What is Oolong Tea?
Oolong, one of the most time consuming and demanding styles of tea to make, is a semi-oxidised tea and a favourite amongst tea connoisseurs.
Oolong falls into its own category somewhere between a green and black, as it is neither a green tea nor a black tea. Although an oolong may end up with more green tea characteristics or more black tea characteristics depending on the direction the tea master takes in the processing of the tea. The leaves are usually brownish in color, large in appearance and produce a very aromatic, smooth and complex brew.
Oxidation and shape are the biggest differentiators between green, oolong and black teas .Oxidation levels in oolong vary from 8% to 80% depending on the tea masters production style. Oolongs that are oxidised for a short period of time tend to resemble the green tea in flavor profile while oolongs that have been oxidized more than 50% are closer to black tea.
All oolongs can be broadly categorised into one of two distinct styles – small wrap- curled oolongs (such as Tieguanyin oolong tea) and the more traditional and commonly produced long, strip-style curly oolongs (such as China’s famous Da Hong Pao Oolong tea), the artisanal shaping techniques of Oolong teas depend on the traditions of the tea master making the tea.
How did Oolong Tea Originate?
Oolong is highly revered in Taiwan and China, who both claim the origins of oolong. The Guangdong and Fujian provinces in Southeast China claim for oolong to have originated there. But just as there are no official records that can identify when the first white tea was made, there are no official records for oolong tea.
We could find three fables behind how oolong came to be:
- One story claims that the Chinese bestowed the name “wulong” or “black dragon” upon the big dark tea leaves, which were heavily oxidised and twisted into shapes that happened to resemble the mythical Chinese dragon.
- Popular folklore attributes the origins of and history of oolong tea to a humble tea grower from China’s Qing dynasty who, as legend proclaims, was scared away from plucking his tea by a black dragon (or deer, depending on the version being told). By the time he returned the leaves had partially oxidised. Instead of letting these leaves go to waste, he decided to process them anyway. Given that they had already started turning brown, he subjected them to only a bit more oxidation. The resulting tea was similar to black tea but without the bitterness, because it lacked the tannic strength, it was smoother, sweeter and fragrant. He named the tea after himself Wu Long, which means Black dragon in Mandarin.
- Another theory attributes the origins of oolong to the Tang Dynasty and the then popular concept of bestowing tribute teas to the emperor (Much like white tea during the Song Dynasty). Beiyuang or tribute tea was typically presented in the form of a brick that was stamped with a seal of the phoenix or dragon. When the concept of brick teas went out of fashion, the teas used to make the bricks were sold as loose teas. These teas had the bearings of an oolong as they were naturally oxidisd in a bamboo basket. Rolled into small curls and baked in an oven
No matter which fable you believe, it is true that the most famous Chinese oolongs are grown high in the mountainous regions over rocky terrain and in cool weather. It is this unique geography and harsh environment that give these oolongs the rich flavor they are famous for.
Taiwan’s most famous oolongs are traditionally less oxidised (10% – 40%), making them greener in colour and lighter in flavour than chinese oolongs.
The styles of oolong produced across countries vary just as much as styles of wine. Some are rolled into small tight balls, while others are long leafy twists. Some grow in remote mist covered mountains, while others thrive in bamboo-forested foothills. Some are plucked in spring for a flowery herbaceous flavour while others are plucked in winter and roasted for a hearty woodsy flavour.
Today, oolong is also produced by Darjeeling, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand New Zealand and Korea.
Oolong Tea Flavors
Oolong has the widest and most complex flavour profile of all the tea styles largely due to the intricacy of its processing. Oolong flavours also change depending on what variety the tea comes from and steeping time.
The difference between the types and flavours of oolong teas are often compared to the differences between fine wines. While all wine comes from a grape, it is the combination of grape varietal, where and how the grape was grown and the artisanal style of the winemaker that ultimately determines how the wines will taste. Even within one country’s wine industry, different flavour profiles can be found in different types of wine. Although these factors also influence the flavor profiles of other teas it is more pronounced in Oolong.
A key player in the flavor profile of oolong is the varying levels of oxidation which is dependant on the processing technique of the tea master. Oxidation gives oolong a flavor range from light to full bodied , floral to grassy and sweet to toasty
Fancy Formosa Silver Tip (“Formosa” is the former name of Taiwan), WuYi rock oolongs, Tung Ting, Ti Guan Yin and Pouchong are some of the more famous examples of Oolong tea.
Oolong Tea Processing
Being the most complex to process as well as the most time consuming and labor intensive, with every step closely monitored and controlled. Oolong represents a true artisan mastership of tea processing. Oolong processing follows these main steps:
- Plucking: Tea producers prefer mature leaves when making the oolong because they contain mellow flavours and less tannins. Standard tea production uses the newest two leaves and a bud, oolong is often three or four leaves and a bud.
- Withering/ Wilting : The fresh leaves are left out in the sun and open air to remove excess moisture. Withering softens the tea leaves, making them flexible and supple so they don’t break during the important step of rolling and shaping the tea.
- Bruising/ Rolling: Once the leaves are wilted, they are lightly tossed or rolled in a tray or bamboo basket to lightly bruise the edges, releasing enzymes that react with oxygen. This quickens the oxidation process
- Rolling is an important aspect of oolong processing that, along with oxidation, alters the appearance, color and aroma of the final tea leaves. Depending on how and when the leaves are rolled, the tea master can subtly alter the entire direction of the teas final flavor
Rolling can happen in one of two main way – twisting or curling into tight balls
- Oxidation: Next the leaves are let be so that their chlorophyll is broken down and tannins are released. The outer part of the leaf is allowed to oxidize with the centre kept green. Some oolongs are more oxidised, making them closer in character to black teas with amber colored infusions. While other oolongs are less oxidized and are closer in character to green tea with a lighter body, floral aromatic and golden green infusion. For may oolongs these two steps – rolling and oxidizing are repeated several times, creating many layers of flavor and aroma.
- Fixing: The slow and gradual browning of the leaf is kept under control by periodic gentle heating in between steps with a fixing at the end. Heat is used to stop oxidation in green tea, but only at very high temperatures, Lower temperatures slow down the oxidation. As soon as the leaves give off a distinctive fragrance – often compared to the fresh scent of apples, orchards or peaches. Oxidation is halted. The tea is heated to stop the enzymes responsible for oxidation. The flowery/fruity flavor of the oolong tea develops as a result of being semi-oxidized
There is a popular myth that teas are picked by highly trained primates.
- One story goes that Buddhist monks in China trained monkeys to climb up into the cliff and out onto the branches to access hard to reach leaves
- The second story is that the monks threw sticks and stones at the monkeys already in the tea trees, causing them to jump and break branches off, allowing the monks to easily retrieve the leaves.
Regardless of your prefered version, there is no evidence today to suggest that monkeys are involved in any level of tea production “Monkey-Picked” is used to refer to a rare production that implies the tea came from a difficult to harvest place, higher and out of reach of anyone but the monkeys. Rarer grades of Ti Kuan Tin are often called “ Monkey-Picked Ti Kuan Yin”
“Monkey-Picked” is used simply to refer to a rare production. It implies the tea came from a difficult to harvest place, higher and out of reach of anyone but, well, the monkeys. Rarer grades of Ti Kuan Yin are often called “Monkey-Picked Ti Kuan Yin.”
Just as there are wine competitions in California, Italy, South Africa 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.
Oolong comes from the C. Sinensis plant, which contains Caffeine. Its caffeine content is midway between that of black and green tea.
A lightly oxidised oolong may have lower caffeine levels (similar to green tea) and a highly oxidised oolong may have higher caffeine levels (similar to black tea)
Brewing / Preparing Oolong Tea
Due to the variety of oolongs, there are a variety of steeping times. Also each type of oolong could be steeped differently, with each steeping producing a different flavor. Darker oolongs generally need very hot or even boiling water to get the leaves to open up and release their oils. While greener, more lightly oxidised oolongs can take water just above 87 degrees celsius.
While steep time is to your preference, oolongs are designed to be infused multiple times. For example you could do two steepings at 4 minutes each or 10 steepings are one minute each.
Here are some general guidelines for steeping oolong, if your oolong did not come with recommended brewing and steeping instructions
- Use fresh, pure, cold filtered water. Spring water is best.
- Generally oolongs steep anywhere between 82 degrees celsius to 94 degrees celsius for about 1 to 3 minutes depending on your preference
- As most oolongs are designed to be steeped multiple times because 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. It is not uncommon to get 3 – 5 infusions out of high quality oolong
- Although steeping is to your preference, avoid over steeping oolong. 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.
- It is recommended that you use two teaspoons per 230 ml cup of water. The tighty tolled, balled oolongs are about one heaped teaspoons, strength dependant.
- Cover you oolong tea while it steeps to retain heat.
- Try your oolong plain with no additives like milk or sugar.
Keep in mind that all oolongs will unfurl to be quite large leaves. They need legroom to swim around and don’t yield good flavor when crammed into a tiny infuser or tea ball.
In terms of health benefits, oolong tea has very similar benefits to those of green tea and is said to:
- Prevent cancer
- Reduce plaque in the arteries
- Lower cholesterol
- Control Diabetes
- Relieve atopic dermatitis
- Relieve stress and improve mental health
- Boost metabolism aiding weight loss
- Function as an antioxidant
- Protect teeth against decay
- Strengthen bones and prevents osteoporosis