Meet the Oolong family
Chinese Oolong (wulong) is a favorite among discerning tea drinkers. It has its own distinct flavor, despite being made of the leaves and young buds of the Camellia Sinensis plant, just like any other tea. What makes it stand out from other teas is the direction that the tea master chooses during the processing stage. Oolong is a partially oxidized type of tea. The oxidization level differentiates it from green or black teas.
How is the tea made? There are several steps in the production of tea. After the tea has been harvested, it has to be processed. First, the tea leaves are dried. Once withered, they are rolled into strips, either mechanically, or manually for certain high-quality teas. The next step (for some types of tea) is fermenting, or oxidization. The level of oxidation decides the “color” of the loose leaf tea. The longer the tea is oxidized, the darker it gets. Black teas represent the final stage in the oxidation process. In green teas, on the other hand, the oxidation must be stopped while the leaves still retain their fresh, vegetal scents. There are different ways to do this: by steaming, pan firing, or oven roasting. Oolong sits in between black and green teas on the oxidation scale.
Born in China
China is the cradle of oolong tea. The name itself has Chinese origins, translating to “Dragon Tea” (wulong cha) in Chinese. Nowadays, other tea producing regions including Taiwan and India have mastered the art of making oolongs, leading to quite a few oolong varieties on the market. However, oolongs from China, especially from the Chinese provinces Fujian and Guangdong, maintain their star status.
A long history…and quite a few stories
There are plenty of stories describing the origins of the legendary Chinese oolong. Some talk about how a tea farmer, distracted by the sight of a deer, didn’t start processing his freshly picked tea leaves until the next day. In the process, the tea leaves started to oxidize naturally and give off an interesting aroma. (For added effect, the story mentions that the farmer’s nickname happened to be Oolong!) There are other accounts that reference Beiyuan tea, a traditional Fujian tea in which the leaves were compressed into cakes and offered as a tribute to the royal family. When these “compressed” teas went out of fashion, they were replaced by partially oxidized loose leaf teas – or the very first oolongs.
One hundred shades of Chinese Oolong
The flavors of Chinese Oolong can range from light to full-bodied, from floral to grassy, and from sweet to toasty. The color of the infusion also varies from chartreuse green to pale golden and light brown.
Why are Chinese Oolongs so different?
The appearance and flavor of any kind of tea depend on the region where it is grown, and on its processing method. The perfect Oolong, however, is more an outcome of the artisan’s technique than of the tea’s geographical or genetic origin.
Production of Chinese Oolong
There are some characteristic features of the Chinese Oolong production process that make these teas so distinctive and diverse.
- Oxidation level. Varying levels of oxidation play a major role in determining tea flavor. Chinese Oolongs can have oxidation degrees anywhere between eight and eighty percent. Lightly oxidized oolongs would have a fresher and more floral aroma.
- The method of “cooking”. Chinese tea masters use low-temperature pan-firing or oven roasting to halt the oxidation process. This results in the familiar lightly toasted flavor and smooth, earthy quality of Chinese Oolongs.
- The shape of the finished tea leaves. The Chinese are particular about the “look” of the dry tea leaves. The leaves of any kind of Chinese Oolong will have a distinctive shape, often twisted or curled into small balls, preserving their aromas inside.
Types of Chinese Oolong tea
Online tea stores have several varieties of Chinese Oolongs to offer. Tea styles vary in flavors, origins, and value. From lightly oxidized, floral, greener types to darker, full-bodied teas, there is a wide spectrum of oolongs in China. Here are some most popular types.
- Tie Guan Yin Oolong (Iron Goddess of Mercy). A famous Oolong from the Fujian province, Tie Guan Yin is one of the China’s most popular teas. Light to moderately oxidized, it has floral orchid notes in its taste. Tie Guan Yin is usually reasonably priced, making it a great starter oolong.
- Da Hong Pao Oolong (Big Red Robe). One of the rock teas from the Wuyi Mountain region, this oolong is well-fermented and charcoal fire finished. It is full-bodied and richly flavored, making a deeper, fuller, aromatic cup with light smoky undertones.
- Phoenix Dan Cong Oolong (Single Bush). A rare tea from the Phoenix Mountain region of the Guangdong Province, this is a well-balanced oolong with a complex flavor. It starts toasty and woodsy, finishing with sweet and fruity notes on your palate, accented by subtle hints of lychee and wildflower honey.
How do you choose a tea that suits your palate? And in particular, if you’re eager to try Chinese Oolong, how do you pick one?
If you’re new to Chinese Oolong, then Tie Guan Yin Oolong (also known as Iron Buddha, Buddha of Mercy, and Iron Goddess) would be your safest bet. This beginner-friendly oolong has a sweet, mellow aroma and an affordable price-point, making for a great everyday tea.