Tea Time: All About Oolong (Part One - China)

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[Photographs: Liz Clayton]

If you like woodland legends, oolong's is a good one. They say this semi-fermented tea was discovered by a hunter (or a tea farmer, depending who you ask) named Wu Liang, who was beguiled by the beauty of a passing deer. In the process of his deep distraction, the tea leaves he was carrying became bruised and rumpled, starting the process of oxidation that would lead to an even more beguiling catch...in his teacup.

Often thought to occupy the space between green and black teas, the complex and deep world of oolongs first began to unfold in Fujian Province, China during the Ming dynasty. Oolong's uniqueness is derived from a partial oxidation process that yields a spectrum of fascinating flavor.

Oolongs were originally centered in the northern part of Fujian, but gradually made their way southward, were introduced in Europe, and came to be equally famously produced in Taiwan. The original Chinese oolongs include several teas from the Wuyi mountain region, and are called Wuyi Rock teas. They include Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe), Bai Ji Guan (White Rooster), Tie Luo Han (Iron Arhat, or warrior monk) and Sui Jin Gui (Golden Turtle.) Te Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) calls the southern part of Fujian province home, while the famous Golden Phoenix oolongs are grown in the Guangdong province below.

How Oolong is Processed

Oolong processing can vary greatly between styles, depending how the tea is picked, withered, rolled or bruised, and fired.

Rolling oolongs serves to break leaf cells and expose their essential chemical components to air for oxidation. (This is the thrust of the fable of Wu Liang, who supposedly crumpled some tea leaves while that handsome deer passed by, beginning a process of oxidation he was not expecting.) Stripe-shaped oolongs are agitated and bruised, but not rolled, to achieve the same careful manipulation and exposure of the tea's internal acids for oxidation.

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Oolong leaves are then oxidized to the desired amount—this can vary from very lightly oxidized, in the 10% range, to quite oxidized, around 70%. (By comparison, green and white teas are barely oxidized, whereas black tea is heavily or fully oxidized.) Oxidation pays a key role in directing the oolong's range of flavor, from floral and airy to warm and woody-savory and smoky.

Firing—which can happen multiple times—is the final stage of oolong's process, ending oxidation and determining the tea's aroma and the longevity of its flavor.

Tasting Oolong

022211-138840-oolong-3.jpgWe tasted three Chinese oolongs with Intelligentsia Tea to get a sense of the range of flavors specific to this country.

Da Hong Pao
This heavily oxidized tea was a deep amber color, with a similar darkness echoed in the palate. Its long, somewhat roasty flavor, drew to a greenier, woodier finish, ending very dry—a characteristic of its low moisture content due to multiple firings.

Dan Cong (bush variety)—Magnolia Blossom
This Dan Cong began with an intriguing aroma, not just floral but a little sharp. In the cup, it tastes slightly more buttery than you'd anticipate, but with a definite astringency, and a slightly sweet aftertaste. This moderately oxidized oolong was both herbaceously savory and floral-sweet all at once, a promise delivered on by its beguiling first fragrances.

Golden Phoenix
This very light, blush-golden oolong tea has a sweet spring-like aroma and honeysuckle finish. It would be best described as graceful, with a hint of citric-honey brightness up front and a very dry, but not acidic or bitter, finish.

It should be noted that oolongs are particularly well-suited to multiple infusions of the same leaves, which will open up flavors and enhance different flavors in the tea. Oolong should be thought of as a journey—an exciting and unfolding sensory experience at any stage of discovery.

Stay tuned for Oolong Part Two: Taiwan.

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