Uncovering the Mysteries of Oolong Tea
Tuesday, 16 May 2017 | Maja Alice
What is Oolong Tea?
Imparting the fresh fragrance of green tea with the enticingly smooth flavour of black tea, oolongs are steadily gaining popularity amongst tea-lovers and tea connoisseurs in the West. The oolong category has a diverse range of flavours, each with an outstanding depth and complexity.
In this post, we explore the history, flavours, production and brewing methods of oolong tea.
The origin of oolong tea can be traced back to the Fujian province of China. The mountainous terrain and unique climate in this area, creates perfect conditions for oolong tea production.
Made from oxidized whole leaves that are open, rolled or curled, the oolong category has a wide range of flavours. Oolong tea has a low astringency which means that it imparts little to no bitterness. The flavour, colour and aroma of oolong tea depends on the cultivar, horticulture, growing environment, time of harvest and - most importantly - the level of oxidation during the post-picking treatment of the leaves. The flavours of oolong tea span from fresh and floral to thick and woody. More on this below.
The History of Oolong Tea
The history of oolong is shrouded in mystery. While there are many myths and legends that detail the origin of oolong tea, no one really knows exactly how and when the first oolong was produced.
It is said that the name ‘Oolong’, stems from the Chinese term ‘Wu Long’ which means ‘Black Dragon’. Some still refer to the category as ‘Wu Long’ or ‘Black Dragon Tea’.
As mentioned, oolong tea originates from the revered Fujian province of China and dates back at least a few hundred years - possible a lot more.
The Fujian province is located on China’s South-Eastern coast and has a subtropical climate with mild winters and heavy rainfall. Fujian is a highly mountainous area with many forests. It is said that Fujian was traditionally described as ‘eight parts mountain, one part water and one part farmland’. Fujian is home to the Wuyi mountains and the Anxi County - both famous for their oolong teas.
The Wuyi mountain area plays a pivotal role in the history of oolong tea. Amongst the varieties grown in this area, is the revered Wuyi Shui Xian - a dark version of oolong which is rolled into long, straight curls.
During the 19th Century, the production of oolong tea was introduced in Taiwan. Taiwan is located approximately 11o miles of the coast of Fujian. To begin with, Camellia Sinensis plants where grown in Taiwan and sent back to Fujian for the production of oolong teas. Once oolong teas began to grow in popularity amongst the population of Taiwan, it was decided that this was an ineffective practise. Therefore, the Taiwanese started to produce oolongs on the island. Like Fujian, Taiwan is a mountainous area. In Northern and Central Taiwan - which has a humid subtropical climate - the temperature fluctuates between seasons. Hence, a tea grown during spring can have a very different flavour to a tea grown during summer or autumn. Southern Taiwan has a warmer, tropical monsoon climate with less fluctuation in temperature. Taiwanese versions of oolong tea are highly acknowledged amongst tea drinkers and tea connoisseurs.
Legends of Oolong Tea
There are many theories and legends about the origin of oolong tea. Below, we have outlined three of the most acknowledged theories.
The Tribute Tea Version
Throughout Chinese history, the best and most luxurious of teas have been given in tribute to the Chinese emperors. These teas are known as ‘tribute teas’. According to the Tribute Tea Legend, oolong tea was invented during the 10th Century Song dynasty. During this time, the famous tea garden ‘Beiyuan’ in Fujian, produced a compressed tea cake with an imprint of a phoenix and a dragon. As loose leaf tea became more popular than compressed tea, the Beiyuan tea cake went out of fashion. It is said that the Beiyuan garden then began to produce a dark loose leaf tea which was the first version of oolong. They named it ‘Wu Long’ (‘Black Dragon’), inspired by the dragon on the tea cake and the dark colour of this new loose leaf tea. Through Chinese whispers, ‘Wu Long’ became ‘Oolong’ and a new tea category was born.
The Wuyi Mountain Version
According to this legend, oolong was first invented in the Wuyi mountains during the 16th Century Ming dynasty. This version of the story states that oolong tea was named after a part of the mountain range. The evidence for this story is found in old Chinese poems.
The Anxi Version
There are several versions of this legend. The first version of this story, involves a man from the Anxi County who, due to his dark skin, was nick-named ‘Black Dragon’. One day, the man was carrying tea leaves through a forest in the county, in a basket on his back. A keen hunter, the man spotted a deer and took pursuit to catch the beast. His running caused the leaves to be shaken about, which bruised their edges. Distracted by the preparations of his catch, the man forgot about the leaves and they began to oxidise. When he returned to the tea leaves, he noticed that something unusual had happened. He decided to treat the tea leaves anyway, as he did not want them to go to waste. He then discovered that the bruising and oxidization had caused a pleasurable flavour and a new tea variety came to life. This new type of tea was named ‘Black Dragon’ after the man.
The second version of this tale, states that the man’s name was ‘Wu Liang’ and that he named the tea after himself. Through Chinese Whispers, ‘Wu Liang’ became ‘Wu Long’ which then became ‘Oolong’.
The third version of the story involves a black snake. This version states that it was not a deer but a snake that distracted the man. Scared by the snake, the man dropped the leaves and ran for safety. When he came back the next day to collect the leaves, they had oxidized. Just like the version with the deer, he produced the tea and found that it had a unique and enjoyable flavour. As the tea gained popularity, he decided to name the variety after the snake and called it ‘Wu Long’ or ‘Black Dragon’.
It is unknown which of these legends are closets to the truth. Perhaps there is some truth to all of the tales.
Production of Oolong Tea
Producing oolong tea requires an intricate and precise method which involves repetition and very exact timing.
Tea leaves begin to oxidize as soon as they are plucked. Oxidisation has a large impact on the flavour of the finished tea. The level of oxidization, as well as the process of bruising, is what makes oolong teas stand out. It is said that the oolong category is the middle-ground between green teas and black teas. The oxidization of oolong teas can vary from around 5% to 90%. Less oxidized oolongs have a lighter, golden colour, whereas the more oxidized versions have a darker colour with an orange or brown tint.
Oolong teas go through a process of withering, bruising, oxidising, shaping, drying and roasting. After harvesting, the tea leaves are left to whither - most often under natural sunlight. During this step, the cell walls of the leaves soften and a natural enzymatic fermentation begins. The next step of producing oolong tea, is the bruising process. This step is essential to develop the distinctive flavour profile of oolong teas. Traditionally, bruising was caused by shaking the withered tea leaves in wicker baskets. Today, this step is more commonly done using a specially designed machine. The purpose of bruising the leaves, is to begin the oxidation process. Bruising the leaves softens the edges. This helps to reduce bitterness. After bruising, the teas are left to further whither and oxidize. Most often, this takes place indoors. This step is important for the development of flavour. As mentioned, the length of time in which the tea leaves are oxidized, is pivotal to the outcome of the tea. These steps can be repeated several times to reach the desired result.
Once the repeated process of withering, bruising and oxidizing is complete, the tea leaves go through a process known as ‘fixing’ or ‘kill-green’. During this process, the tea leaves are treated with heat - most often from hot air - to halt oxidisation. The tea leaves are then rolled into a long curl or small pearl shape. After rolling, the shaped oolong tea is dried and roasted to further develop the flavour.
Oolong tea can be consumed straight after production. However, like Pu erh teas, some oolongs are left to age. This develops further depth of flavour. The aging process of aged oolong is quite different to that of Pu erh. During the time that oolongs are left to age, the tea undergoes repeated heat treatment - known as roasting. The tea is subjected to regular roasting during the aging process.
How to Brew Oolong Tea
It is best to store oolong teas in an airtight container, which you should place in a cool, dry place. Make sure that the tea is not exposed to any strong odours, which can contaminate the flavour.
There are two acknowledged ways to brew oolong tea. The Western way - which is more simple - and the traditional Chinese way, which imparts a more authentic flavour and overall drinking experience.
Western Method of Brewing Oolong Tea
To brew oolong using the Western way, use approximately 2-3g of tea per 200ml of water. Place your loose leaf tea in an infuser, heat your water to near boiling - 85℃ - 95℃ depending on the variety - and pour the water over the leaves in your teapot or infuser cup. Leave your tea to brew for 1-5 minutes, depending on the oolong variety. Lastly, pour your tea into a cup or pitcher, serve and enjoy. Note that high-quality oolongs can be steeped several times.
Chinese Gongfu Cha Method of Brewing Oolong Tea
In China, oolong is traditionally brewed using the Gongfu Cha brewing method. The term ‘Gongfu’ loosely translates to ‘labour’ or ‘skill’, whereas the term ‘Cha’ means tea. Together, the phrase can be translated to ‘brewing tea with skill’.
To brew oolong using the Gongfu Cha method, you will need an unglazed, Yixing clay teapot or Gaiwan. Alternatively, you can use glassware, which will allow you to see the tea as it brews. Firstly, place a large amount of leaves in a small teapot or Gaiwan. Whichever brewing vessel you use, you should fill approximately one third of it with dry tea leaves.
The first step of brewing, is to rinse your tea leaves with near-boiling water (circa 90℃). To do this, simply pour the hot water over the tea leaves and immediately discard of the water, leaving the wet tea leaves in your teapot or Gaiwan. This step is referred to as ‘waking the tea’. Its purpose is to rinse any impurities away from the tea leaves. Please note that the quality of water in your area, can affect the outcome of your brew. To achieve the best result, we recommend that you use bottled or filtered water.
The next step is to steep the first brew. Pour on fresh, near-boiling water and leave the tea to brew for around 60 seconds. The first brew is now ready to serve. It is customary to serve the tea in small tasting cups. You can repeat the brewing step several times. It is said that the third or fourth brew imparts the best flavour. This is, of course, dependant on the variety of oolong. Unlike green and black teas, the flavour of oolong becomes stronger with each re-steep.
Oolong teas are a wonderful tea variety with an interesting history and a wide range of complex flavours. We highly recommend this type of tea to both novice and experienced loose leaf tea drinkers. If you are new to oolong teas, or simply want to broaden your horizon, you can try five high-quality oolongs by purchasing our Oolong Tea Discovery Pack.
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