ALL ABOUT OOLONG TEA
Oolong teas fall between Green and Black teas on the oxidation scale. While this may seem an insignificant variable, it yields a dizzying array of tea styles and flavors. Literally translated, Oolong means "Black Dragon". The traditional home of oolong is China (in Guangdong and Fujian provinces) and Taiwan. These are the origins which set the standard for oolong production, which is one of the most time consuming, demanding styles to create.
OOLONG TEA ORIGINS
Oolong represents a true artisan mastership of tea processing. The appearance, shape and flavor of an oolong tea can vary wildly depending on the region where it’s grown and how it’s processed. The origins of oolong are claimed in both China and Taiwan and the tea is still highly revered in both countries today.
One story claims that the Chinese bestowed the name “wulong” or “black dragon” upon the big dark tea leaves, which were heavily oxidized and twisted into shapes that happened to resemble the mystical Chinese dragon. Another story tells a tale of a tea farmer named Wu Liang (later shortened to Wulong) who discovered the oolong style of tea by accident. The farmer was distracted after a long day of tea picking and upon returning to his withering tea leaves he discovered they had already started to oxidize. No matter which story you believe, it is true that the most famous Chinese oolongs are grown in high mountainous regions over rocky terrain and in cool weather. It is the unique geography and harsh environment that gives these oolongs the rich flavor they are famous for.
Taiwan’s most famous oolongs are traditionally less oxidized (10% to 40%) and therefore tend to be greener in color and lighter in flavor than Chinese oolongs. The styles of oolong produced across the country vary just as much as the styles of wine that come out of France. Some oolongs are rolled into small tight balls, while others are twisted into long leafy strands. Some grow in remote mist-covered mountains, while others thrive in temperate bamboo-forested foothills. Some are plucked in spring for a flowery herbaceous flavor, while others are picked in winter and roasted for a hearty woodsy flavor.
While the most famous oolongs originated in China and Taiwan, different styles of oolong are being made in other parts of the world today. India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand and New Zealand are just a few of the countries producing some of the world’s oolong teas.
HOW OOLONG TEA IS MADE
To understand oolong, you really need to understand tea processing. All tea—black, green and oolong—starts out from the same Camellia sinensis tea plant. The difference in what ends up in your teacup depends on many factors, including the variety or cultivar of the tea plant, the terroir of the plant (the characteristics of the geography, climate and culture), and how the tea leaves are processed after they are picked.
The flow oolong tea processing looks something like this:
TYPES OF OOLONG TEA
IRON GODDESS OF MERCY (TIE GUAN YIN)
Yes. That's the name. No. We're not making it up (and we LOVE it!). Tie Guan Yin, which is translated as The Iron Buddha or Iron Goddess of Mercy, is one of the most widespread and popular Teas for everyday drinking in China. It is a rolled Oolong and the best varieties come from around Xi Ping in Fujian and produce a sweet, floral liquor.
ORIENTAL BEAUTY (BAI HAO)
This tea is tippy (the leaves frequently have white or golden tips), with natural fruity aromas, a bright red appearance, and a sweet taste.
MILK OOLONG (JIN XUAN)
This oolong is known as "Milk Oolong" because of its creamy, smooth, and easy taste. Traditional milk oolongs have no actual milk in them, but some companies are adding things like milk powder or steaming the leaves over milk to imitate the real thing. Milk Oolongs originate from Taiwan.
BIG RED ROBE (DA HONG PAO)
Big Red Robe is one of the most approachable Oolongs. Known as Big Red Robe because of the deep, intense all-enveloping flavors that cloak the mouth. This is a more fully-oxidized Oolong, well on the way to being a Black Tea. Produced in Wuyi, Fujian.
Grown at high altitude in southern Taiwan, Alishan is one of the best Oolongs. This is a "fisted" tea has large rolled leaves that have a purple-green appearance when dry. It is grown at an elevation of 1,000 to 1,400 meters. There is only a short period during the growing season when the sun is strong, which results in a sweeter and less astringent brew. It produces a golden yellow liquor which has a unique fruity aroma.
...and MANY MORE!
TASTING OOLONG TEA
Because oolong tea is oxidized at varying levels depending on the processing technique of the tea master, its flavor can range from light to full bodied, floral to grassy, and sweet to toasty. The color of the leaves and the hue of the brewed tea can also vary from green to golden to brown.
The differences between the types and flavors of oolong teas are often compared to the differences between fine wines. While all wine comes from a grape, it is the combination of the variety of the grape, how and where the grape was grown and the artisanal style of the wine maker that ultimately determines how the wine will taste in your glass. Even within one country’s wine industry, different flavor profiles can be found in different types of wine.
Given its origins, oolong tea is hugely popular in Asia. In fact, just as there are wine competitions in California, Italy or France, there are oolong competitions across Asia to honor the artisanship of oolong tea producers. Teas may be judged on everything from the shape and appearance of the dry and wet leaves to the color, aroma and taste of the brewed tea. Competition winners may win a “world’s best” title, prize money or the chance for their artisan tea to be picked up by worldwide distributors. But for many oolong producers, competition is a way to demonstrate their honor and passion for the life they’ve dedicated to the art of oolong tea.
CAFFEINE IN OOLONG TEA
There are many factors that can determine caffeine levels of any beverage brewed from a caffeinated plant, including the variety of the plant, how the plant was processed and how the beverage was brewed. The caffeine content in an oolong tea generally falls somewhere between a black tea and a green tea. A lightly oxidized oolong may have lower caffeine levels (similar to a green tea) and a highly oxidized oolong may have higher caffeine levels (similar to a black tea). But this can vary depending on how the tea plant was cultivated and how the oolong tea was processed. It’s always best to ask your tea vendor about caffeine levels specific to the tea you’re purchasing if you are concerned about caffeine intake.
BUYING AND STORING OOLONG TEA
Storing an oolong tea properly will ensure that your tea will remain fresh as long as possible. It’s always a good idea to buy tea from a reputable company that can tell you when and how the tea was processed and packaged as well as provide storage tips to help prolong the life of the tea.
It is important to ask the tea vendor about the oxidation levels of your oolong tea. A more oxidized oolong tea will more shelf stable than a less oxidized one. Your oolong tea won’t really go “bad”, but it can get stale if it sits around too long. If stored properly in a cool dark place, in an opaque airtight container, away from light and moisture, and far from pantry items like coffee and spices that can leach flavor into the tea leaves, oolong teas can last anywhere from six months to two years before they should be used or replaced.
PREPARING OOLONG TEA
Because oolong teas vary wildly in their oxidation levels and processing techniques, many oolongs will have different ideal brewing temperatures and steeping times. While it’s best to ask your tea vendor for brewing instructions specific to the tea you purchased, here are a few general oolong tea brewing tips:
- Water temperature? Because styles of oolongs vary so much, steeping temperature and time can vary as well. Generally, oolongs are steeped anywhere between 180 and 200 degrees for 60 seconds to 3 minutes.
- How much tea? Generally, using about 2 grams (1 teaspoon) of loose leaf tea per 8 oz. cup of water is a safe bet. For more loosely rolled Oolongs this can be 2 teaspoons, for more tightly rolled oolongs, this can be 1 rounded teaspoon.
- How much time? 60 seconds to 3 minutes
- Milk/Sugar? Tea producers spend a lot of time mastering the art of oolong tea. To best appreciate the handcrafted flavors of an oolong tea, try sipping it plain with no additives like milk or sugar.
- PRO TIPS
- Most oolong teas are designed to steep multiple times. Each steeping unfurls the rolled or twisted leaves just a little more, revealing even more layers of the flavor profile intended by the tea master who created the tea. It is not uncommon to get 3 to 5 infusions out of a high-quality oolong.
- Be sure to not oversteep your tea! Many oolongs are designed to taste best with multiple short infusions. Taste your tea after the recommended steeping time and then decide if you’d like it to steep a little longer.
- Cover your oolong tea while it steeps to keep all the heat in the steeping vessel.