A good question, isn’t it? It came to me often, when I started diving into tea a few years ago. I was drinking myself through all the green, Oolong and black teas from my country of choice, north Thailand, and initially was surprised to find that they would produce at least all their finer teas in a tightly rolled form. Not surprised, because that would be unique… of course, they do that in China, and they do it in Taiwan, and they are probably doing it in some other countries, too. Getting involved in shipping tea freights to both overseas and domestic locations, I quickly understood how much sense the tightly rolled form makes if it comes to volume and resulting shipping costs. The Chinese must have developed this method at times, when tea was still transported by horses and donkeys within China as well as for export.
However, using the Chinese method of preparing tea (my “hobby version” of the Chinese tea ceremony (Gong Fu Cha) with the pertaining short infusion periods, I very soon discovered that the leaves of some of those teas, namely the most tightly rolled ones, won’t open before the 2nd, sometimes even the 3rd infusion, and I logically concluded that the rolled form might delay the release of aroma and taste from these tea leaves, thereby affecting infusion periods and taste results.
I remember discussing the issue in tea-related forums on the internet, and as it turned out, I wasn’t alone with my suspicion: I found quite a number of people, who thought likewise, stating that they would increase the steeping time for the first infusion with such tea, and similar.
A few years later into the topic (tea), though, I need to say that it is probably just not true, this insight based on my experience with testing my theory in practice, which I was lucky enough to get the chance to:
We used to have these wonderful ‘black pearls’, a heavily fermented Oolong tea, or actually called a red tea by the Chinese, so we’d be on the safe side calling it a black tea, too. One of the most striking features of that tea was its mildness despite an otherwise rich spectrum of taste and aroma notes. The Chinese producers used to roll it in really tight and very small granules, so they leaves would never fully open before even 3 – 4 minutes in very hot water, and I had always had the idea that this tea might actually be even more intense, and thereby arguably even better, if they would process it in the form of open leaves. So, one day I asked the producers to produce a batch for me omitting the processing step of rolling, and, though smiling about me, since they well knew what I had in mind, they readily did me the favor.
When I had the chance to collect my open leaves batch and subject it to a direct taste comparison with the rolled form of the same tea, the results were more than clear: the open leaves did not taste any better, not even really any different from the granule, and no delay of the release of aroma and taste was evident at all. In fact, to be honest, if I would have to establish a difference at all, the rolled one was even a little bit better.
Since that, I had a couple of occasions to verify that result by making a similar comparisons for a green tea and for an Oolong tea, and it was indeed the same.
The rolled form of tea leaves, even where very tight, does not seem to influence the process of releasing taste and aroma when infusing at all, while the rolled form might even serve to preserve some freshness and taste/aroma properties for a longer period than the open leaves form. Be careful, though, with the latter statement, since this is only another one of my theories, which at times can turn out to be just wrong, as the example shows only all too clearly.
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