All About: Oolong
For complexity, variety, and the ceremony of service, oolong teas satisfy on many levels giving, as the Chinese say, “houyin” or harmony for the throat.
Grown in Mainland China since the early Qing era, namely in Fujian (in the north in Minbei, and the south in Minnan) and in Guangdong, oolong teas go by several names: oolong, wulong, Formosa, and by particular varietals or processing styles, like Ti Kwan Yin and Pouchong.
The word oolong is an Anglicized version of wu-long, a word dating from the Ming Dynasty. Wu means black and Long means dragon or snake, and the combination was coined when a tea picker spied a black snake coiled around a tea bush. Oolong teas provide the tea lover with many choices, from a green-like taste with pouchongs to deep dark richness for longer-oxidized teas like Ti Kuan Yin and many other exquisite tastes in between from oolongs scented with jasmine or rose.
The one thread that connects all oolongs is its naturally-occurring fragrance and taste which are floral, sometimes described as orchid or sweet. The mouth feel can be silky or clean and the fragrance in the spent leaves adds to the overall pleasures of brewing. The other commonality is that because it is the larger souchong leaf that is used, more leaves are needed compared to small pekoe or orange pekoe leaves, or buds. The larger the leaf, the lighter it is; the smaller the leaf, the heavier. An anomaly, but a good reason to measure by weight to insure the best-tasting liquor in the cup.
Since 1810, oolong has been the specialty tea on the “beautiful island” of Formosa, now known as Taiwan, or The People’s Republic of China which was formed in 1959. The Formosa name was given to the island by early Dutch tea traders, and many Taiwanese tea vendors continue to use the word Formosa to name its finest grades. Teas grow at both high and low altitudes in Taiwan but a great many are grown north of Taipei where it can be harvested up to six times a year. Teas in the highest areas are harvested twice yearly.
Many other tea-growing areas now process their teas oolong style but the “true” oolong designation rightly belongs to Taiwan and Fujian Province in Mainland China.
What makes for the wide variety in oolongs is the extreme differences in oxidation, anywhere from 2 to 80%, although many producers now oxidize between 7 to 70%. The leaves are first wilted, then shaken to “bruise” the edges slightly, then spread out to dry. Oolongs are whole leaves, rarely broken.
During the oxidation, which is akin to the browning of a cut apple, the polyphenolic flavonols (catechins) oxidize with oxygen in the air which results in reducing the water content in the leaves and turning the leaves darker from deep green to brown/black. The final step in processing of oolong teas is firing which deactivates the enzymes that cause oxidation. Thus, the uniquely floral flavor and fragrance are concentrated and the leaf is now ready to be brewed.
The lowest oxidation rates are for pouchongs aka bao zhong (paper wrapped,) named for the process where the tea is wrapped in white cotton paper sheets to preserve the delicacy of the leaves which are large, twisted. They provide a pale yellow liquid in the cup. Young pouchong leaves are frequently used as the base for jasmine teas where the petals of the fragrant jasmine are layered upon the tea leaves for days imbuing the leaves with their intense perfume.
POPULAR OOLONG STYLESThe first leaves of the oolong harvest, Dim Sum Cha (tea from the heart,) are often mixed with rosebuds which are harvested the same day for freshness and intense fragrance. Together they’re mixed and stored in little bamboo baskets and, after a few days of scenting, the leaves are ready to be brewed. It is said to be an esteemed honor to be offered Dim Sum Cha.
Darker, longer-oxidized teas are heavier and generally have a rust-like red color along the edges which explains why the Chinese named Ti Kuan Yin (Tieh for metallic and Kuan-yin for the Goddess of Mercy fable* attached to this tea.) Tea vendors use many spellings like Kwan or Kuan and Tieh or Ti.
Wuyi or Rock teas, from the Wuyi mountains of Fujian, are high-fired teas roasted for a smoky essence that is both complexly deep with an edge of honeyed sweetness that surprises with multiple steepings, each more delicious than the last.
HOW TO BREW
The best way to brew oolong is gung fu (or kung fu) style. First, rinse the pot inside and out with hot water, then pack the pot (preferably a tiny Yixing one) with oolong tea leaves. Rinse the leaves and discard that liquor, then pour on more hot water over the leaves and brew for the time suggested by your vendor. Empty the pot into thimble cups. Because the leaves provide several steepings at least, one can enjoy quite a few thimble cups. Some gung fu tea sets include a cylindrical cup used, not for drinking, but for inhaling the exquisite fragrance. This not only enhances the overall tea-tasting experience but elongates the time between brewing and sipping, increasing the anticipation of this lovely tea category.
Accoutrements are fun, but one does not need Taiwanese gung fu accessories to enjoy an oolong tea. Your regular tea serving tools will do. Just remember to brew at lower temperatures (175-185 degrees F.) and re-brew as desired to get the most out of every pot. To enhance the experience, use the smallest cups you have or fill your regular cups with just two inches of tea and savor!
Adagio offers a wide range of scented and natural oolongs.
*One day, a poor farmer, distressed by the poverty in his region and despairing that he could ever provide for his family, approached a neglected statue of Ti Kuan Yin and begged for an answer to his dilemma. To his astonishment, the statue came alive for a few moments, and the elegant hand of the goddess pointed to a small plant growing near her feet. “Plant this,” she said. “Nurture it with care and it will provide you with all that you need.” Humbled and awed, the farmer took the roots with him, planted them, and ever since, the plant provided his family and those in the region, and all their descendants, with a living from the Camellia sinensis plant.