Experiments with roasting

I have a predilection for roasted oolongs. As the colder weather is creeping in again, I’ve begun to crave them more and more these days. Over the last few years I’ve experimented a bit with various methods of roasting to create that toasty caramel sweet flavour I love. I started with some experiments using a saucepan, then a rice cooker and hand roaster/refreshener.

A year or so ago I decided to try to do things a bit more properly & picked up a commercial roaster during a trip to Taiwan. I did a couple of test roastings soon after I got home with unsatisfactory results. It seemed the temperature wouldn’t go high enough to create the strong roast that I desired. With other commitments taking up my time, the roaster got forgotten about and left largely unused.

Roaster

Recently I fished it out from beneath the stairs and decided to allocate a jin (600g) of a decent quality Li Shan oolong to some experiments with roasting.

This time, it worked. The dial on the roaster seems to function largely as a guide, not reflecting at all the correct temperature inside the basket, but with the aid of a probe thermometer I was able to fairly accurately regulate the temperature.

Roaster

It seems the crucial difference this time was the quantity of tea used. This time the 600g of oolong was enough to cover the mesh inside and insulate the heated portion of the basket.

The first roast (80oC 1hr, 120oC 4hrs, 80oC 1hr) produced a nice medium roasted taste and aroma, while the second roast (after waiting a few days for the leaves to rest) produced a more roasted taste, but lacked the strength of aroma. I’m not sure of the reason, but one factor might be that the leaves were still hot when I transferred them to a purion teajar after roasting. The second time I left the leaves to cool in the roaster first before transferring them.

So… here’s the results after 2 roasts. I think I’ll continue roasting several more times, saving a few grams of leaves at each stage to see how far I can go with this tea.

unroasted & 2 roasts

  • Kim

    This is fun…I also love to
    make experiments with my little
    roaster…unfortunately you have
    to wait some time and let the
    leaves rest before you can try them… 🙂

  • nada

    Dear Kim,

    It is fun. I'm not in a hurry for the results, so am content to let the leaves rest for a few months to let the roast settle. It is interesting though to try them straight away and notice how they change especially during the first few days after roasting.

    What has your experience been with regard to roasting temperatures and times?

    n.

  • Sir William of the Leaf

    Where would be the best place to buy a tea roaster? I have looked at some links to Taobao but the site is much too complicated for me to figure out, as I have no skill whatsoever in deciphering mandarin…

  • RTea

    How nice! Your setup looks just like one of mine (our thermometers are also very similar!). I agree with you that the temperatures are more of a guide. I had difficulties with roasting in the small bamboo roasters because the temperature settings do not correspond to the ones used in the commercial ones.

    I was taught to roast with at least 2 jin of tea (the layering effect of the tea seems to work better with the heat) as well to flip the lid upside down (to reduce the space between the tea and the cover, however slight). You are quite courageous to practice roasting with a nice Lishan tea and with a relatively high heat setting; how did the tea turn out?

  • nada

    Sir William:

    I'm not sure. I picked mine up from a place specialising in roasters in Taiwan, but there seems to be a good range on Taobao. I can't vouch for any of them though.

    RTea:

    Thanks for the tips. I think 2 jin would work better to keep the temperature a bit more stable. I've been fairly happy with the results from this roasting, though we'll need to wait and see how the tea turns out after a few months of resting. I think maybe next time I'll have the courage to try with a little more tea.

    What kind of temperatures/times have you found effective?

  • RTea

    Hi Nada, for Lishan, I don't generally go over 100 with that roaster. It takes a bit longer, but with 2-3 jin, it's not too bad. The hard part of the roast for me, and the main reason why I think it's such an art, is to find the point at which one must change the temperature or stop completely (the masters I've watched do it by touch and smell). I am far from that point, but being that most of the master roasters have been doing it constantly for decades, I don't feel so bad 🙂

    I typically start the roast at a lower temperature. This warms the tea, heats the "inside" of each ball and helps to "force out" the moisture and the bad flavors that accumulate. If the starting temperature is too high, the outside will be baked before the inside can be touched by the heat, trapping in more extraneous flavors than there should be. With a light oxidized oolong that has absorbed moisture and "degraded" over a few seasons, there is a stinky smell that gets trapped inside of the tea called "stinky green;" you've no doubt experienced this and heard your Taiwan producers talk about it. I find that low temperature roasts (50-80) for short duration over a few days helps with that before the actual roasting or re-roasting process.

    The frustrating thing about the roast is that it changes so much in the week or two following the roast. I haven't spent enough time with the roasting masters to learn what taste profile to aim for in completing a roast. I stop roasting when I am relatively pleased with the product, but the final taste after resting hasn't always yielded what I was looking for. Then again, sometimes after even more resting, the taste improves again. I have to admit that it's kind of fun to test jars of resting tea and hope that they improve with time. Have you had a similar experience?

    Cheers!

  • nada

    Rtea,

    I think this roast has turned out quite well. I gave it another roast, venturing even a bit higher on the temperature ~135 and it seems to be good. A little roughness from the extremity of the roast, but nice and deep – the flavour I was hoping for. I'm hoping a few months of rest will smooth out the edges.

    I'm taking it slowly though – a jin or two of tea takes a while to drink if it all goes wrong!

    n.

  • Anonymous

    You're saying you started out with a saucepan … Just for a small experiment, how would that go? Heat it from below or put it in a oven? And for cover, a simple metal lid, or something else? I assume, the moisture should be allowed to escape.

    I just want to fool aroud with a small sample that I don't enjoy, maybe a bit of re-roasting might help.

    Martin

  • Jacob ross Bodilly

    it made the house smell so great, I really enjoyed your house blend my friend. Jacob

  • Lelia

    I had never seen such a roaster before. Thanks for the educational article and great pictures. I hope your shop is doing well.

  • lilabraga

    is looks fun!…is it easy? you sure make it looks easy and fun!
    will try it later too!
    hugs