In our articles and online materials, we often refer to Ruan Zhi Oolong No. 17 as the “Queen of Thai Oolong Teas”. Now, how does this tea deserve this attribute? Is it north Thailand’s best Oolong tea? Certainly arguably only… there is that wonderful and highly priced Thai Oriental Beauty, coming from Taiwan’s similarly imported Qin Xing cultivar, or the unique northern Thai Four Seasons Oolong Tea, or north Thailand’s nearly equally popular Jin Xuan Oolong No. 12, among other Thai Oolongs that might top a given tea lover’s list of preferences when it comes to Thai Oolongs. Nevertheless, it is the Ruan Zhi Oolong No. 17 that is presented as a prime standard at Doi Mae Salong and other tea cultivation centers in north Thailand to first-timers and regular visitors to the region alike. It is mostly this tea tourists carry home in their luggage from a visit to Doi Wawee, Doi Tung, or said Doi Mae Salong.
In the 1990’s, when efforts were taken from the government side to eliminate opium poppy cultivation and the accompanying drug trade in north Thailand, the Thai Royal Project invested great efforts in identifying appropriate alternative cash crops and make them available for the northern Thai farmers. Tea was one of these cash crops, and to do things right, the Project brought in tea cultivation experts from Taiwan who had been involved in the Taiwan Oolong Tea Development Project there, in order to identify tea cultivars for which the climate and geological conditions in the northern Thai mountains would be most suitable. Besides some other Taiwan Oolong tea cultivars, such as the said Qin Xing (Dong Fang Mei Ren, Oriental Beauty) and Four Seasons cultivars, those experts in particular singled out the Ruan Zhi No. 17 and the Jin Xuan No. 12 Taiwan Oolong tea cultivars as their primary recommendations.
Both cultivars show a range of properties that make them most suitable for cultivation in north Thailand. First of all, they are meant to grow in exactly the climate, altitude (around 1000m and above) and soil we have in the northern Thai highlands. Second, they have been bred to enable low or no pesticide use. Third, they will consistently produce quality harvests throughout the annual seasonal cycle of a hot and rainy, a hot and dry, and a cool period in a 4-months rhythm. Fourth, their versatility to provide more than one type of tea depending on harvest time and processing method. And then, last but not least, their favorable taste, making them a popular and accordingly marketable high in demand cash crop.
This last point, however, the tea’s taste, is what quickly made the Ruan Zhi No. 17 the Queen, or the primary presentation standard, in north Thailand. While experienced Oolong tea drinkers might even favor the Jin Xuan Oolong, or another northern Thai Oolong tea, for that matter, there is a unique set of characteristics to the Ruan Zhi No. 17 that makes it stand out as a presentational tea and makes it more prone to broad-scale success than its siblings. The most evident of these characteristics is the dominant honey-like sweetness of Ruan Zhi No. 17 Oolong tea creating a pleasant sensation even with the newest of newbies to Oolong tea, or tea, for that matter. And though not stopping there, not being superficial at all, with an earthy to fruity full body of typical (Pouchong) Oolong tea flavors, and the accompanying presence of some more subtle notes, this tea is still not too complex to capture its nature and character comparably quickly, making it a perfect introduction vehicle for Oolong tea beginners and an often preferred choice of experienced and passionate Oolong tea drinkers at the same time. And in north Thailand, we benefit from the particular local conditions, where – other than in Taiwan – this tea is still exclusively handpicked, with leave qualities often matching a 2 + 1 (2 leaves + 1 bud) picking standard, which is the best possible picking standard for this type of Oolong tea.
So, while Ruan Zhi No. 17 might not be everybody’s most favorite Thai Oolongs, it is definitely the one that most people will like in the first place. I remember very well to have gone through that cycle myself. The Ruan Zhi Oolong No. 17 naturally was my first Oolong tea to fall in love with here. Others have opened themselves to me with time, and while there are occasions today where another Thai Oolong tea would be preferred choice, I always keep a bag of Doi Mae Salong No. 17 in my tea cabinet, as I know there will be days and times when just no other tea will beat this one. Here in north Thailand, we feel blessed to have Ruan Zhi No. 17 Oolong tea growing at the very place where we dwell ourselves, as it adds unique wealth and pride to our region.
Meanwhile, producers in Doi Mae Salong, after extensively experimenting with different processing standards of the leaves from this tea cultivar, have – in addition to the standard way of processing – also started producing a “Dong Ding Oolong Tea” from this cultivar, and the results are more than amazing: when I first tried the new 2014 spring Dong Ding Oolong Tea, it actually strongly reminded me of a Da Hong Pao Oolong tea, a rare and famous “rock” Oolong tea from the Chinese Wuyi mountains with a unique smoky and mineral taste note. A big comparison, a huge and easy to fail role model, thus making me wondering whether they would keep going that way and develop this taste as a standard for this new Doi Mae Salong tea, and, of course, I am really hoping that they will.
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