The origins of our Wuyi Shui Xian oolong tea
With its deep brown, wiry leaves that gently unfold with unexpected notes of caramel, cacao, honey and pine nuts, this speciality Chinese has all the weird and wonderful qualities that oolong is famous for.
Hailing from the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian, China’s most famous oolong-producing province, Wuyi Shui Xian is one of the lesser known Qi Zhong, or ‘strange’ cultivars. These Wuyi teas are Yan Cha ‘rock’ teas, named for the hardscrabble terroir that produces them.
The long shape of Wuyi Shui Xian’s dark leaves are due to a process of gentle hand-rolling. As they steep in the cup, they yield a pretty amber-hued infusion that hints at this luxury oolong’s beguiling honey notes. Along with its smooth, sweet notes is a slightly fruity quality and a subtle smokiness that adds to the distinctive character of this mildly oxidised loose-leaf tea.
What is Oolong tea?
Also known as wulong (‘black dragon’), oolong is a semi-oxidised tea, which is why it’s often referred to as being halfway between a green and a black tea. The vast majority of oolongs are grown in the mountainous areas of China, particularly Fujian province, and in Taiwan, where oolong was introduced in the 19th century.
Before being plucked, buds are left to open and thicken up so that they are robust enough to withstand the bruising to come – one of the unique parts of the oolong production process. Having been left to wither in sunlight, next comes the bruising: an ancient and carefully controlled technique that kicks off oxidation in the leaves.
Traditionally, bruising was caused by shaking and tumbling the withered tea leaves in wicker baskets, though today machines usually do the work. As the cell walls in the leaves break down, oxidation occurs, reducing bitterness in the leaves and helping create each tea’s individual character. How long each oolong is oxidised depends on the style: the greenest may be oxidised to only about 5%, while the darkest might reach 90%, on the border of being a black tea.
After bruising, the teas are left to further wither, oxidise and develop flavour – a practice usually carried out indoors. The length of time over which the leaves are oxidised is pivotal to the outcome of the tea, hence these steps may be repeated several times to achieve the desired result.
Next up is a process known as ‘fixing’ or ‘kill-green’, during which the leaves are heat-treated, usually with hot air, to halt oxidisation. After this, the tea leaves are shaped – traditionally rolled into either long curls known as strips, or small pearl-like balls. Finally, the tea is dried and roasted to further enhance its flavour. Viewed up close, these finished teas assume fascinating forms: from long, nearly black, twisted and twig-like, to small, gnarly and lettuce-green. In fact, the only thing more varied than their form is their flavour.
The health benefits of oolong
For centuries, the Chinese have touted the health benefits of oolong tea: as an aid to weight loss, cardiovascular function and improved cognition. And recent studies have shown that drinking a couple of cups of oolong per day may indeed help break down fat while you’re sleeping due to the tea’s metabolism-boosting capabilities, therefore reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Those capabilities are down to the tea’s high levels of polyphenols, the antioxidant-packed plant-based compounds that are also linked to a decrease in cell division in certain cancers, improved bone mineral density and a reduction in certain skin conditions such as eczema.
Alternatives to Wuyi Shui Xian tea
For another of China’s highly sought-after oolongs – also grown in rocky soils but in the neighbouring province of Guangdong – try the rich and complex-tasting Phoenix Honey Orchid. There are more special oolongs to be secured if you cast your net across the water and head to Taiwan, where our supremely sweet Oriental Beauty is grown, in the humid hills of Hsinchu County. And if you’re looking for an everyday oolong, you can’t go past our Four Seasons Taiwanese tea – earthy-sweet and approachable, with a mild, nutty character.
For the full range of The Tea Makers of London oolongs, browse our Tea Shop. Upgrade your teaware and create your own gongfu ceremony – the ritualised, traditional preparation of tea – with our range of gaiwans or stunning Rare and Limited Gong Fu gift set. Or shop our range of teapots, especially our authentic handcrafted Yixing clay teapot, perfect for preparing black, oolong or pu-erh teas.