Michael Harney solved my oolong mystery!
Long story here…
OK, so my whole confusion about oolong has been that years ago, I used to like drinking the teas that Upton calls simply “Formosa Oolong”. Pretty oxidized but not black, simple un-roasted flavor, from Taiwan.
So, recently, when I got back into tea and got on Steepster, I started sampling some oolongs from places like Butiki and Tea Trekker. I tasted some interesting oolongs, but everything was SO different from that oolong I used to drink. I tried to figure out which of the varieties of Taiwanese oolongs offered in these more high end tea shops matched what I knew as “Formosa Oolong”. The closest I got was Bai Hao from Teavivre, but the type I was familiar with from before had a simpler flavor and was definitely a less refined tea.
I emailed Upton to ask what their Formosa Oolong teas actually were, and they sent me a really unhelpful, general email that totally didn’t answer my question. Then upon more researching, I found that Harney and Sons carries a “Formosa Oolong” as well as a “Fanciest Formosa Oolong”. The description of the “Fanciest” makes it sound exactly like a Bai Hao. So, I thought these were the people to ask!
I emailed customer support, and my email got forwarded to Michael Harney, who answered me and solved the mystery. Here’s what he said:
“The Formosa Oolong is the old-school tea that was sold in the States for many decades. It is a nice tea with muted, roasted peach flavors.
The Fanciest Formosa Oolong is also called Bai Hao or Oriental Beauty. I just go with the first name I heard many years ago. This is a much better and more expensive tea. They allow the plants to be attacked by an insect (Jacobiasca Formosa). The plant defends itself by releasing a chemical. When we drink this tea we have vibrant flavors of guava and peaches. Please let me know what else you need to know."
YAY! He also asked if I had read his book which I hadn’t. I got it on my Kindle and lo and behold, he has a section in there for Formosa Oolong as well as a section for Bai Hao (Oriental Beauty). This cleared it up even more…
“Brisk, nutty, and somewhat fruity, Formosa Oolong offers a history lesson as much as it helps cultivate your oolong palate. The tea was once considered the Champagne of teas and the standard for oolongs in the United States. In the last two decades, other lighter and more aromatic oolongs have outpaced it so that today it is made by only a handful of Taiwanese tea makers.
[…] Formosa Oolong tea was invented in the mid-nineteenth century by a British entrepreneur named John Dodd. … Working in Taiwan, he developed and marketed a dark oolong under the name “Formosa Oolong.” The tea traveled well yet was lighter, fruitier, and more flavorful than the heavily fired black teas then on the market. Formosa became such a hit in both Europe and the United States that it remained one of the world’s favorite teas well into the twentieth century.
[…] This tea is the only oolong in this chapter that is harvested mechanically…
[…] Formosa Oolong is finished in an oven, not over charcoal, which accounts for its clean flavors. I recommend seeking this tea out, not only for its charming, gentle flavors, but also for a lesson in how quickly and thoroughly the tea world can change.
Harney, Michael (2008-10-02). The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea. Penguin Press HC, The. Kindle Edition.
So, now I know… the teas you can still get from sellers like Upton, Harney, and Adagio called “Formosa Oolong” are of this type — mechanically harvested, not charcoal roasted, quite inexpensive, dwindling in popularity, but used to be the most common type of oolong in the U.K. and U.S. before the more refined teas (like Bai Hao) became available.
I never ordered too much from Harney and Sons before, but I’m going to use them to stock up on some basics now simply because Michael was so helpful.
Incidentally, reading the intro of his book gave me a lot more confidence about how to discern the taste of different teas. It’s a great guide to tasting!
Thanks for posting this Rachel, really interesting!
Wow this is interesting… I’m glad you finally got answers! :-)
formosa oolong is a basic oolong. inexpensive and nothing fancy.
there is a huge variety in oolongs, and it’s fun to discover.
most of my tea stash these days consists of various oolongs, from green ones to heavy roasted.
it’s fun to explore and learn about their tastes and differences.
Well, there is another book going on my list. I just won a sample of formosa oolong from Cuppa Crew. I don’t think I have ever had one. Now I have to look and see whether it says ‘fanciest’ or not on the label. Thanks for sharing.
I have his book, and I have had excellent customer service. Several times I have requested a sachet tea in loose leaf and he will put up a link to get it by the pound, which is great because I usually have a friend or two wanting to split it. He has also made different tin sizes available when people request. Florence used to come only in four or 16 ounces, so I requested something in between and I think they went seven or eight. They were my first source of better teas and hold a special place in my heart. Their AliSan oolong is great, as well as so many others!
His book is a real treasure – there is so much information in it that I keep re-reading it, and experimenting with more and more teas, and when you experienced Steepsterites discuss something, I actually more and more often know exactly what you are talking about… :)
And he is a really nice, down-to-earth guy – I had the pleasure of meeting him the New York City Coffee and Tea Festival last weekend.
Glad others are finding this interesting! I’m about halfway through the book now, and I really like it. I’ve read both books by the Tea Trekker folks and loved those too, but the Harney book is wonderfully straightforward, informative, and helpful!
I grabbed the book due to this thread, too, after reading the reviews on Amazon. Lol, the worst review is what sold me on getting it. Haven’t popped it open yet, the only reading I’ve done since has been in the bathtub and I’m not that brave/foolish with my iPad.
That really great that they are willing to work with customers on non-standard orders. Lot of respect for people who go the extra bit in customer service.