Image by Hallie Torrey
Originally posted March 6, 2012 on Fun and FlirTea
Before I get into the discussion on oolong tea, let’s take a step back and crack up a wee bit about that title. If you don’t get it, say it out loud with a really bad, stereotypical asian accent. (I appreciate a bad pun… emphasis on bad …probably more than I should.) Got it now? You can thank my friend Alicia and her inspiration from Bubble Boy for that gem.
In any case, back to the story of tea and – more specifically – oolong tea.
One day, my brother and I were wandering the streets of Kunming talking about tea. I was on a bit of a ginseng oolong kick at the time and mentioned how much I enjoy oolong teas and he just laughed, explaining, “The Chinese make jokes about how foreigners love oolong because it’s a naturally sweeter tea and foreigners like sweet things more than they do” (not necessarily an exact quote).
Later, I was curious to try more oolong options, so I ordered a sampler that included a few Dong Ding oolongs and a nice Tie Guan Yin. It was exciting and leafy. The flavor was herbaceous and complex. It tasted somewhat roasted and generally delicious. It did not carry the same kind of sweetness that I had come to expect of oolongs, so it was both shocking and exciting.
The variety of flavors among oolong teas specifically is related to the variety of ways that oolongs can be produced. There are two main ways an oolong can be manufactured – open, long leaves that are typically more highly oxidized, or balled leaves that are less oxidized and referred to as a green oolong. Of all the tea types, oolong is widely considered to be the most complex to manufacture and will require the most skilled tea makers to produce a multi-faceted tea that reaches its full potential.
Oolong teas are considered semi- or partially-oxidized. The different oolong teas can be oxidized anywhere from 12% to around 80%, depending on the intended flavor.
To create the balled oolongs, the leaves are harvested and withered. After the leaves are withered, they’re essentially tossed to break the cells in the leaves, allowing them to oxidize to the desired level, at which point they are heated in order to stop the oxidation, and finally dried. It’s only after the dry leaves have rested that the real forming of the tea begins.
The leaves are gathered into cloth sacks and rolled in order to begin shaping the leaves into little balls (heh. balls). Once they are finished rolling the cloth sacks (heh. sacks.), the leaves are separated out just to be put back into another sack to be rolled again. This process can be repeated as few as 30ish times to as many as 70 or 80.
The open-leafed oolongs are a bit simpler in the fact that their production stops once the leaves have been dried. However, more often than not, these open-leafed teas will be more heavily oxidized and produce a darker, more amber liquor.
Oolong teas are made primarily in south-eastern China (Fujian and Guangdong Provinces) and in Taiwan. Many of the most highly prized oolongs are made from leaves of bushes that grow at high elevations and in rocky areas. Despite the fact that these are the primary production areas of oolong, it can be found elsewhere. For example, there’s a tea plantation in New Zealand renowned for its oolongs!
The variety in flavors possible is one of the things about oolong teas that makes me absolutely love them. I rarely find an oolong tea I dislike and find them hard to “mess up” (unlike green teas, which require more particular care when preparing). Oolong is the tea type that really brought me into the fold of finer teas, and I have so far managed to use it to help bring others to the side of tea.
So if you’re reading this and you’re really not so sure about moving on to loose leaf or nicer flavored teas, definitely check out some oolong! I would suggest checking out options from Adagio or Verdant Teas to get you started. And hey, let me know how it goes! Feel free to add comments of your experience here (even if it isn’t right away) or contact me directly!
1 The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J Heiss.
2 The New Tea Companion by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson
All photos by Briana Morrison
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