea side by side with the reconstructed maocha (just mix the huangpian and sticks back in. Or, try two different maochas – one mixed only with sticks, and one mixed only with huangpian). In this way, the notes from the huangpian and sticks are highlighted in the maocha. You might be surprised about your preference, just as I was!

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