What is Oolong Tea?
Oolong (Wu-lung) tea originates from China and is actually transliterated from two words meaning “black” and “dragon” in English. Besides its inherent meaning, the two words describe the shape of the oolong leaves in their novel state. Oolong tea goes through a unique semi-oxidization process that ranges from 1% - 99%. Shortly after picking, the leaves are withered and semi-oxidized in the sun then shade dried. After this, they are basket-tossed to break down the cells on the surface of the leaves and wok-fired, which halts the oxidization process. Heating methods include masterfully hand roasting the tea leaves in multiple steps which generally take place throughout the night. Oolongs are often processed over charcoal or wood which gives a unique flavor to the various finishing styles. Finally, the leaves are curled or rolled into crispy shapes that resemble tiny black dragons, hence the descriptive name. Because oolong tea leaves are more mature, they are harvested later in the spring than green or white teas – usually from late April to early May.
History of Oolong Tea
There are numerous theories about how oolong tea came to be.
The first theory, called the “tribute tea” theory, claims that oolong tea stems directly from the Dragon-Phoenix Cake tribute tea, which was made up of two different tea types: “Dragon” (Long) and “Phoenix” (Fong), produced in the Beiyuan tea gardens. When loose-leaf tea came into play as the new way of serving tributes, the name was changed to “Black Dragon” or oolong tea, to associate with the dark, wiry leaves that resulted from this form of processing.
The second theory comes from the “Wuyi” theory, which claims that oolong tea was originally named after the Wuyi mountain region, where it was first documented in poems from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
The third theory comes from the “Anxi” theory, which claims that oolong tea was first discovered in the Anxi region of the Fujian province when a man named Sulong, Wulong or Wuliang, accidentally allowed his tea leaves to oxidize after being distracted during the harvest.
Oolong teas reached the height of their popularity during the Qing dynasty, with the introduction of Ti Quan Yin, or Iron Goddess of Mercy, to the emperor Qian Lung, who was so enamored by the beauty of the tea that word of it quickly spread. This was also about the time that the gongfu ceremonial method of serving tea came about and played an instrumental role in political and modern warfare during that period. Oolong tea was usually served out of special handmade teapots made out of purple clay called Yixing teapots. These were designed to be used with one type of tea only in order to season the teapot and avoid cross-contamination of flavors.
Oolong Tea Today
By the mid-1900s, the popularity of oolong teas had grown so much that oolong tea production began in Taiwan. Because of the variable weather and terrain throughout Taiwan, the profiles and overall quality of teas grown there are rather unpredictable and can change dramatically from season to season.
Although the cultivation of oolong tea has spread through various parts of Asia and all the way to India and Nepal in the past decade, the best oolongs today still tend to come from the Anxi and Fujian regions of China or Taiwan and are still best enjoyed using the methods that were crafted during its early inception.
Oolong Tea Types & Variants
Although oolong teas are primarily grown and harvested in concentrated areas of China and Taiwan, the regions in which they are grown are somewhat expansive with varying climates and growing conditions. Thus, we have a wide array of unique oolongs with flavors and aromas ranging from robust and roasted to floral and round. With so many different oolong teas, we could easily fill up a book trying to explain them all. So instead of focusing too broadly, we’ve decided to elaborate on some of the more popular variants of oolong tea, most of which you can find right here at Art of Tea.
Chinese Oolong Teas
Wuyi Oolong yields a heady, floral aroma with a rich, round finish – perfect for introducing the palate to the engaging world of oolongs.
Iron Goddess of Mercy or Ti Kuan Yin is named after the Chinese goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin - believed to be the female Bodhisattva of Compassion. Legend has it that a poor young farmer came across a rundown temple and inside of it sat an iron statue of Kuan Yin. Consumed with love in his heart, this farmer felt the compulsion to clean it and rebuild it, despite his lack of financial means. As a reward for his selfless efforts, the Bodhisattva presented him with a small tea plant in a cave outside of the temple, which he then cultivated into a lush, green bush. He shared this healthy and vibrant reward, which he named “Ti Kuan Yin”, with his community, enriching their lives along with his own. Word of this miracle quickly spread and as its popularity grew, so did this farmer’s abundance and good fortune. To this day, Iron Goddess of Mercy is still one of the most revered oolongs with its smooth and slightly floral flavor and aroma.
Big Red Robe or Da Hong Pao is one of the most prized oolong varietals and was rumored to be a favorite of President Nixon. This mountain-grown beauty dates back to the Song Dynasty and has long wiry leaves. It delivers a unique woodsy flavor that transforms on the palate with each flavorful steep.
Taiwanese Oolong Teas
Bao Zhong (Pouchong) is much closer to green tea in that it is not as oxidized and has a brilliant jade green appearance. The resulting flavor is slightly floral, with crisp overtones and a delicate finish.
Oolong Tea Tips & Preparation
Most oolong teas are best prepared at a water temperature of 185°-206° F, with a steep time of about 3-5 minutes. While this is a good rule-of-thumb, these suggested temperatures may vary depending on the type of oolong as well as the oxidation present in the dry leaf. Oolong teas can be re-steeped multiple times and unlike most other tea types, oolongs will improve and transform with each re-steeping. In most cases, the 4th or 5th steeping is often the best. For optimum results, you may want to increase the steeping temperatures slightly after the first few flushes to unlock more flavor potential. It is also suggested that you use about 1 tsp per 8oz cup for rolled oolongs and 1 Tbsp per 8oz cup for longleaf oolongs.
Generally, an 8oz cup of oolong tea yields about 1/3 less than that of an 8oz cup of coffee. This measurement varies depending on how long the tea is steeped. The longer the steep time, the higher the caffeine content will be. The caffeine content will lessen each time tea is re-steeped. In the case of oolong teas, the caffeine content lessens by about 1/3 with each steeping.
Whether you are new to oolong teas or just looking for something unique and adventurous to satiate your palate, we have a wonderful selection of teas and blends to try. Here are some of our favorites: