Exploring the Varieties of Oolong Tea

Exploring the Varieties of Oolong Tea

Michele Lillie

Of all the different types of tea, oolongs are probably the most diverse. Within this category, you will find teas that are so different that you wouldn’t think they are the same type. This is a view shared by some in the tea industry and they propose that this category should be broken up. However, for now, it remains just one category and this post will help you understand oolongs.

Although “oolong” is the most common spelling in the American tea industry, these teas are also known as Wulong (the official Mandarin translation) or wu long. Wulong means “Black Dragon” or “Dark Dragon.” One story says it refers to the black snakes that coil around the branches of the tea tree. To reassure children, adults told them they were really little black dragons. Does that sound reassuring to you?!

Another story was that a person called Wu Liang was picking tea. On the way home, he was distracted by seeing and killing a deer. Because of this, he forgot to dry his tea. When he remembered it, it had changed color. He was worried that it was spoiled but because he did not want to be wasteful, he continued to let it dry. After this, he tasted it and was pleasantly surprised by its mellow taste and aromatic fragrance. He made some for his neighbors and soon his name spread throughout the province. The tea eventually became known as Wu Long tea.

To understand oolongs, you should review our Tea Primer. In that you will read how all tea comes from the Camellia Sinensis tea plant and how those leaves are processed determines what type of tea is produced. A very important step in tea processing is oxidation. The presence of oxidation is what defines black tea as black tea. In contrast, green teas are known for having no oxidation. Oolong teas are considered “partially oxidized” and the extent of that oxidation is what gives you the two main sub-types of oolong tea.

The producers of oolong teas use unique cultivars of the Camellia Sinensis plant and this is what results in the complex, flowery fragrances of these teas. There are thought to be hundreds of oolong cultivars. Most are characterized by the ability to impart a unique fragrant aroma to the leaf and cup. Most of the aroma compounds are formed during the long withering (dehydrating) process that takes place both indoors and outdoors.

Light oolongs

  • These are teas that undergo 10-30% oxidation.
  • They have a slightly sweet floral aroma and flavor.
  • If you would like to drink a lighter tea but do not like the grassy notes that are often found in green tea, you will want to try a light oolong.

Dark oolongs

  • These undergo 40-70% oxidation.
  • Their flavor is woody and fruity and they sometimes have roasted or caramelized notes.

The most sought-after oolongs come from Taiwan and China although they are produced in other countries. Chinese oolongs tend to be identified by the cultivars of the tea plant that are used to produce the tea as well as the story/myth that has become part of the tea’s identity.

One example is the oolong known as Tie Kuan Yin. There are different legends about the naming of this tea. One is that a poor farmer, Wei, would pass by a temple dedicated to the goddess Kuan Yin (goddess of mercy). He was saddened by the poor condition of the temple. Because of his devotion to her temple, the goddess appeared to him in a dream and said “Behind the temple is a treasure that will benefit you & your family for many generations. To realize its true value, you must share it with your neighbors as well.” Mr. Wei looked but only found a scraggly tea bush. He planted and tended it until he could harvest the leaves. When he drank it, he noticed a unique fragrance. He gave shoots of the tea plant to his neighbors who also grew it to produce this tea. Soon everyone had heard of this famous tea named after the goddess and the region which grew it.

The second is the Wang legend, which tells the story of a scholar (Wang) who discovered this tea by accident under the Guanyin rock. He began cultivating it at home and one day decided to offer it to the Qianlong Emperor as a gift. This tea so impressed the Emperor that he wanted to know more about it and where it came from. So, it was decided to name the tea after the place where it was discovered: Guanyin tea.

Taiwan likes to name its oolongs by the process used to create them as well as the characteristic of the final product, not the particular plant cultivar. For example, they may call a tea Tie Kuan Yin but it might not be made from the same plant cultivar as in China. Rather, they call it this as they use the Tie Kuan Yin processing method and they produce a tea that has the desired characteristics.

Along these same lines is another method of categorizing oolong teas whether they be Chinese or Taiwanese.

Pouchong (Baozhong)

This is a very lightly oxidized tea. That oxidation level is so low that some vendors classify it as green tea. However, the complex flavor and floral notes distinguish it as an oolong.

Jade oolong

Another lightly oxidized tea with floral characteristics along with a light green color in the cup. Other names are Tung Ting and Green Dragon.

Amber oolongs

These teas are oxidized to a medium level and often undergo an additional step of baking that results in an amber cup of tea. Examples are Tie Kuan Yin, Phoenix Mountain and Wuyi Rock Oolong.

Champagne oolongs

This category has the highest amount of oxidation resulting in multi-colored leaves and an infusion that has rich, honey flavors. Look for Bai Hao, Oriental Beauty and White (Silver) Tip oolong.

Aged oolongs

These are oolongs that undergo years of careful storage and gentle firing to remove unwanted moisture and develop a complex flavor profile. They are also known as Baked oolongs.

The dry leaves of Milky Oolong tea.

Although our selection of oolongs at English Tealeaves is not large, we have excellent examples of both light and dark oolongs. In the lightly oxidized category, we have a Pouchong, an Everlasting Jade and a Milk Oolong. All are Taiwanese oolongs. The Milk Oolong is named for its creamy and buttery flavor and aroma that comes naturally from a specially developed cultivar produced by the Taiwan Tea Experiment station in the 1980s.

Because of its popularity, some manufacturers began making oolong tea and adding milk powders, milk extracts and milk flavoring. It is not uncommon to be sold without indicating on the package whether these products were added. That is just one reason to buy your teas from a reputable tea supplier such as English Tealeaves.

The dry leaves of Formosa Oolong Tea

We have two dark oolongs – Red Robe from China and Formosa from Taiwan. Both have very complex flavors with toasty and earthy notes.

Have you ever tried oolong teas? If not, we hope you will hurry in and let us wow you with their deliciousness. If you ask for an oolong tea, do not be surprised if we ask you to clarify whether you want a light one or a dark one. As this post explains, they are very different teas and we want you to be happy with your choice. See you in the Café!

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