Introduction - The Dragon of Tea
In Chinese, Oolong (or Wulong) means “Black Dragon” – and if its name is an homage, black dragons must be mighty complex creatures! Toting a wide variety of flavors, aromas, and aesthetics, oolong is thought of by many to be the most complex out of all tea types. To be considered an oolong, a tea must be partially oxidized, placing it somewhere between green teas (which are not oxidized) and black teas (which are fully oxidized). Just how oxidized the tea is depends greatly on the region in which the tea is produced. While Chinese oolongs tend to be heavily oxidized, oolongs from Taiwan are much lighter and more reminiscent of green teas. And although oolong originally hailed solely from Fujian, the interest in this mysterious and versatile tea took hold so quickly and firmly that some of the best oolongs are now also produced in neighboring areas and Taiwan as well. So - without further ado, let's enter the den of the black dragon.
History of Oolong - From Hatching to Flight
The black dragon first hatched in Fujian, China, although it is still unclear as to exactly when or where. Since the early 9th century, Fujian has been the home of some of the most sought after teas of royalty – especially teas from the Wuyi region. Having supplied royal families with tribute teas since the Northern Song dynasty, Fujian is believed by some to have invented oolong during that time. However, the more widespread thought (and the one that we subscribe to) is that oolong is a much younger tea than those savored in the Song Dynasty – likely becoming commonplace around the 19th century.
Although not common, there are also reports of Fujian oolong teas making their way to Europe in the 17th century, after which it became a popular choice for afternoon tea during the 18th century. The 18th century also reportedly saw the introduction of oolong to Taiwan. Even though this exact date is unclear, once the first Fujian oolong tea trees were transported to Taiwanese soil, oolong innovation soared. With what was best suited for their soil and climate, Taiwan created their own version of oolong. Aside from taste, the most important difference between Taiwanese oolongs and Fujianese oolongs is processing. Having invented a new version of oolong, Taiwan's reputation for the tea grew, as did their tea technology. Thus, where Fujian oolong is diligently hand-made, a lot of Taiwanese oolong is produced with amazingly innovative machines. In fact, Taiwanese oolong processing machines are seen worldwide in tea farms and factories. It is because of Fujian and Taiwan both that we now see oolong teas being made in countries outside of China, like Japan, Vietnam, India, and even the United States (Hawaii).
We cannot talk about the history of oolong without mentioning oolong’s etymology. Like its origin, oolong's name too remains a mystery. Some say that oolong was named such because the first oolong teas looked like little black dragons. Others say that oolong was named for an oolong tea famer nicknamed Black Dragon.
Though mystifying, there is one thing that remains clear about oolong tea - it is China's favorite tea. Oolong is the most consumed tea by people living in China, and for many people across the world, it is considered to be the overall best tea type. With its wide range of flavors, continued innovation, and limitless ways in which it can be grown and processed, exploring the world of oolong is an astonishing journey filled with wonderful surprises.
Oolong Production - How Does One Make a Dragon?
As we delve further into the realm of dragons, it's important to understand just how oolong is made. Unlike green and white teas which boast minimal processing, the processing for oolong teas can be quite complex. As there are countless varieties of oolong teas, there are countless ways in which an oolong can be processed. Even the smallest change in how an oolong is made can create an entirely different tea. Like conducting a world class symphony, crafting oolong requires constant attention. Even the slightest delay of a conductor's hand can change a performance, and the same can be said of the slightest delay in a step in oolong processing. With that said, we'd like to give you a basic overview of how a Fujian oolong is processed. (Yezi Tea specializes in teas from Fujian after all!)
First, three or four leaves are picked from each tea plant and laid flat on large baskets to wither in the sun. The leaves are then brought inside and allowed to oxidize for 8-12 hours. During the oxidation process, the teas are rattled to allow the cell walls within each leaf to break down, and for the chemical compounds in the tea leaf to react with each other. This helps quicken the oxidation process and can be seen visibly by the slight reddening of the edges of the leaves. After reaching the correct level of oxidation, the leaves are then stirred in a hot wok twice. After each heating, the leaves are twisted to help ensure that the tea maintains essential oils. Finally, the tea is dried in an oven to remove as much moisture as possible. This final drying also helps to add aroma characteristic to the tea type.
As mentioned earlier, there are limitless ways of processing oolong. The method mentioned above is solely one, and is not used by all oolong farmers.
Oolong Tea Types - Mighty Beasts of Every Flavor
Now that we have spoken about how an oolong can be processed, let’s take a theoretical flight up to the mountains of Fujian and Taiwan and explore the world of oolong types.
From Yancha to Gaoshan, from a charcoal roasted Tie Guan Yin to a subtle and sweet Da Yu Ling, the many different varieties of oolong teas just might be why oolong is China's favorite tea.
Yancha - Fujian, China
The name yancha (cliff tea) refers to any tea that is grown in the breathtaking Wuyi mountain range of Fujian. This is likely the birthplace of oolong, and it continues to have some of the world's most favored and rare teas. Within the category of yancha, there are three different types: True Cliff - the highest quality teas that are picked from the tea trees in the cliffs of the Wuyi mountains, Half-Cliff - the second highest quality teas that are picked near the cliffs, but not on them, and Sandbar- the least flavorful of the teas that are picked near the streams of Wuyi. Almost all Wuyi teas are known by their characteristic rich flavor, impressive throat, caramel-like sweetness, orchid aroma, and outstanding rhythm. Though the numerical amount of yancha is impossible to know, there are a few main types of yancha that should be noted: Rougui, Bajiaoting Longxu, Shui Jingui, Baijiguan, Tie Lou Han, and...
Da Hong Pao
Without a doubt, this is the best and highest quality yancha there is, and is considered by many to be the best oolong in the world. Authentic Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) is picked from ancient, wild tea trees that grow in Nine Dragon Nest, a very high spot on the Wuyi mountains. It is known for its strong osmanthus aroma, smooth, rich, and slightly astringent body, and rolling rhythm. This awe inspiring tea is usually snapped up by only a handful of Chinese tea connoisseurs, making it one of the most expensive and most sought after teas in the world. Because of this it is nearly impossible to find authentic Da Hong Pao.
Huangjin Gui - Fujian, China
The original tea tree that first produced Huangjin Gui (Golden Orchid) was a wild tree kept alive for nearly a hundred years because of the amazing tea it produced. Today, the tea tree's offspring still produce this aromatic and fruity tea. To produce Huangjin Gui, two to three leaves are plucked from the stem during mid-April. This tea has a lower oxidation percentage than other Fujian oolongs and produces a golden brew with notes of tangerines and flowers.
Anxi Tie Guan Yin - Fujian, China
Anxi Tie Guan Yin (Anxi Iron Goddess of Mercy) is arguably the most famous tea to come out of southern Fujian. It has a unique flavor that is heavy, yet sweet, due to the tea tree plant hybrid that the tea is made from. This rolled oolong is one of the most fragrant teas around, with notes of camphor, orchids, and caramel. A milk-like depth and incredible honey-sweet throat awaits you with this tea.
Muzha Tie Guan Yin - Muzha, Taipei, Taiwan
So unique and popular was Anxi Tie Gun Yin, that Taiwan decided to create its own version. Taiwanese Tie Guan Yin is often known as Muzha Tie Guan Yin as it is mostly produced near the town of Muzha in Taipei. This Tie Guan Yin uses a different hybrid than its Anxi counterpart, and because of this has a distinctly different flavor profile. Baked longer than Anxi Tie Guan Yin, it produces a very strong brew with a lovely sweetness and generous complexity.
Dong Ding - Lugu, Taiwan
Dong Ding (Winter Peak) is a type of gaoshan or High Mountain oolong. Grown in the mountainous Nantou Country from trees that were originally grown in the Wuyi mountain range, this tea is known for its light and refreshing flavor, its sweetness with a tinge of astringency, and its aroma of fresh gardenia flowers.
Da Yu Ling - Hualian, Taiwan
Da Yu Ling (named after the peak it hails from) is a high quality and rare gaoshan from the mountains of Hualian county. This beautiful yellow brew totes a saccharine flavor with the buttery aroma of tangerines and flowers.
Health Benefits - A Dragon a Day Keeps the Doctor Away?
The many wonderful flavors and aromas of oolong tea are part of what makes oolong such a special delicacy. However, we cannot talk about what makes tea type special without also mentioning its health benefits.
Like green tea, the West's fascination with the health properties of oolong tea is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, while green tea seems to be synonymous with numerous health benefits in the West, oolong tea is often correlating with just one thing - weight loss.
Studies link the weight loss that they have seen in human and animal subjects with the antioxidants that oolong contains, along with the caffeine, and oolong's reported blood sugar regulating properties.
With that said, the supposed health benefits of oolong tea do not end with weight loss. As mentioned above, there have been studies that have shown that consuming oolong tea can aid in the treatment of diabetes, since it helps to regulate blood sugar. Additionally, like green and white tea, oolong contains a fair amount of the antioxidant group catechins, including EGCG (Epigallocatechin gallate) that has been purported to reduce the risk of many different cancers. Oolong also contains epicatechin gallate which has been shown to reduce/prevent certain bacteria in vitro. Finally, there have been many studies that have linked the consumption of oolong tea to the treatment of skin allergies, lowering blood pressure, preventing osteoporosis, tooth decay, and heart disease. With all of this said, we advise everyone to take these health claims with a grain of salt. Although revealed through scientific research, these studies are all relatively new and science is always moving forward.
Unlike green tea and white tea, oolong teas do not typically contain solely young leaf buds, which would have the most amount of caffeine. The older the leaf is on the tea plant, the less caffeine that it contains. Because to this, biologically speaking, oolong tea contains less caffeine than green tea and white tea. However, how much caffeine you consume depends on how long you steep your tea for and the temperature of the water that you steep the leaves in. Due to the fact that oolong is typically steeped in hotter water than green and white tea and sometimes for longer, more caffeine can be found in the resulting cup than its younger leafed counterparts. With that said, there are many other variables that dictate the amount of caffeine contained in a cup of tea and to know the exact amount of caffeine in your cup, it requires advanced scientific study. Those who are sensitive to caffeine should take care to consume oolong in moderation.
How to Prepare Oolong - As Hot as Draconian Fire
Like green tea, the various characteristics of oolong make it the perfect tea to drink all year round. Whether looking to wind down after a long day, or looking for a morning pick me up, there is an oolong for any time of day and any day of the year. With that said, it is a good idea to know just how to best prepare this versatile dragon!
By and large, the tea world agrees that oolong teas are best when prepared in a gaiwan, and with high water temperature. We at Yezi like to prepare our oolong tea in water ranging from 203 degrees to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
When preparing oolong, our rule of thumb is that for every 5 to 6 ounces of water, you need 4-5 grams of tea. When brewing gongfu style, we suggest rinsing the leaves first (by steeping them for about a second or two and then pouring that brew out), before preparing your first infusion. After rinsing, the first infusion should be steeped for about one minute. All following infusions should then tack on 10-20 seconds for each succeeding infusion, depending on the tea.
We cannot talk about savoring the black dragon without discussing how to properly keep your dragons at their best! As we noted in our blog on "How Long Does Tea Last?" oolong tea is best stored in a cool, dark, odor-free, and air-tight place. If stored properly, we have seen that in most cases, the more oxidized the oolong, the longer that oolong will maintain its best characteristics. Roasted oolong teas, however, are a bit different. As the name suggests, roasted oolong teas are oolongs that have been thoroughly roasted after being allowed to partially oxidize. We have seen certain roasted oolongs, like Da Hong Pao, last up to five years.
Final Words - Spreading Wings Across the World
Although oolong tea refers to any partially oxidized tea, the black dragons of Fujian are still seen as the most sought after oolongs in the world. If you don't find green tea or black tea to be your fancy, there is an oolong for you. This tea type truly bridges the gap between both ends of the tea spectrum. It can be light, floral, and buttery, or it can be bold, rich, and malty. And it is because of this that the black dragon has spread its wings and entered the hearts of tea lovers all over the world. Exploring the vast world of the many different oolong teas is a journey filled with surprise and wonder. And if this lovable dragon has yet to find its place in your tea cupboard, we hope that is does soon.