After receiving two excellent oolong teas from Taiwan, I thought it was a good time to share some insight on the history, production, benefits and wide ranging tastes of this frequently overlooked category of tea.
Oolongs, some of the finest teas available, have long been revered in Asian societies and by tea connoisseurs. The best oolongs are still produced by "orthodox methods" a traditional, labor intensive, hand production that is obvious in the cup. Leaves are typically harvested from spring through summer and must be plucked just as they reach their peak.
Once harvested, the leaves are sorted and then dried in the sun. The next step is withering which is done in bamboo baskets for 6-8 hours at room temperature. During withering the leaf edges are bruised by vigorously shaking the baskets. This bruising reduces the moisture content of the leaf and causes the edges of the leaves to oxidize more quickly then the center, adding to the complexity in taste. The length of oxidation determines whether your oolong is of the dark or green variety. To halt the oxidation the leaves are then pan-fired. The warm, freshly fired leaves are hand rolled. The leaves are alternately rolled and fired several times before the final drying. The technique in which the leaves are rolled and roasted help determine the quality and taste of the tea.
Not all oolong teas are produced in the traditional orthodox method. Hand production is time consuming and yields smaller quantities then mechanized methods. Oolongs produced by machine are lower quality and yields dark liquor that is flat and rather tasteless. Even orthodox production cannot guarantee a high quality cup of oolong. Over firing and improper drying create less than appealing characteristics in the cup.
Dark oolongs, those that more oxidized, yield a darker, more intense flavor that has a subtle fruity character. The leaves are dark in color with deep amber hued liquor. These are great introduction oolongs especially for those accustomed to black teas. (Fanciest Formosa Lot 101)
Less oxidized oolongs or green oolongs, yield a totally different cup. These highly aromatic teas frequently reveal a refreshing, sweet floral character and have yellowish green liquor. They finish smoothly and linger on the pallet. (Our new arrival Tung Ting and Green Dragon)
Pouchong tea is also categorized as an oolong. Pouchong tea is produced in the same fashion as oolong with one exception, the slight oxidation. This makes them close in character and benefit to green tea with more complexity and fragrance similar to green oolongs. (Bao Zhong, one of my personal favorites)
Oolong production, like most things tea, began in China where it is still produced today. Dan Cong Oolong, produced on Fenghuang, or Phoenix Mountain, is a large leaf dark oolong tea that yields numerous infusions with a nectar like fruity character.
Once oolong production migrated to Taiwan, production was elevated to a new level. Considered an art form, the finest oolong production is overseen by tea masters, or tea artisans. They hone their craft for many years before gaining the recognition of "master." This trade is often passed down from one generation to the next and is considered a position of honor and skill in the culture. The tea master's unique style is present in every cup of quality oolong tea.
Most consumers are unaware of the labor intense production of these teas and can be surprised at the price level of high quality oolongs. If you look at the complete picture these superb teas are really bargains. On average consumers pay $3 to $4 for a decent glass of wine at home, or think about spending $1.00 - $1.50 for a tea bag in a restaurant. Comparatively you can enjoy one of the world's finest oolong teas for a mere $.50 cents a cup and that is if you are only brewing one infusion! (This is based on the cost of $19.95 for a 3 ounce bag of oolong that will yield at least 40 eight ounce cups of tea).
Not only delicious, oolong teas have a wide range of benefits from aiding digestion to easing the symptoms of eczema and psoriasis. Oolongs are high in antioxidants and have also been used to help lower cholesterol. Another benefit of oolong teas is its ability to flush fats and carbohydrates from the body and increases metabolism, aiding in weight loss.
The various taste characteristics of oolongs make them a fun category of tea to explore. Sampling them side by side is one way of learning to identify the ranges in taste from the small nuances to the dramatic differences. A quality oolong should surrender numerous infusions, between 3 and 6, particularly when brewed Gung Fu style (Yixing tea ware and brewing). The nature of production will expose a unique cup with each infusion. Frequently overlooked, this awesome category is a must try for anyone exploring tea.