Meet the fourth category of tea
In my experience, out of all the six categories of tea – white, green, yellow, oolong, black and dark tea – oolong is the most likely to surprise and delight a tea drinker.
Whether its watching the tightly-rolled beads unfurl into large, glossy leaves as they steep; smelling the intense fragrance the infused leaves release, or simply marveling at its abundant flavour notes, oolong is a tea that is sure to evoke intrigue.
In this month’s blog we take a closer at oolong tea: the two types of oolong; how processing techniques help to create its unique flavour; how to steep your leaves; what countries produce oolong and what types of food taste best with this tea.
Let’s get to the most important part first: flavour.
Pick up a handful of oolong tea leaves, hold them to your nose and you might smell pannacotta and cashew; peaches, strawberries and cream; cinnamon and dried fruit; or even musk, spice, flowers and tobacco.
When you steep these leaves, the flavours might remain the same – or transform into something completely different.
The reason there so much variation in the way oolong smells and tastes essentially comes down to four areas: tea plant cultivar; the environment (‘terroir’) the leaves are grown in; the season the leaves are grown and plucked in and the processing the leaves undergo once they are plucked. While all of these influence the final flavour in your cup, it is the processing that has the most influence in creating the distinct and unique category of oolong tea.
To help us understand how processing techniques inform the flavour of the tea, let’s look at the two sub types of oolong:
Light and dark ~ green and black
Oolong teas fall into two main categories: light oolong – often called ‘green oolong’ as they are closer in appearance and flavour to green tea; and dark oolong, also known as black oolong, because, as the name suggests, they are closer to black teas.
The main reason for the difference between the two is the level of oxidation: a natural process that occurs in the leaves after they are gently bruised. Oxidation changes the molecules inside the leaves which, in turn, changes their colour and flavour (oxidation is the reason why green and black teas look and taste completely different to each other even though they are made from the same leaf). You can think of oolong teas sitting along an oxidation spectrum, with the lightest styles at the start moving towards the darkest styles at the end.
To create a light oolong, the leaves are gently oxidised (between 10% - 45%) before being repeatedly heated, rolled and compressed anywhere between 10 and 40 times. This intensive, circular process releases the leaves’ aromatic oils, creates their enchanting aroma and shapes the leaves into small beads; and the light oxidation level means the leaves remain green. Occasionally, the beads are then roasted which adds a subtle woody/caramelised note to the tea.*
The result of this meticulous and time-consuming processing is a fragrant tea made up of dark green beads that infuse into a soft lemon or honey coloured tea with a broad flavour profile of flowers, cream, fresh fruit alongside vegetal undertones.
While the oolong processing technique was originally created by Chinese craftspeople, light oolong is now the signature style of Taiwan tea makers.
Some well-known light oolong teas are:
Wen Shan Bao Zhong - ultra-light oolong, twisted leaves, Taipei, Taiwan
Dong Ding (also known as Tung Ting) - bead style, can be lightly roasted, Nantou, Taiwan
Tie Guan Yin, 'Iron Goddess of Mercy' - bead style, Anxi (Fujian) and other regions, China
Leaves used for Dark oolong are more heavily oxidised (up to 70%). And rather than going through the repetitive heating, rolling, compressing cycle, the process for dark oolongs is slightly simpler with the leaves being heated and rolled once before being dried and fired. The higher oxidation level changes the natural chemical make-up inside the leaf which darkens the colour of both the leaf and the steeped liquor and changes its flavour. In China, dark oolongs are shaped into the ‘strip’ style (long twisted leaves); in Taiwan dark oolongs are either strip or bead style.
The result of this processing is an aromatic tea which is brown in leaf and liquor colour and has a broad flavour profile of wood, dried fruit, roasty/toasty notes, nut and spice.
Dark oolong is the predominant style of oolong produced in China.
Some well-known dark oolong teas are:
Da Hong Pao, 'Big Red Robe' - twisted leaves, Wu Yi Mountains, Fujian, China
Cassia Oolong, ‘Roi Gui' - twisted leaves, Guangdong, China
Oriental Beauty, 'Bai Hao' - twisted leaves, Hsinchu, Taiwan
Top oolong producing countries
China is known as the birthplace of all tea, and their tea makers are also responsible for creating the oolong style of tea, which they developed in the 17th century. Taiwan's tea culture is heavily linked to China with the Taiwanese tea industry beginning in the 16th century with Chinese immigrants bringing both their tea plants and their tea processing expertise into Taiwan. After concentrating on green tea, Taiwan turned its attention to oolong in the 1970's and since then have focused on producing high quality oolong teas.
While China and Taiwan produce the vast majority of the world’s oolong tea, other countries such as New Zealand, India, Nepal and Vietnam are starting to make some beautiful oolongs.
What to eat when you are drinking oolong?
One of my favourite pairings for oolong tea is a good quality cheese. Light oolongs go particularly well with a soft cheese such as brie or camembert or a creamy blue. Dark oolongs pair well with almost all cheese. I love drinking it with a full flavoured hard or semi-firm cheese or a blue cheese.
Other pairings for light oolong
Steamed dumplings; stir-fried Asian greens (and Yum Cha in general); light seafood dishes such as scallops, lobster and prawns (particularly if they have a butter/cream sauce); fresh fruit salad.
Other pairings for dark oolong
Breakfast foods: muesli, granola and pancakes with maple syrup; a snack of dried fruit and nuts; teriyaki chicken/salmon and rice; roast duck (especially Peking duck pancakes); roast vegetables.
How to brew your oolong leaves
While all good quality tea needs careful preparation, understanding the difference in steeping light and dark oolongs will help you make a smooth and fragrant cup of tea every time.
To prepare your light oolong leaves, steep 2.5 - 3 grams of leaves per 150 mls of 85° water for between 2 – 3 minutes** (alternatively you can double the leaf volume and half the steeping time). For your dark oolong leaves, steep the same amount in 90° water for 3 - 4 minutes. Keep steeping the same leaves until their flavour starts to dilute. You can also experiment with adjusting leaf quantity and steeping time to make it weaker or stronger depending on how you like your tea.
While I didn't used to drink a lot of oolong in my early tea days, I now have at least one cup every day. I have found the more I drink oolong and try different types, the more I appreciate its subtle and nuanced flavours. So if you find you don't love it at first, my advice is to keep going!
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While often referred to as 'Oolong' in the West, the official translation from Mandarin is 'Wulong'. Wulong means 'black dragon' which refers to the black snakes thT coil themselves around the base of the tea plants in China.
*I have simplified the processing for light oolong above for ease for the reader. Here is the full light oolong process: (day one) plucking, withering, oxidation, firing, drying; (day two) heating/rolling/compressing (10 - 40 times), drying, sorting, then finally, roasting (optional and can take place many months after).
**If you don’t have a temperature-variable kettle, open the kettle lid and let the boiled water cool for 2 minutes for dark oolong and 2.5 minutes for light oolong.
The beautiful image at the very top of this page is courtesy of Uriel Soberanes @ unsplash.