Behind the Leaf: Oolong Tea


I think the first time Kat had an oolong tea was in a Chinese restaurant. She wasn’t very taken with it because it was a dusty bag of low grade oolong. But when a close friend brought back tea from her trip to China, she had a chance to taste a delicious roasted oolong. It was so different from the generic stuff she’d had in the past, she couldn’t believe it was in the same category. Oolong teas have a wide range of flavor and quality based on where it is grown and how it’s processed.

Oolong translates to Black Dragon (Wu Long) in Chinese. This supposedly refers to the black snakes that would sometime wind around the tea trees. These snakes were often referred to as black dragons! I try not to think about that. The tea originated in the Fujian province of China back in the 17th century. Oolong can usually be found in two main different leaf shapes- ball-shaped rolled leaves, and thin wiry leaves.

Oolongs have a wide range of flavors because they can be oxidized and roasted for varying amounts of time. Oolongs are considered semi-oxidized teas, and fall between green and black teas due to this level of oxidation. The oolongs that are closer to green tea have delicate floral notes. Oolongs that are closer to black tea are more woodsy, fruity and sweet.

There are many varieties of oolong produced in China and Taiwan, and it would take me ages to discuss them! Dearies, Kat will be home soon and I need to make sure I’m ready to create her next cup of tea, so I’m going to focus on a few types based on growing region.

In Southern Fujian, Ti Guan Yin, or Iron goddess of Mercy (named after the Chinese Goddess of Mercy) is one of the most popular types of Chinese oolong tea. The leaves are tightly rolled and will start to unfurl as you steep. This tea can have a range of flavors from floral to a bit vegetal and woodsy. It is a very popular type of oolong tea.

In Northern Fujian, Wuyi oolongs are produced. This tea is called ‘rock tea’, and it is grown in the Wuyi mountains of Fujian. These are heavily roasted teas, dark and woodsy. The leaves usually have a long ‘strip’ style, or slightly twisted shape and are not rolled. The rocky terrain in the growing region creates certain minerals in the soil and transform the flavor in the tea. Some of Kat’s favorite Wuyi oolongs are Da Hong Pao, and Rou Gui.

In Guangdong Province (Phoenix mountain), Dan Cong oolongs have a rich brown color and can be quite sweet and fruity. These teas usually have a medium to heavy roast.

Taiwan produces a few varieties of oolong. Tung Ting (Dong Ding) is the most well known and is floral, buttery, and fruity, yet delicate and sweet. Quite a pleasant tea.

These are just a few of the many wonderful oolongs to discover. The best way to learn more is to find as many different types as possible, and get tasting. Buying sample sizes is a more cost-effective way of trying these teas. Many tea shops have sample sizes available.

If you are using whole-leaf tea, the best way to get the full tasting experience is to use a large amount of leaf in a small teapot or gaiwan. Don’t forget to reuse those leaves! As I mentioned in a previous post, oolongs can be steeped numerous times and the flavor begins to change and develop with each steep.

Sips of these delicious teas will bring you to verdant mountain tea gardens coated in mist. Each steep of oolong has a new story to tell. What are some of your favorites?

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