First produced in the Fujian province of China, some 400 years ago, oolong tea now comes primarily from Taiwan and southern China. Its long, dark leaves, redolent of dragons' tails, are what give oolong tea its Chinese name: ‘Wu Long', meaning ‘black dragon'.
Oolong tea is made using partially-oxidised leaves, which means its character varies according to the degree of fermentation. For example, light oolong teas like our Oolong Ti Dung, have a delicate, flowery taste, while a variety like Superior Fancy Oolong is much more like black tea.
Many people have heard of oolong tea, but few can define it. Oolong teas can be either partially oxidised, a lighter processing style that makes it resemble a green tea, or heavily oxidized, giving them the taste, look and feel of a black tea.
Oolong originates in China but many varieties are now produced in Taiwan. Tea plants used to manufacture just about any tea can also be used to produce oolong, but the special processing used is considered a high-art form with mastery of this skill taking many years to perfect.
Production of Oolong Tea
Oolong teas undergo more individual steps in processing than any other tea type, including withering, oxidising, special leaf bruising, rolling, more oxidation (in some types) and repeated firing or roasting to lock in aromas and flavours.
During the withering step, the tea leaves are lightly bruised by shaking or rolling them, which allows the edges to begin oxidizing. The leaves are then rolled to continue the oxidation. The rolling stage is sometimes interrupted intermittently with pan firing to halt the oxidation temporarily. This alternation between rolling and heating is often repeated many times to develop the layers of flavour for which oolongs are so famous.
Depending on the type of oolong being made, sometimes no further oxidation is needed, such as in the case of a Pouchong. For oolongs that require greater oxidation like a Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) and Bai Hao (Oriental Beauty), the rolled leaves are left to rest, usually on large bamboo trays, for a period of a few hours. A final drying is done by pan firing, which stops the oxidation and reduces the moisture content. These oolongs all have a long lovely twisted leaf shape.
All of the above painstaking steps are carefully monitored by the tea master, who decides when the leaves are to be moved to the next level of production. To make those decisions, the master must rely primarily on the aroma of the leaves, a skill learned over time. Some of these tea masters can simply tell by the smell and aroma of the leaves when to move to the next step.
Some oolongs, such as the famed Tung Ting (Dong Ding) and Tie Guanyin (Ti Gian Yin or Tie Kuan Yin), go through an extra step: The leaves are collected in a canvas bag, the bag is tightly gathered into a sphere the size of a bowling ball, and then the bag is repeatedly rolled by hand, by foot or using a machine. The leaves are removed from the bag, briefly heated in a tumbling machine, and then returned to the bag and rolled again. This might be done up to thirty times. The process shapes the leaves into small balls and adds a wonderful depth of flavour to the cup. A final drying is done by pan firing, which stops the oxidation and reduces the moisture for future storage.
In some cases, the semi-balled, lightly oxidized finished tea that is defined as jade oolong is lightly baked in a low oven for more depth of taste and a typically slightly toasted finish. This changes the classification from a jade oolong to an amber oolong. One has to be careful not to confuse amber oolong with any type of oolong. The word amber oolong is also used for any oolong that is more than 25% oxidized. To summarise, amber oolongs have either been treated to an additional baking process or are darker due to a longer oxidation time.
Types of Oolong Tea
Some of the best-known oolong varieties are:
- Pouchongs – lightly oxidized tea with a twisted rather than rolled leaf. It comes with a delicate, fresh aroma and notes of lilac.
- Tung Ting – a jade ball-style green leaved oolong with a sweet, silky, floral taste. Sometimes this tea is also labelled Dong Ding. If the additional final baking step has commenced, it would be called amber Tung Ting, which would result in a more complex cup with honey notes layered with rich, dark, slightly toasty notes.
- Tie Guanyin – known in English as Iron Goddess of Mercy (and often spelled Tie Guan Yin, Tie Kuan Yin, or Ti Kwan Yin). Finished with baking, this procedure creates a mix of sweet dried apricot and toasty notes. A more modern-style version is less oxidized and has a sweeter flavour.
- Da Hong Pao - Known in English as Big Red Robe, the long, dark twisted leaves carry complex notes of fruit and sweet, as well as minerals from the rocky terrains where the tea plants are grown.
- Bai Hao – also known as White Tip, Silver Tip, or Oriental Beauty, these big, long, dark leaves impart a sweet, fruity, floral character in the cup.
Oolong teas have an amazing complexity in taste, aroma and appearance. Leaf colour and brewed tea can vary from dark-coffee brown to amber-orange, golden-yellow, and beyond.
Some of China’s oolongs are collected like expensive bottles of wine by collectors and connoisseurs. The high mountain Taiwanese oolongs such a Jade Oolong are bought, sold and collected like exotic single-malt whiskey’s and rare artwork.
Global demand for Oolong is increasing but, with limited production, prices are likely to rise further.
How to Brew Oolong Teas
Firstly, please keep in mind that Oolongs in particular can differ significantly so please treat this as a guide.
It’s worth experimenting to find the way you like it best!
Always use freshly boiled water and allow it to cool a little before making your tea.
Brewing Green Oolongs
- One level teaspoon per cup
- Freshly boiled 82deg water
- Brew for 3 – 5 minutes
Brewing Amber Oolongs
- One heaped teaspoon per cup
- 93deg water
- Brew for 3 – 5 minutes
Cupoftea are proud to stock some of the very finest oolong teas. Here are just a few to consider...
China Tie Guan Yin Oolong
A green produced Oolong with little oxidation. Tie Guan Yin is one of the most famous Chinese Oolongs. Our tea comes from the garden Wangija located in the northern part of province Fujian. The tea has a unique flowery taste with a touch of orchid fragrance.
China Pouchong Oolong
This Oolong also comes from the Wangjia tea garden. Pouchongs are very little fermented. The taste of this tea ranges from flowery to fruity which is typical for a green produced Oolong but also shows mild notes of a traditional green tea.
China Superior Fancy Oolong
Fancy means superior and this is true to this tea. It is a darker, more oxidized version of Oolong. Fancy Oolongs are rare and only a few cases are coming to the market each year. It comes with an elegant, flowery and highly aromatic character that also reminds of nut and fruit
Mae Salong Thai Green Oolong
The history of Mae Salong in Thailand and its tea culture starts in the early fifties, resulting from the Cultural Revolution in China. Part of the troops found new homes in the North of Thailand and started settling. Mae Salong was one of them and is now one of the largest with approx. 20.000 inhabitants living in an altitude of 1500m.
The perfect geographical and climate conditions in Mae Salong, together with thousands of years of knowledge in cultivating tea and the connection to Taiwan built a strong foundation for the quality of the tea grown in this area. Following first trials with the local tea plants, more high quality tea plants were imported from the Alisha Mountains in Taiwan (Formosa). Meanwhile Thailand has made a name on the global tea map. However given the relatively short history and also due to the limited quantities available it is still a secret amongst Oolong lovers.
Mae Salong Oolong has a beguiling taste – mild and soft at first, followed by fruity, flowery nuances with a slightly sweet touch.
Dharmsala Oolong - India
Himachal Pradesh is part of the smaller counties in India with a size of only approx. 55 sq. km and just about 6.85 million inhabitants; by comparison Mumbai has twice the amount of people with roughly 12.5 mio living there. The largest district within Himachal Pradesh is the Kangra-Valley with approximately 1.5 million inhabitants including the district capital Dharmsala.
Forest covers 68% of the district with 90% of it being kept as a nature reserve.
In the east Himachal Pradesh borders Tibet and given the location the area became refuge for many Buddhists and people from Tibet, fleeing the Chinese. The 14th Dalai Lama keeps his exile in Dharmsala.
Translating Dharmsala means Pilgrim Mountains respectively home or place of belief.
The Kangra district or Kangra valley is also named valley of the goddesses. Along the rivers with the massive snow covered mountain Dhauladhar above, farmers have been growing tea here on the foothills of the Himalayas since the 1950’s. The altitude stretching from 3500m to 5000m creates unbelievable aromatic teas that come with hints of fruit and nut typical for an amber Oolong.