A guide to oolong tea

A guide to oolong tea

Oolongs are the most diverse of all tea types, ranging in flavour from light, fruity and sweet to rich, dark and smoky.

It's partly oxidised tea – anywhere between 10 - 70% oxidised – that’s somewhere between a green and a black tea.

Relatively easy to brew and lacking the astringency of traditional green teas, oolong is rapidly gaining popularity in the West as tea drinkers discover its astonishing range and depth of flavours.

growing and production

Varieties: Oolong is produced from special, long-leaved variants of Camellia sinensis. There are around 20 sub-varieties of the oolong plant.

Major growing areas: Major growing areas in China include Fujian, Wuyi, Anxi, Chao Zhou and other areas in the south west of the country. In Taiwan, Wenshan and Alishan traditionally produce the best oolongs. However, oolongs are no longer just produced in China and Taiwan. There are some very interesting, experimental oolongs emerging from tea gardens around the world.

Picking: The leaves destined to become oolong teas are usually picked just before they reach maturity. This is to help them withstand the robust processing methods used to make oolong.

Processing: The leaves are withered in the sun or indoors, depending on the climate. Next they’re bruised, baked, and tumbled in heated drums or ovens to slow oxidation, then fired to stop it completely. The timing and intensity of these steps is what determines the flavour of a particular oolong tea.

Whether an oolong is rolled or twisted is a matter of style and tradition. Most rolled (or balled) oolongs are rolled by hand after they are 'fixed'; this stops oxidation and helps prevent the rolling process affecting the taste of the tea. Darker, more heavily oxidised oolongs, such as Dan Cong or Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe), tend to be twisted into strips, whereas lighter, greener oolongs, such as Tie Guan Yin and Ali Shan, are usually rolled (or balled).

Oolongs can be aged to improve the taste and are sometimes re-baked to awaken the flavours.

History: Originating in China’s Wu Yi mountains in around the 15th Century, oolong gets its name from the Chinese for ‘Black Dragon’, although it is not clear why. Growers discovered that, by delaying the fixing process and allowing the tea to oxidise, wonderful new flavours emerged.

This meant that their teas could win the coveted status of ‘tribute teas’. Oolong cultivation in Taiwan was developed during the 1860s by Scottish merchant adventurer, John Dodd, who encouraged farmers to grow and trade in the tea. Taiwan is still a leading producer of fine oolongs. Since the 1970s the governments of both China and Taiwan have promoted and protected the production of quality oolongs. Quality has steadily improved and oolong is now among the fastest growing categories in the fine tea market.

oolong tea varieties

Big Red Robe (Da Hong Pao): Big Red Robe has a deep, intense all-enveloping flavour that cloak the mouth. This is a more fully-oxidised oolong, well on the way to being a black tea. Produced in Wuyi, Fujian. One of the most approachable oolongs.

Iron Buddha (Tie Guan Yin): 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.

Honey Orchid (Mil Lan Dan Cong): Dan Cong is the champagne of oolongs and the higher grades can fetch fantastic prices. Picked from old trees grown around the town of Chao Zhou in Guangdong, it produces a rich, orange-brown liquor that can explode on the palate with intense flavours of apricot and honey.

health benefits of oolong

Oolong tea is high in antioxidant polyphenols and research has shown that it may have other health benefits such as combating cholesterol and possibly helping with weight loss. The Chinese claim oolong is good for the heart, skin, and teeth. Other studies have shown that drinking oolong tea can help reduce high blood pressure and combat heart disease.

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