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In order to put one of my new favorite oolong/wulong teas, Ai-Want Formosa Tea‘s 2015 Winter Dong Ding oonlong tea, to the ultimate test, I’ve decided to take extreme measures. I am going to carry out a trial on the pickiest, most captious food and drink critic that I know: my Taiwanese father-in-law. You’ll have to make it to the end of the article to find out the results.
And for my own purposes, being in the beginner stage of my quest to better understand the vast and multifaceted world of tea, I am going to do a simple taste test of my own.
I’ll be putting Dong Ding tea side-by-side with a more famous Taiwanese tea, a high-quality Alishan High Mountain Oolong, that by no mere coincidence was gifted to me some time ago by the above mentioned culinary snob, and see how it holds up.
But first, because it is of great interest to me, I’d like to discuss the history of this tea and also introduce the distributor and farm from which it was sourced.
Taiwan’s Dong Ding Oolong (凍頂茶): Origin and History
Dong ding tea (凍頂茶, also spelled Tung-Ting) is a variety of oolong tea (烏龍茶) that, like several of Taiwan’s teas, was brought over from the Wuyi mountains in Fujian Province. Specifically, a local government officer of Lugu Township, Nantou named Lin Feng-Chi (林鳳池) brought 36 oolong seedlings back when he went to do his civil service examination in China, and a farmer in Lugu named Lin San-hsien (林三顯) planted 12 of them on Dong Ding Mountain in the Lugu area.
Dong Ding mountain is located in the foothills of the Central Mountain Range and north of the renowned Alishan scenic area in Central Taiwan, and so the tea plantations that grew from Lin’s initial crop on Dong Ding Mountain and adjacent foothills came to be known as Dong Ding tea.
The name dong ding means “frozen peak,” but that is not to say that you can find any ice on this relatively short mountain, with most tea grown at altitudes of 600 to 1800 meters (tea grown above 1000 meters is considered “high mountain tea”).
The name dong ding originated in the fact that because the mountain is quite steep, people had to walk on their tiptoes to climb it. They referred to this in the Taiwanese Hokkien/Minnan (台語／閩南話) language as “grasping the peak”, which happens to sound like “frozen peak” in Mandarin . The area is ideal for the growing of tea, with a temperate monsoon climate, strong morning sunshine, and persistent afternoon fog.
The area is also quite windy, causing the soil to be less rich in nutrition. As a result, the tealeaves supposedly accumulate and retain more nutrients, producing a richer flavor.
Over time, Dong Ding tea began to be manufactured in other areas of Taiwan. Producers called it Dong Ding because they used the same post-processing methods as those at Dong Ding Mountain. Dong Ding is typically picked, withered, tossed in bamboo baskets to kick start oxidation, tumble heated, then rolled into little balls characteristic of many Taiwanese oolongs. The final step, and the one that gives Dong Ding its unique flavor, is the slow roasting of the tealeaves over charcoal, setting the oxidation level at 25 to 35%.
In other words, Dong Ding has become as much a style as a variety, though some believe that only Dong Ding produced at the mountain itself is true Dong Ding.
Ai-Want Formosa Tea (did you see what they did there? The T from Taiwan is at the end) is a new, small-scale distributor made up of Taichung-based Australian expat Benny Stokes and his Taiwanese wife, Lifang. Impressed with the local tea in Taiwan, and hoping to create a connection between their two cultures, the couple came up with the idea of marketing a selection of Taiwanese teas in Australia and internationally. Through a friend they became acquainted with Lugu-based Formosa Tea, a 40-year-old family-run operation.
Formosa Tea usually sells its tealeaves in bulk, so Ai-Want Formosa Tea helps to make those teas available in smaller volumes and to English-speaking customers. Currently they have four teas listed on their website:
Ching Cha (清茶, literally “green tea”, but not the same character for green as in the “green tea”(綠茶) that we all know. This is a very lightly oxidized oolong, approaching an actual green tea in characteristics;
Kung Fu Cha (功夫茶, named after the Chinese tea ceremony), a lightly fermented and heavily roasted oolong;
Oolong Hong Cha (烏龍紅茶), a heavily roasted (it’s called a red “oolong”, but to me, it seems to be entirely a red (black) tea) and
Dong Ding, which, in my opinion, is the pick of the bunch. (I really enjoyed all four teas though, and the Oolong Hong Cha is my go-to breakfast tea right now).
Formosa Tea’s Dong Ding is hand picked, sundried, 30%-40% oxidized, and 60% roasted. The farm is not right on Dong Ding Mountain, but so close to the mountain that Benny described it as “across the street” from Dong Ding. For all intents and purposes, I would consider that to be close enough to count. The farm and tea field pictures you see above and below were generously provided to me for use in this article by Benny.
My Dong Ding Tea Tasting
Since I am fairly new to artisanal teas, I’ve only had a few high mountain oolong teas before this one. When I first saw and then tasted this Dong Ding, it instantly reminded me of Alishan High Mountain oolong, the first mountain oolong I’ve ever had. Unlike all you experts out there, I am not so good at quickly identifying what’s going on in my mouth the first time I try a new tea. However, once I tried the Dong Ding for a second time, and then my Alishan again, and then Dong Ding yet again, and Alishan yet again, I started to realize that despite some obvious similarities (they are grown at similar altitudes in adjacent regions, have similar oxidation levels, and the leaves themselves look almost identical), they have totally different flavor profiles. (2019 edit: See here for my comprehensive guide to Alishan High Mountain Tea).
Therefore, for the sake of improving my own tea tasting skills, I decided to put the two teas back to back and see exactly what the difference was between them. I have to admit that I don’t know the origin of the Alishan tea. It was gifted to me by my father-in-law, who, as I mentioned above, is a bit of a tea snob. What that means, though, is that the Alishan used here is at least of moderate, if not very high quality, and was likely equally priced if not more expensive than the Dong Ding. I know these missing details may render my comparison invalid for some, but I am doing this purely for myself, and as a beginner, I am only hoping to make some general comparisons between the two styles of tea.
Dong Ding Tea vs. Alishan High Mountain Oolong tea
Appearance: Both teas come rolled in little balls, each with a bit of stem and 2-3 leaves. They look nearly identical, except that the Dong Ding has a slight yellow hue to it, best described as olive green, while the Alishan is a deeper pine or basil green. The Alishan brews a deep golden color, while the Dong Ding is almost identical, if slightly lighter and brighter.
Aroma: When I smell the leaves directly, the Alishan gives off a much milder, fruity smell, with hints of peach. The Dong Ding emits a stronger, far bolder smell that is toasty, woody, nutty, and (yes, I’m just going to say it) it actually reminds ever so slightly of the smell of fresh marijuana.
Taste and mouthfeel: The Alishan is light and floral at first, but I think where this tea really shines is in its incredibly creamy mouthfeel and sweet aftertaste. The sweetness lingers in the mouth for what feels like ages. Finally, I detect a hint of grassiness in the aftertaste.
With the Dong Ding, however, the aroma of the liquor is so strong that I feel I can taste it in my mouth before it even touches my lips. The flavor is rich and bold, and matches the aroma, with toast, nuts, and mild cedar all combining into a complex flavor that comes all at once, coating the entire mouth, and then fading into a toffee-like sweetness that is pure bliss. The sweetness stays in the mouth, but not as long as it does with the Alishan. It also has a bit of a creamy mouthfeel, but again, nowhere near as much as the Alishan does.
Overall: I couldn’t possibly say that one of these teas is “better” than the other, but what I do know is that on a totally personal level, I prefer the flavor of the Dong Ding. I am a huge lover of toffee and nutty desserts, and I guess this preference carries over to tea. I could see myself choosing the Alishan over the Dong Ding on a hot, summer afternoon. But for the time being, I am totally into this Dong Ding tea, and I am quickly exhausting my supply.
One morning, instead of starting my day with a coffee (that’s right, coffee), or a more robust red tea as a substitute, I decided to have a few pots of Dong Ding instead. Rather than getting that instantaneous bounce from half asleep to wide awake and ready to face my day, which is what I sometimes need, I experienced a much smoother, more gradual awakening, and this tranquility carried into my day. Despite being a lightly oxidized tea, the Dong Ding seems to be bold enough (perhaps a result of it being quite heavily roasted?) to wake my mind and system up in the morning, albeit in a subtler manner, whereas I don’t think Alishan packs enough of a punch to get me going that early.
Putting Dong Ding Tea to the Ultimate Test
As I mentioned in the beginning, I wanted to see what my Taiwanese father-in-law would say about this tea. My experiment was almost certain to yield negative results, but I still wanted to try. This is a man who can hardly eat a banana without pointing out its minor flaws or lack of perfect sweetness. Once several years ago, when I was new to the family and didn’t know him so well, I made a trip to Alishan with friends and brought him back a bag of Alishan tea purchased from a souvenir shop, as per the Asian custom of buying a souvenir (usually cookies or some kind of snack) for friends and family when one takes a trip. When I handed him the gift, he grabbed it, didn’t say a word, got out his equipment, brewed a pot, and then unapologetically pronounced that the tea was junk.
Not only does my father-in-law ONLY drink Alishan High Mountain tea, but he only drinks the good, expensive stuff, which he acquires from a source that he doesn’t seem to be willing to share. Therefore, it is practically a pointless venture to even get him to try other styles of tea. But here goes.
First off, he didn’t instantly hate it, which was his reaction when I brewed some Oriental Beauty for him previously. He didn’t say much, except that we should try one more round. After the second round, he declared, “不(not)甘”. 甘, or 甘甜 is difficult to translate to English. It means sweet, but the kind of natural sweetness found in tea, coffee, or perhaps other plants and vegetables. It wouldn’t be used to describe, say, a cake. He kept pointing to his throat when he said it. The way I interpret this is that he is totally used to that super long-lasting, back-of-the-mouth sweetness of the Alishan tea, and can’t tolerate anything lesser.
“So is it decent or not good?,” I inquired, hoping to get a clearer thumbs up or down. He replied with, “還可以”, which translates roughly as, “It’s doable/acceptable.” And this is the best I could have possibly expected from him. I didn’t dare hope for a “還不錯” (literally “not bad”, but in Chinese, “not bad” means exactly that. It means that it is good, and if you emphasizes it in a certain way, it can actually mean “surprisingly, effing good”).
I can’t deny that my father-in-law is able to identify very high quality tea (more precisely, high quality Alishan), but honestly speaking, judging from his reaction to any other tea I’ve seen him try, I kind of think he’s full of it.
So take this how you want it. My experiment didn’t really prove anything, except to confirm that people have preferences and those preferences aren’t easy to change. And I think the mere fact that my father-in-law didn’t instantly reject this Dong Ding or call it junk, means that it is at the very least a totally passable, drinkable, mid-range tea, and is a great introduction to the style if you are a newbie like me (maybe someone more experienced out there could take on the task of comparing this particular Dong Ding to others).