Saturday, April 23, 2011

Everything You Need to Know About Zealong, An Oolong from New Zealand, and A Tasting of Their 2010 "Zealong Dark"

What better way to usher in Spring than sipping oolong from a cup? This is what one has been doing off and on for the past few months thanks to some rather interesting oolong purchased from local dealer, Tula Teas, at the Victoria Tea Festival.

Zealong tea has been creating somewhat of a stir around the tea world as noted by Marshal'N on his blog and Nigel Melican in a recent Cha Dao interview. This is mainly because the tea actually is quite respectable. In fact the founder of the company, Vincent Chen, has taken painstaking efforts to ensure the highest quality possible which involves flying in experienced oolong pickers from Taiwan to pick the tea, working with teamasters on a day by day basis to get the production just right, carefully considering which variety of tea plant to grow, and using the highest food certification and tracking available as well as laying the groundwork for organic certification. There is no question that he also chose the location just as carefully.

What is most interesting about this tea is that it is perhaps the only tea of significant quality produced in the Southern Hemisphere. With that said, it is grown far enough south in the Southern hemisphere that the tea plants naturally experience some seasonal fluctuations. These fluctuations naturally occur in opposite months than what we experience in the Northern hemisphere. There are three picking seasons for these New Zealand teas as follows- Spring pick in November, Summer pick in January three or so weeks after mid Summers day, and Late Summer/ Early Fall pick in mid-March.

It is important to note that tea grown in their gardens in the Waikato region, New Zealand doesn't undergo complete hibernation in the Winter season because it simply doesn't get cold enough. But due to lower ground temperatures, shorter days, and less sunshine, their Winter season considerably slows the growth of the tea plants.

The people at Zealong claim that they don't notice any seasonal variations between these seasons and cite three possible explanations- the temperate climate stays warm enough that the bushes don't go into hibernation, the geographical location is 11-12 degrees closer to the equator than Taiwan or Fujian, they don't use quick fix chemical fertilizers (like urea) to stimulate growth and consequently the tea plants grow a bit slower. From what one knows and has experienced about tea, it seems that the first Spring flush should still contain a better pick (even if just slightly better), something that can be tracked through their ISO-22000 HACCP tracking numbers on each bag (this also prevents them from mixing two different lots or picking days together in one bag).

Some other points to clarify about Zealong oolong include differences between the three oolongs they sell and the three different packaging options they offer. They offer "Zealong Pure", "Zealong Aromatic", and "Zealong Dark". These types have nothing to do with picking seasons nor quality and basically indicate the level of roasting/ oxidization that each receive in production with "Pure" receiving the least oxidization/ roasting while "Dark" receiving more with "Aromatic" somewhere in the middle. The people at Zealong stated that it is the teamasters discretion as to which types are produced with each days batch and they consider many variables when making this decision.

Regarding the packaging, it comes in three different presentations and cost ranges. The most sharp, the most expensive, and with the biggest carbon foot print is the award winning black gift boxes that are sure to impress. The second packaging option is called "Everyday Zealong" and is about half the cost of the black gift boxes. "Everyday Zealong" comes in a resealable vacuum bag and is geared to those who would consume this tea on a regular basis in hopes that they wouldn't go bankrupt. The third packaging option is to order it from a local dealer where they receive large bulk shipments of the tea, repackage it in their own packaging, and sell it for about half the cost of the "Everyday Zealong". This packaging option supports local tea dealers and is the cheapest option. The people at Zealong said that there is no difference in quality between any of these packaging options.

There is always benefit to supporting local dealers and since Libby of Tula Teas lives literally just one block away- you can't get any more local than that!

So now that the air is cleared on Zealong, let's try some of their tea...

On a rather dark spring day these dry leaves of this Zealong Dark carry a slight roasted odour that is slightly milky and soapy with very soft cereal notes inside. Although roasted, you can still smell some faint green- a certain freshness about it. Poured into heated yixing the roasted odour is amplified and a sweet citrus pomegranate is also released into the surrounding air.

The first infusion is sweet, light, with an indistinct, very faint, floral and fruit taste that is quite mild in nature. These tastes moisten the throat while stimulating mainly the front half of the mouth. The aftertaste is very faint as well with a taste of sweet green grapes sometimes disappearing on the breath.

The second infusion presents sweetness mixed with muted cereal and slightly woody notes. The wood notes drop off into dryness in the mouth where a distinct sour-sweetness of green grapes remain. The taste of ripe black plum is left on the breath. The mouthfeel is thin and coats mainly the front and roof of the mouth. The sweet and sour finish is distinct-the fruity black plum taste rides upon green grapes in this sweet and sour profile. The aftertaste takes to the breath for quite some time imparting light, woody, cereal notes but mostly that distinct black plum/ green grape fruitiness.

The third infusion starts initially with watery tastes that are a soapy white grape. A very sweet, slightly woody, taste with flashes of creamy butter develop. The sweet fruit notes extend long into the aftertaste with a weak mouthfeel that only pleases the front half of the mouth.

The fourth infusion has more of a cereal honey start with very little sweetness or fruit initially. Then comes short, soft flashes of fruit and sweetness before empty space is filled with some faint floral sweet notes which stretch into a honey sweetness in the mouth. The chaqi of this tea is very mild, very light making one feel just slightly airy and carefree.

The fifth things begin to fade with a predominantly woody taste- the sweet flavours pretty much gone. It slightly drys the mouth before returning with a slight non-specific fruity taste perhaps a banana-grape taste.

The sixth and seventh infusions have buttery, woody, even mushroom notes that sometimes even hint at rose. There is a honey wood aftertaste that is weak with little sweet taste remaining.

These leaves are left to steep overnight and in the morning a thick grainy honey fades into emptiness in the mouth. There is a soft finish of mushrooms and honey.



Renegade said...

What a truly informative and fun read! I really wanted to sample these, but both the zealong site and Tula teas only sell 50g packages. To try all three would be $50+ plus shipping. I found that Chicago Tea Garden offers $3 samples, but it appears that they're still selling stock from 2009. If I buy "pure zealong", I prefer it to be fresh. Any ideas as to who else may offer samples?

Matt said...


You could always email the dealers and ask them if they would consider sending the samples you are interested in if you make one purchase. Then purchase the "Zealong Pure" and have the samples ride along? Most dealers, especially small ones, might consider such an offer? It doesn't hurt to ask.

One will be posting on "Zealong Pure" in a few days, so it may give you a feel for things.

First time commenting, thanks for stopping by.


Petr Novák said...

As Renegade said -informative and fun read...reading this post I am in good mood so I get an idea: to order the Zaelong from "Libby of Tula Teas lives literally just one block away" Let send it to Czech R. and then meditate about carbon footprint or getting bankrupt...ha ha ha

Matt, Thanks for both- info and fun!


Matt said...


Your feet are not that big are they? hahaha


Bearsbearsbears said...

Slight correction: the majority of iced tea consumed in the US comes from Argentina because of its superior qualities for iced brewing, and a great variety of good tea is produced in Africa, including some interesting Chinese-style teas out of Malawi. It is perhaps the only rolled oolong produced in the Southern Hemisphere, but it is by no means the only good quality tea produced below the equator.

Matt said...

Jason Fasi,

Thanks for bringing up these other "below the equator" tea producing areas and doing them justice. Believe that those countries were mentioned in the above linked Cha Dao article.

As far as the quality of these teas, guess it depends on what your definition of "good quality" is Hahahaha....

One has tired a few different varieties of "sencha" from Africa as well as some oolong and hong cha from different estates in Africa including the teas from the once organically certified estate in Kenya mentioned in the Cha Dao article. The tea was unique and fun and definitely had its own character and nuances... but "good quality"? These teas don't seem to compare to their Asian counterparts while, on the other hand, Zealong pretty much just tastes like your average oolong.

The quality of the tea produced in these regions have at least three things going against them that at least Zealong seemed to figure out:

1- Hibernation phase of tea growth-this phase is vital for producing tea with qi, flavour, and aroma. When dormant biochemical processes take place which are nessassary for a quality product. Hibernation is induced by either cold temperatures, high altitude, or alternation of rainy season and dry season.

2- Feng Shi or optimal growing location- Tea grows better in certain locations that have a certain soil and climate.

3- Refined production method/ experienced tea master- The more care, detail, experience, and technology put into making the tea will naturally create a better product.


Bearsbearsbears said...


I suppose that depends largely on taste, and my idea of "good" quality is hand-harvested tea interesting enough to be worth its price. Nonetheless, it's a subjective basis upon which I'm surprised that "one" would dismiss an entire hemisphere of tea as "not good quality".

As a matter of taste, I prefer a good orthodox African black to most Chinese hong cha, which I find to be monotone and overpriced. I also find African whites quite nice, though a bit overpriced.

There's a world of tea out there. Allow yourself to be surprised.


Matt said...

Jason Fasi,

It seems you caught one making the only definitive statement on this blog and poked at that hole. Hahaha... Jab, jab... Hahaha...

All joking aside, one always keeps an open mind when drinking tea and of course has not, "dismiss[ed] an entire hemisphere of tea as "not good quality". If one did, this oolong wouldn't have been purchased in the first place nor enjoyed to the fullest. Furthermore, one also enjoys some African black tea from time to time having not written it off but has never tried a white from Africa nor tea from a specific estate in South America.

Agreed- everyones idea of good quality is different, but it is important to note that quality and value are independent of each other. A tea can be very good quality but be either insanely expensive or insanely cheap. Often these two separate entities get pushed together and talked about as if they are one of the same.

It also comes down to the individual's constitution- most of the African black tea that one has tried has a rather harsh edgy chaqi that often upsets ones stomach similar to the way a young puerh can react. The calming dimension of the qi is often absent in the blacks one has tried. Have you had any similar experiences? or can you point us in the direction of some "quality" African black tea?

Wojciech Bońkowski from the Polish Wine Guide posted on an African white from Satemwa Estate in Malawi. See here:

The tea looks great.

Still keeping that mind open until a tea of this quality finds its way into ones tea pot. ;)

Thanks for the comments and discussion about regions that don't get discussed enough.