What is oolong tea?

what is oolong

There are six main families of tea: white, green, yellow, black, pu er and oolong tea. In France oolong is known as blue tea due to the bluish shade of its leaves and of certain infusions.

What is oolong?

A lovely legend of oolong's origins says that the tea was invented by mistake by a man named Wu Liang who got distracted by a deer while picking tea leaves and left his tea leaves to dry.

Legends aside, this unique tea was mentioned for the first time in 1857 under the name of wulong, black dragon tea.

Oolong tea originates from the Chinese Fujian province where it has been cultivated for three centuries. Today it is also cultivated elsewhere in China as well as in Taiwan.

What type of tea is oolong?

Oolong tea is neither black nor green, that's why the name "blue tea" that was given it by the French is so justified. Whereas all the teas are made from the leaves of the same plant, Camellia sinensis, they differ largely in colours and tastes thanks to different processing techniques.

what is oolong

While the green teas are not oxidized at all and black teas are fully oxidized, oolong teas are partially oxidized. 

In a country as vast as China, it is only normal that there is no one standard type of oolong tea. The two main subtypes would be

  • teas that are 10 to 45 percent oxidized and resemble green teas 
  • teas that are up to 70 percent oxidized and are closer to black teas

As the excellent book The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea by Bret Hinsch explains it:

"Because oolong covers the vast middle ground between green and [black], it is by far the most diverse kind of tea. Some Taiwanese oolongs are lighter and more delicate than many green teas, while the strongest Fujian oolongs are heavier than the average [black]. The wide-ranging world of oolongs is fascinating to explore, and anyone can find a personal favorite ... Taiwanese oolongs seem like something that might have been created by Monet, while Fujian's oolongs are more like the work of Rembrandt."

How is oolong tea made?

After being harvested, oolong tea leaves undergo the following processes:

  • withering - the leaves are left outside on cloths or bamboo racks to lose moisture
  • oxidation - the leaves are heated in ambient humidity for about eight hours
  • panning - the leaves are heated to stop the oxidation process
  • rolling - the leaves are rolled to achieve the visual typical of oolong tea
  • drying and firing - the leaves are dried for 10 to 20 minutes at 110°C to 120°C and fired twice in temperatures varying according to the region

What is the best oolong tea?

Here are some of the most famous Fujian oolongs.

Da Hong Pao (Big red robe)

This extremely rare tea is surrounded by numerous legends. Its mysterious name is explained in a few ways: some would say that the red robes were carried by trained monkeys that used to pluck the tea leaves for this tea, some say the name comes from a monk who was cured by the tea and who wore a red robe, like all the Buddhist monks. The most prosaic explanation is related to the color of the leaves.

This tea is being made only from a few ancient trees and is extremely difficult to obtain. It is also very pricey. It is said that almost all the harvest is reserved for the highest officials of the Chinese government and when some of the tea is made available for sale, it can fetch as much as US $ 20,000 for 20g. 

Tieguangin

Oolong tea comes from the Fujian region and this is also where its most famous variety originates. Anxi Tie Guan Yin is related to a beautiful legend about a tea grower, Mr. Wei, who took care of the abandoned temple of the goddess Guan Yin. The goddess came to him in his sleep and told him that a precious treasure lies in the temple's cave. When Mr. Wei searched the cave, he found a small tea shot. He took good care of the shot and it became a healthy tea bush giving the most wonderful, delicate tea.

Many famous oolong teas are produced in Taiwan.

Pouchong

This tea is grown in the mountains near Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. It is oxidized in 15% and very close to green tea. While it used to be exported in high quantities, very small quantities quit Taiwan today as the tea is quite costly and can't stand the competition with the cheap Indian and Sri Lankan teas.

It is a very delicate tea with a pale yellow color and lemon and orchid notes. It should be brewed using the traditional methods but it's also delicious as a cold brew.

Some of the famous oolongs are also cultivated elsewhere in China.

Mi Lan Xiang

Another famous oolong tea Mi Lan Xiang comes from the Guandong province. The name of this tea can be translated as Perfume of honeyed orchid which is probably the most beautiful and poetic name for a tea that one can think of.

Its name does justice to this exquisite tea. It comes from the Feng Huang Mountains (Phoenix Mountains) that have been a tea growing region for more than 1000 years and are famous for a few reasons:

  • the tea from this region has the dan cong notion which means it is made from a unique tea plant. The plants can be as much as 800 years old
  • the treas are planted uncut, in groves

Want to know more about oolong teas?