In this post:
- Origins and history
- Oolong tea vs. black tea
- Varieties of oolong tea
- Brewing or steeping oolong tea
- Choosing and buying oolong tea: our recommendations
Origins and history
The origins of oolong tea can be traced back around one thousand years to the Fujian region in the time of the Song dynasty. Production continued and expanded through to the end of the 14th century with the Ming dynasty. By the 16th century, growing had begun in the Wuyi region as well.
This name may have developed because oolong tea is usually a whole leaf tea, and the long, dark, curly leaves are reminiscent of a black dragon. This is only one possible origin of the name, with at least three other possibilities for the name, based on either the name of the discoverer or the region where it was originally produced.
Export to Europe began in the 17th century but during the 18th century the price of black tea began to drop and it became increasingly popular in the West and oolong tea, simply unaffordable to the majority of Westerners, fell out of favour until the beginning of the 21st century.
Oolong tea vs. black tea
Oolong tea occupies a place just below black tea in terms of the amount of processing required to get from leaf to cup. Just as with black tea, the leaves are wilted, rolled and shaped.
The main difference between oolong and black comes in the final process: black tea is fully oxidized whereas oolong tea undergoes a gentler, shorter and lower temperature oxidation which means the final product is only semi-oxidized. It is, however, more oxidized than white tea, which is generally unoxidized.
However, there are other differences to black tea: oolong tea often employs unique cultivars of Camellia sinensis and is usually withered under the sun rather than indoors. Also, most oolong teas are whole leaf teas formed of either rolled or curled leaves. And, unlike black tea, oolong is a traditional drink of China, where it is usually called “qingcha” or “dark green tea”.
Varieties of oolong tea
Although the origins of the name are uncertain, oolong originates in the Fujian region of south China, where it is still exceptionally popular. Some of the most prized and therefore expensive Chinese teas are of the oolong type. The varieties can be grouped according to geographical region, with most Chinese oolong being produced in two regions: Fujian (Wuyi and Anxi teas) and Guangdong.
The most expensive and famous of all Chinese teas are produced in the Wuyi mountains of Fujian and most of these oolong teas are certified as organic. The Wuyi region is particularly mountainous and the terrain is rocky, if mineral-rich. This region is also the home of the smoky black tea, Lapsang Souchong.
Tea plants grow slowly here, which results in deep flavours and, of course, adds to its cost. Wuyi teas tend to be at the darker, blacker end of the colour spectrum and have an almost smoky flavour, reminiscent of plums or peaches.
Anxi teas include the highly-prized Tieguanyin family of teas. There are many varieties of these teas, ranging from light and fresh teas closer in flavour to green tea, to stronger nuttier, darker teas.
Guangdong teas are another family of varieties. They are often described by their similarity to the fragrance and flavour of different fruits and flowers, like orange blossom, almond, ginger and so on.
Since the 18th century, Fujian province teas have also been grown in Taiwan and most Taiwanese teas are bought and drunk in Taiwan. Taiwan is a geographically varied island, with low-lying plains and steep mountains and this, along with the unpredictable weather, results in a huge variety of different teas many with a unique flavour. Again, these teas are highly prized and, just as with their Chinese ancestors, many of them are more expensive by weight than gold.
Brewing or steeping oolong tea
Oolong tea should be prepared with very hot but not boiling water and allowed to steep for three to five minutes. A temperature of 85-90°C is usually indicated. A unique feature of oolong tea is that it is commonly reused up to five times and is considered to improve in flavour with each brewing, with the third or fourth brew considered best.
How much of this is to do with the high price of most oolong tea is difficult to say, but it’s certainly possible to obtain a very tasty drink from rebrewed leaves in a way that is not possible with black tea.
Oolong tea is used in one version of the Chinese and Taiwanese tea ceremony known as gongfucha. In this ceremony, the tea is prepared in a small clay vessel, a gaiwan, and multiple short steeps of between twenty seconds and one minute are used, with the tea served in small “tasting” cups.
Choosing and buying oolong tea: our recommendations
As with any specialist product, it is best to buy from an established expert vendor who will have done the hard work of selecting the best oolong teas to sell. Our favourite suppliers, in no particular order are:
Update (5th March 2020): Please note that as a result of the ongoing worldwide coronavirus outbreak, TeaVivre is only able to ship products to the USA from its existing stock in the USA. Sadly this means that the links below to TeaVivre products will not work. You can read their latest update here, or check back with this site as we will be keeping a close eye on the situation and very much hope TeaVivre is able to start shipments again soon.
- TeaVivre is one of my favourite sources for authentic, organic and fairly traded Chinese tea. They have a huge range of oolong teas on offer, including a number of selection packs featuring samples of different oolong teas – the perfect way to start exploring this drink.
- Although oolong is firmly rooted in Chinese tea culture, the technique has been successfully exported to other regions including India. Vahdam Teas are one such company which is committed to ethical and garden fresh teas. They offer a sampler of five Indian oolongs.
- Art of Tea offers everything the discerning tea drinker needs, beautifully packaged, and their oolong teas are no exception. As well as straightforward oolong, they offer a variety of unusual blends including oolong with rose, plum or the absolutely delightful 99% Oxidized Purple Oolong which tastes as good as it sounds, and it’s USDA certified organic too.
Have you tried oolong tea? What do you think of it? Let me know in the comments section
Featured image: efirm / pixabay