Oolong tea 101: Beginner’s Guide
Oolong tea is getting popular though it’s not as popular as black/green tea. Let’s learn more about this interesting tea – oolong tea 101.
Table of Contents
DEFINITIONS OF “TRUE TEAS”
Not all the tea we know is true tea. Let’s clarify the difference between true teas and herbal teas.
“True teas” are made using leaves from the tea plant known as Camellia sinensis. Teas made from any other plants are not technically true teas.
5 TYPES OF TRUE TEAS
In fact, herbal teas aren’t actually real teas. Instead, herbal teas are infusions. They are made either from steeping spices, herbs, and roots in hot water. These ingredients can also be combined with true teas at which point they’re known as flavored teas.
WHAT MAKES IT OOLONG TEA?
Also known as Wulong (in China) or “black dragon” tea, oolong tea is always produced as a whole-leaf tea, slightly fermented and semi-oxidized, giving it a taste in between black and green tea.
It’s made from the leaves, buds, and stems of the Camellia sinensis plant, and there are a wide variety of oolong teas.
What’s the biggest difference between oolong tea and black or green teas? Shape and Oxidation (I’ll explain it in detail later).
OOLONG TEA ORIGINS
Oolong tea is originated from China. There are several legends on the oolong tea origins:
- Oolong tea stems directly from the Dragon-Phoenix Cake tribute tea, which was made up of 2 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, heavily oxidized, and twisted wiry leaves similar to the Chinese dragon shape.
- a tea farmer named Wu Liang (later shortened to Wulong) who discovered the oolong style of tea by accident in the Anxi region of the Fujian province. The farmer was distracted after a long day of tea picking and upon returning to his withering tea leaves he discovered they had already started to oxidize.
- Oolong tea was originally named after the Wuyi mountain region, where it was first documented in poems from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
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. 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.
WHERE TO PRODUCE
Oolong teas are produced mostly in China and Taiwan.
By the mid-1900s, the popularity of oolong teas had grown so much that oolong tea production began in Taiwan. Due to the variable weather and terrain throughout Taiwan, the profiles and overall quality of teas are rather unpredictable and can change dramatically from season to season.
Oolong teas are often named based on the region in which they are cultivated. The most famous Chinese oolongs are grown in high mountainous regions over rocky terrain and in cool weather. It is the unique geography and harsh environment that gives these oolongs the rich flavor.
- China: the Wuyi Mountains and Anxi, both in Fujian province, and Guangdong province.
- Taiwan: it is particularly common to name oolong varieties after the mountains in which they are grown.
- Sri Lanka
- New Zealand
OOLONG TEA PROCESSING
OOLONG TEA VARIETIES
All tea, black, green, and oolong, starts out from the same Camellia sinensis tea plant.
HOW OOLONG TEA IS MADE
Once the oolong tea leaves are harvested (usually from late April to early May), they are transported to an on-site facility where they undergo a process of semi-oxidation. The leaves are first withered to reduce moisture content and then bruised slightly to encourage enzymes to interact with oxidation causing the leaves to turn brown.
- Black tea is allowed to fully oxidize during processing, giving the tea leaves their dark color and rich malty aroma they’re known for.
- Green tea is barely oxidized at all, so the leaves keep some of their original green leaf color and fresh-picked flavor.
- Oolong tea is semi-oxidized, somewhere in between black and green teas in terms of oxidation. It is neither a black tea nor a green tea – it falls into its own category of tea with a flavor profile that is stronger than white tea, but milder than black tea. The level of oxidation can range widely from 8-80% oxidation, and so can the tea’s flavor, color, and aroma. The less oxidized the tea, the lighter it is in color; the more oxidized, the darker the color. The least oxidized oolong teas are known as pouchongs. One of the most heavily oxidized oolong teas comes from China and is known as Da Hong Pao. Once the tea reaches the desired oxidation point, tea masters apply heat to the leaves to end the oxidation process: “Baking” (take the term literally) – a common technique in making oolong tea so it is impossible to summarize categorically.
The leaves are traditionally rolled, twisted or curled into tight balls or thin long spindles. Rolling is an important aspect of oolong processing that alters the appearance, color, and aroma of the final tea leaves. These artisanal shaping techniques depend on the traditions of the tea master, which makes oolong tea more expensive.
Nowadays the leaves are also put into tea bags or loose leaf tea packaging for sale. The tea may also be graded by a tea master and sold as premium blends.
FLAVORS & COLORS
Flavor profiles of oolong teas can vary dramatically depending on many factors:
- The variety: the variety or cultivar of the tea plant
- Where it was grown: the characteristics of the geography (soil conditions, climate <sunlight, rainfall>), climate, the regional styles and cultivars
- How it was processed: shape, oxidation, styles of tea makers, and regional styles
- How it was brewed
Lightly oxidized oolongs offer a light body with a floral, sweet flavor similar to green teas, while heavily oxidized oolong teas provide a more robust flavor with toasty and earthy notes.
The color of the leaves and the hue of the brewed tea can also vary from light green to golden to brown.
BUYING & STORING OOLONG TEA
Always buy tea from a reputable company. It is important to ask the tea vendor about the oxidation levels of your oolong tea. More oxidized oolong tea will more shelf-stable than a less oxidized one.
Storing an oolong tea properly will ensure that your tea will remain fresh as long as possible. Oolong tea won’t really go bad, but it can get stale if it sits too long. If stored properly in a cool dark place, in an opaque airtight container, away from light and moisture, and far from pantry items like coffee and spices that can leach flavor into the tea leaves, oolong teas can last anywhere from 6 months to 2 years before they should be used or replaced.
PREPARING OOLONG TEA
Oolong tea was usually served out of special handmade purple clay teapots (Yixing teapots). These were designed to be used with one type of tea only to season the teapot and avoid cross-contamination of flavors.
Because oolong teas vary wildly in their oxidation levels and processing techniques, many oolongs will have different ideal brewing temperatures and steeping times. Best to ask your tea vendor for brewing instructions specific to the tea you purchase.
GENERAL TEA BREWING TIPS
- Use fresh, pure, cold filtered water. Springwater is best.
- Because styles of oolongs vary so much, steeping temperature and time can vary as well. Generally, oolongs are steeped anywhere between 180 and 200 degrees for 1 to 3 minutes.
- If you don’t have an electric kettle with temperature control, just remember that at sea level water simmers at 190 degrees and boils at 212 degrees. The boiling temperature drops about a degree for every 100 feet in altitude increase.
- Most oolong teas are designed to steep multiple times. Each steeping unfurls the rolled or twisted leaves just a little more, revealing even more layers of the flavor profile intended by the tea master who created the tea. It is not uncommon to get 3 to 5 infusions out of a high-quality oolong.
- Avoid over steeping your oolong tea. Many oolongs are designed to taste best with multiple short infusions. Taste your tea after the recommended steeping time and then decide if you’d like it to steep a little longer.
- If your oolong tea came with specific recommendations for brewing, use those. But using about 2 g of loose leaf tea per 8 oz. cup of water is a safe bet.
- Cover your oolong tea while it steeps to keep all the heat in the steeping vessel.
- To best appreciate the handcrafted flavors of an oolong tea, try sipping it plain with no additives like milk or sugar.
THE COMMON TYPES OF OOLONG TEA
- Bai Hao (White Tip): a fruity, crisp finish tea.
- Baozhong or Pouchong: undergoes minimal processing and boasts a delicate, subtle flavor.
- Da Hong Pao (Red Robe): Heavily-oxidized, rich, smokey, and caramel flavor with dark orange-hued color. One of the most prized oolong varietals from Wuyi Mountains comes with an expensive tag.
- Feng Huang Dan Cong (Phoenix or Dan Chong): Flavorful, floral, full-bodied tea harvested from a single bush grown in China’s Guangdong Province with different characteristics depending on the batch’s origin plant.
- Tie Guan Yin (Ti Kuan Yin or Iron Goddess): one of the most revered oolong tea named after the Chinese goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin – believed to be the female Bodhisattva of Compassion. Fruity, sweet, honey, floral flavor notes, grown in the Fujian Province’s mountainous Anxi region.
- Tung Ting (Frozen Peak): a nutty flavor with a smooth finish.
- Wuyi Oolong: a heady, floral aroma with a rich, round finish.
- Milk Oolong (Nai Xiang): Creamy, and easy-drinking Taiwanese tea first created in 1980.
- Bao Zhong (Pouchong): It’s much closer to green tea in that it is not as oxidized and has a brilliant jade green appearance – very airy and floral Chinese or Taiwanese tea with a delicate finish made from pale unrolled leaves.
CAFFEINE CONTENT IN OOLONG TEA
There are many factors that can determine the caffeine levels of any beverage brewed from a caffeinated plant, including the variety of the plant, how the plant was processed, and how the beverage was brewed.
The caffeine content in an oolong tea generally falls somewhere between a black tea and a green tea. A lightly oxidized oolong may have lower caffeine levels (similar to a green tea) and a highly oxidized oolong may have higher caffeine levels (similar to a black tea).
Oolong tea doesn’t have much caffeine compared to a standard cup of coffee.
However, it also contains L-theanine, an amino acid that helps slow the absorption of caffeine. This results in a longer-lasting energy boost when compared to coffee.
It’s always best to ask your tea vendor about caffeine levels specific to the tea you get.
BENEFITS OF OOLONG TEA
- rich in antioxidants
It has several antioxidant compounds including EGCG, theaflavins, and thearubigins. These compounds can help support the body’s protective measures against free radicals and oxidative stress like cancer, atherosclerosis, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, neurodegeneration, and diabetes. Good for skin, hair, and anti-aging as well.
- rich in vitamins and minerals
Oolong tea contains trace amounts of vital vitamins and minerals such as calcium, manganese, copper, carotin, selenium, potassium, and magnesium.
- manages Type-2 Diabetes
It may help regulate the amount of blood sugar and insulin in the bloodstream.
- helps weight loss
The polyphenolic compound found in oolong tea is maybe positively linked to boosting metabolism and burning fats. Caffeine content is also an active ingredient for weight loss.
- supports brain health
Caffeine may help in improving mental performance and maintaining alertness.
- helps decreases the stress level
The natural polyphenols in oolong tea may help lower the stress level with help of antioxidants.
- support bone and tooth health
The antioxidants protect teeth against decay and strengthen the bone structure.
Conclusion: You might not used to oolong tea, but try and see it. You might like it.
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