下手Xia Shou literally means “down hand” or put the hands to task. We say “take the plunge” or “dive in.” The word “hand” implies that roasting tea is an art that depends somewhat on the hands. Because roasting is an art, feel often supersedes strictly following a scientific procedure. Feel is of course based on experience. When roasting tea, “feel” mostly refers to smell. The nose knows. Instead, maybe we should say 下鼻Xia Bi or “down nose.”
I first smelled the aroma of roasting oolong in Taiwan. I noticed that tea vendors would place a small roaster in their place of business so that the alluring tea fragrance would attract tea customers to come inside. The smell that fills the air is sweeter than anything I have ever smelled before. It was as if the rich cookie layered textures could lift us right out of our skin and take us far into the wonderful place where everything melts in your mouth and your skin is a mere sponge for cookie-infused air. In the roasting process, the initial pleasant aroma is often followed by a slightly less pleasant odor. After the less pleasant odor is roasted off, then once again, a pleasant odor will return. Roasting tea will bring some of the tea's hidden flavors to the surface. Often citric notes are revealed. The mouth feel will also change. One of my favorite aspects of master roasted oolongs is that it is as if the mouth has been coated with a powdery sweetness, as if a little fairy angel sprinkled it with magic dust. Whenever I come across this type of tea, I am compelled to buy it.
Traditionally, tea was roasting over a charcoal heat source. Now, most people use electric roasters due to the consistency in temperature and convenience. The one experience of roasting over charcoal was incredible. We used so much charcoal that it burned for five days consecutively. Over these five days, several batches of oolong were roasted, including J-TEA's Mt. Ah Li Mi Xiang Charcoal Baked.
I have learned to roast tea just like I have learned to brew tea. First, you learn the step-by- step procedure. Then you learn the parameters, like temperature and time. Finally, the teacher says, “You must pay attention.” When roasting tea, you pay attention to your nose. In the fall of 2009, I brought a tea roaster back to Eugene, Oregon. Since then I have roasted a few batches of tea. The most serious roast I did on my own was the transformation of a green oolong to a roasted oolong. This is a heavier roast process that takes more time. Fortunately, I was able to take the finished product to Taiwan, where I gave it to several roast masters for evaluation. Upon the next stretch of low humidity levels, I plan to fire up the roaster again.