Oolongs are the most diverse of all tea types, ranging in flavour from light, fruity and sweet to rich, dark and smoky.
It's a 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
Oolong is produced from special, long-leaved variants of Camelia sinsensis. There are around 20 sub-varietals of the oolong plant.
Major growing areas
Fujian, Wuyi, Anxi, Chao Zhou and other areas of south west China, and Wenshan and Alishan in Taiwan traditionally produce the best oolongs. However, oolongs are no longer the just produced in China. There are some very interesting, experimental oolongs emerging from tea gardens around the world.
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.
The leaves are withered in the sun and indoors, next they may be bruised, baked, tumbled in heated drums or ovens to slow oxidation, and then fired to stop it. The timing and intensity of these steps is what determines the flavour of the tea.
Whether an oolong is rolled or twisted is a matter of the style and tradition. Most rolled (or fisted). Oolongs are rolled by hand after they are 'fixed' to stop oxidation, so rolling does not affect the taste of the tea. Darker, more heavily oxidised oolongs, such as Dan Cong or Da Hong Pao, tend to be twisted into longish strips, whereas lighter, greener oolongs, such as Tie Guan Yin and Ali Shan, are usually rolled (or 'fisted').
Oolongs can be aged to improve the taste and are sometimes re-baked to awaken the flavours.
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
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.
Big Red Robe (Da Hong Pao)
Known as Big Red Robe because of the deep, intense all-enveloping flavours 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.
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.
Grown at high altitude in southern Taiwan, Ali Shan is one of the best oolongs. This is a ‘fisted’ tea which is gently rolled into balls to slow down oxidation. The high elevation of the tea plantations of Ali Shan helps to concentrate the sweet flavours of the leaves.
Health benefits of oolong
Oolong tea contains fewer antioxidant polyphenols than green tea, but research has shown that it may have other health benefits such as helping with weight loss (as part of a diet) and combating cholesterol. 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.