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Portraits of Oolongs: 烏龍茶

Updated: Mar 8


Photo: Wuyishan, Postcard Teas.

ABOUT


- English name: Oolong, Blue Tea (French, thé bleu), Black Dragon, Turquoise Tea (Qing-cha; 请茶; referring to lighter oxidised oolongs in ancient China)
- Chinese name: Wulong (traditional 烏龍; simplified 乌龙; wūlóng)
- Origin: China, Fujian Province (福建; Anxi and Wuyi), Guangdong Province (广东), Taiwan island (台湾). Nowadays, a lot of other tea producing countries also make oolong.
- Type of tea: Semi-oxidised

Oolong, also known as wulong or "Black Dragon" tea, stands as a distinctive member of the tea family, embodying the artful balance of semi-oxidation. Originating from regions like China's Fujian and Guangdong provinces, as well as Taiwan, oolong teas showcase an impressive array of flavours, ranging from dark and roasted to light and floral, all united by their remarkably smooth texture. Renowned for their complexity and intricate aromas, oolong teas have transcended being merely a favourite among connoisseurs to become increasingly popular among tea aficionados globally. This blog will delve into the nuances of oolong, exploring its history, production, diverse varieties and terroirs, and brewing methods that makes it one of the most artisanal teas worldwide.

THE HISTORY


The history of oolong tea is shrouded in intriguing theories and legends, adding an air of mystery to its origins. One theory, known as the "tribute tea" theory, suggests that oolong tea emerged as a successor to the renowned Dragon-Phoenix tea cakes of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) in Beiyuan gardens, Phoenix Mountains, Fujian Province. The name "oolong" was coined to replace the older term as loose-leaf tea gained popularity, with its dark, long, and curly appearance inspiring the moniker "wūlóng," meaning dark dragon tea. Another theory, rooted in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian, China, proposes that oolong tea originated from this picturesque region. Supported by poems from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), such as Wuyi Tea Song and Tea Tale, this theory suggests that oolong tea earned its name from the specific part of the mountains where it was first discovered. The third and perhaps most comical legend, the Anxi theory, credits the accidental discovery of oolong tea to a man named Wu Liang. According to this account, the distracted tea farmer oxidised his leaves while chasing a deer, resulting in a distinct flavour profile. Oolong teas rose to prominence during the Qing dynasty, particularly with the introduction of Tie Guan Yin oolong, or Iron Goddess of Mercy, to Emperor Qian Lung. The emperor's admiration for the tea quickly popularised it. Around the same time, the gongfu ceremonial tea-serving method emerged, playing a significant role in politics and warfare. By the mid-1900s, oolong tea gained popularity, leading to its active production in Taiwan, then followed by oolong cultivation in other Asian countries such as India, and Nepal in the past decade.

Photo: Pinterest.

PRODUCTION OF OOLONG


Photo: Eric Mah for Tea Epicure by Tony Gebely. High-heat tumble dryers.

Oolong tea production is an intricate and carefully orchestrated process, involving various steps to achieve the unique flavours and characteristics that define this semi-oxidised tea. The journey begins with the selection of tea cultivars similar to the influence of grape varietals in winemaking, the cultivar and the region of cultivation impart distinct nuances to oolong teas.

The production process encompasses a lot of various specialised techniques depending on the style of tea, for instance, withering (萎凋), cooling (凉青), tossing (做青), pan-fry (炒青), fixation (杀青), rolling (揉捻), baking (烘培), roasting (烘焙), drying (干燥), selecting (挑茶), etc. The level of oxidation, a defining factor for oolongs, varies from 8% to 80%, resulting in a broad spectrum of flavours. Lightly oxidised oolongs exhibit green tea characteristics, while heavily oxidised ones resemble red teas with richer floral notes and malt aromas. Tea masters play a crucial role in controlling oxidation, employing methods like Yao Qing or orthodox rolling tables. The shaping of oolongs, whether long and curly loose leaves or "wrap-curled" into small beads, is another critical step, influenced by the tea master's traditions and rolling techniques. Oolongs may undergo roasting to enhance their flavour profiles, ranging from sweet and fruity to woody and thick.

ORIGINS AND VARIETIES


In the Fujian province of China, the Wuyi Mountains are renowned for producing highly-oxidised (40-60%) "rock/cliff tea" (yancha; 岩茶) such as the famous Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe). Anxi County, also in Fujian, is celebrated for the iconic Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) and other low-oxidation oolongs (25-40%). Guangdong, known for its Phoenix Mountains (Feng Huang Shan 鳳凰山), crafts floral and fruity Dan Cong teas, commonly referred to as Phoenix oolongs or single bush teas. Taiwan, with its diverse climate and geography, yields a kaleidoscope of oolongs. Beyond China and Taiwan, other countries have embraced oolong production, introducing unique semi-oxidised teas such as Darjeeling and Assam oolongs in India, Taiwanese style oolongs in Thailand and Vietnam, as well as experimental oolongs in countries like Japan and Nepal, among other places.

NORTHERN FUJIAN: WUYI

Photo: Pinterest.

Wuyi teas, also known as rock tea, yancha 岩茶. Originating in the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian province, China, this region offers a multitude of teas processed using similar techniques, and depending on the location of the tea plantation, rock tea has two categories: banshancha (far away from the cliffs but still within the vicinity of them) and waishancha (tea plants grown on plains, hills, and foothills in a radius from 15 to 80 km from Wuyishan). One of the most famous teas of China, Da Hong Pao is associated with legends, including its role in the Ming Dynasty, 1385, Scholar Ju Zi Ding's recovery before an Imperial exam, and the healing of an emperor's mother. Rock teas boast a distinctive taste profile with earthy and woody notes, a mild smokiness, hints of caramel, and fruit and sandalwood undertones. The essence of rock tea is described as the distinguishing yanyun 岩韵, "rock melody." There are around 80 different types of tea plants growing in Wuyishan, the oldest cultivars being Sida Mingcong, Dahongpao, Tieluohan, Shuijingui, and Baijiguan. You might also come across a term Si Da Ming Cong (四大名欉) tea, "Four Great Tea Cultivars": Da Hong Pao, Tie Luo Han, Shui Jin Gui, Bai Ji Guan.


- Da Hong Pao ("Big Red Robe," 大紅袍)
Shui Jin Gui ("Golden Water Turtle," 水金龜)
Tie Luo Han ("Iron Arhat/Warrior Monk," 鉄羅漢)
Bai Ji Guan ("White Cockscomb," 白鸡冠)
Rou Gui ("Cassia," 肉桂)
Shui Xian ("Narcissus," 水仙)
- Ban Tian Yao ("Waist Halfway to the Sky," 半天腰)
- Bei Dou ("Big Dipper" or "North Star," 北斗)
- Bu Zhi Chun ("Knows not of Spring," 不知春)
- Huang Guan Yin ("Yellow Goddess of Mercy," 黃觀音)
- Huang Mei Gui ("Yellow Rose," 黃玫瑰)
- Jin Fo ("Golden Buddha," 金佛) - Jin Suo Chi ("Golden Key," 金鎖匙) - Qi Lan ("Rare Orchid," 奇兰)

Photo: Si Chá 鷥茶 is brand based in Frankfurt, Germany, and they deal with spectacular Wuyi yancha. In the image, Limited Da Hong Pao "Silken Stream". Website | Instagram

SOUTHERN FUJIAN: ANXI, QUANZHOU

Photo: Tieguanyin withering caiqing in Anxi, Fujian. Image credit goes to Fuzhou Tea & Me.

Photo: Eastern Leaves is a tea company with its roots in Yunnan province in China, and yet they have a tea studio in Milan, Italy, too. In the image, Tieguanyin 花香铁观音 - Light Roasting. Website | Instagram

Anxi, renowned for its contribution to the world of oolong teas, particularly stands out for the iconic Tie Guan Yin, meaning "Iron Bodhisattva Guan Yin" or "Iron Goddess of Mercy." Traditionally, Tie Guan Yin underwent heavy roasting, resulting in a dark brew and a deep velvety taste. However, contemporary preferences have led to a trend of light roasting, preserving the character of green tea while imparting a bright floral aroma. Once reserved for emperors and elite members of Chinese society, Iron Goddess of Mercy teas are now widely available, characterised by a light, refreshing, and velvety profile with a golden colour and hints of honey, often likened to the aroma of orchids and lilac.

- Jin Hua ("Golden Flower," 金花)
- Tie Guan Yin ("Iron Goddess of Mercy," 鐵觀音)
- Huang Jin Gui ("Golden Cassia" or "Golden Osmanthus," 黃金桂)
- Mao Xie ("Hairy Crab," 毛蟹)
- Ben Shan (本山) Oolong
- Mei Zhan 梅占 (this cultivar is also used for Wuyi yancha)
- Da Ye Oolong ("Big Leaf," 大葉)
- Jin Guan Yin ("Golden Goddess of Mercy," 金观音)
- Fo Shou ("Buddha's Hand," 佛手)

GUANGDONG: PHOENIX MOUNTAINS

In Guangdong province, the oolong tea of distinction is Lonely Bushes from the Mountain of Phoenix, a tea known as Dan Cong (单丛) or Phoenix oolong with a history dating back to the Song Dynasty. Originating from a single tea bush, Phoenix oolong is a specialty of the region, offering a unique tasting experience as each bush imparts different flavours and aroma profiles. Although the name suggests a single bush, it is now a denomination used for oolong teas originating and produced in Guangdong. Phoenix oolongs are celebrated for their natural floral and fruit flavours, with rich yet mild, refreshing, and full-bodied characteristics. The light roasting process enhances the bright aroma. Known for its strong brew customary in the municipal area of Chaozhou, Guangdong, this tradition is part of the "Chaozhou gong fu cha".
Photo: Pinterest.


Photo: Moychay is a tea brand originally coming from Russia, while now we see it all over the world in places like the Netherlands, Georgia, Armenia, Vietnam, Thailand, Spain, etc. They mainly focus on Chinese tea and teaware, however, their hugely comprehensive selection can make any tea lover satisfied. In the image, Guihua Dancong. Website | Instagram


Classification of Dan Cong by aroma:
- Huang Zhi Xiang ("Yellow Gardenia Fragrance," 黄枝香)
- Zhi Lan Xiang ("Orchid Fragrance," 芝蘭香)
- Gui Hua Xiang ("Osmanthus Blossom Fragrance," 桂花香)
- Xin Ren Xiang ("Almond Fragrance," 杏仁香)
- Mi Lan Xian ("Honey Orchid Fragrance," 米蘭香)
- Ye Lai Xiang ("Tuberose Fragrance," 夜来香)
- Jiang Hua Xiang ("Ginger Blossom Fragrance," 姜花香), also known as "Tong Tian Xiang", meaning intense aroma that could reach the sky.
- Rou Gui Xiang ("Cinnamon Fragrance" 肉桂香)
- Mo Li Xiang ("Jasmine Fragrance," 茉莉香)
- You Hua Xiang ("Pomelo Blossom Fragrance," 柚花香)

Classification by legends and historical events:
- Dong Fang Hong ("Oriental Red," 東方紅)
- Zong Suo Xie
- Ba Xian Guo Hai ("Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea," 八仙过海)
- Ya Shi Xiang ("Duck Shit Fragrance," 鴨屎香)
- Lao Xian Weng ("Old Fairy," 老仙翁)

Classification by the origin: - Wudong Dan Cong 乌岽单丛
- Shitou Huang Zhi Xiang 狮头黄枝香
- Zhongping Zhi Lan
- Chengtou Zhi Lan

Photo: Tea picking in the Phoenix Mountains. Postcard Teas.

TAIWAN

Photo: The Tea is a tea brand from Poland delivering exceptional Chinese and Taiwanese teas. In the image, 2020 Shan Lin Xi “Tropical” Gui Fei. Website | Instagram

In Taiwan, the cultivation of oolong tea began during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), in the 18th century, when seedlings were imported from Fujian province. According to Lian Heng's General History of Taiwan, in the late 18th century, Ke Chao (柯朝) brought some tea trees from Fujian into Taiwan and planted them in Jieyukeng (櫛魚坑), in the area of modern-day Ruifang District, New Taipei City. In 1855, Lin Fengchi (林鳳池) brought the Qingxin plants from the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian to Taiwan and planted them in Dongding Village (Lugu, Nantou County). Taiwan's diverse landscape proved ideal for oolong cultivation, with higher elevations producing delicious and more fragrant teas. The island inherited two oolong processing methods: the North Fujian style, featuring a ribbon form, and the South Fujian style, with leaves rolled into balls.


- Jin Xuan ("Golden Daylily," ), also known as "Milk Oolong" (Nai Xiang)
- Bao Zhong (also romanised as pouchong; "wrapped kind," 包種), Pinglin Township near Taipei.
- Dong Ding ("Frozen Summit" or "Ice Peak," 凍頂), named after the mountain in Nantou County.
- Dong Fang Mei Ren ("Oriental Beauty," 東方美人, or baihao (白毫), white-tip oolong)
- Alishan (阿里山) Oolong, Alishan mountain area of Chiayi County.
- Lishan (梨山) Oolong, Lishan mountain in the north-central region of Taiwan.
- Ruan Zhi (軟枝), also known as Qingxin ('green heart') and as # 17.
- High-mountain or gaoshan (高山) oolongs, for example, Alishan, Wu She, Li Shan and Yu Shan. 
- Muzha Tie Guan Yin ("Iron Goddess of Mercy," 鐵觀音), the hills of Muzha area near Taipei.
- GABA Oolong (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, which develops during the oxygen-free processing invented by the Japanese)
- Hong Oolong ("Red Oolong," 紅烏龍)
- Gui Fei ("Emperor's Concubine," 貴妃)
- Si Ji Chun ("Four Seasons," 四季春)
- Lao Cha 老茶, aged oolong

BREWING OOLONG


It is generally recommended to use boiling water, allowing it to extract the rich flavours inherent in this diverse tea category. However, it's essential to note that specific styles of oolong may have varying brewing preferences, including water temperature, so it's advisable to consult the brewing recommendations for the particular oolong. Embracing experimentation is always encouraged, as individual preferences play a significant role in enhancing the overall tea experience. Oolong teas stand out for their ability to deliver a lasting taste over multiple infusions, with each steeping unveiling new dimensions of flavour. A popular technique involves using a small steeping vessel, such as a porcelain gaiwan or Yixing-type clay teapot, with a higher leaf-to-water ratio, aligning with the gongfu method and allowing tea enthusiasts to savor the intricate nuances of oolong through a series of delightful infusions. Explore either traditional Chaozhou gong fu cha techniques or Taiwanese/Fujian style infusions with the aroma cups, Wei Xiang Bei 闻香杯. Some oolongs are also great in cold brews.

Photo: MoriMa Tea, Pinterest.

OTHER TEA BRANDS WHERE TO FIND OOLONG IN EUROPE

Photo: Meetea is a tea company based in Prague, Czech Republic. In the image, oolong from Jun Chiyabari tea garden in Nepal. Website | Instagram

- Nunshen, France. Website | Instagram
- Unami, France. Website | Instagram
- Wistaria Paris, France. Website | Instagram
- Palais des Thés, France. Website | Instagram
- Biochi (Saint Nikolas & Antwerp), Belgium. Website | Instragram
- Tea Kulture, Belgium. Website | Instagram
- Teasenz, The Netherlands. Website | Instagram
- Klasek Tea, Czech Republic. Website | Instagram
- Tea Mountain, Czech Republic. Website | Instagram
- Orijin Tea, Czech Republic. Website | Instagram
- Lao Tea Shop, Czech Republic. Website | Instagram
- Dobrá čajovna, Czech Republic. Website | Instagram
- AN SHIM TEA, Latvia. Website | Instagram
- Xin An Chu, Spain. Website | Instagram
- The Chinese Tea Company, the UK. Website | Instagram
- Postcard Teas, the UK. Website | Instagram
- Mei Leaf, the UK. Website | Instagram
- Nan Nuo Shan, Germany. Website | Instagram

And finally, our absolutely favourite oolong *drumroll*: Lorela's fluffy Ulong. Personally, I would vouch that he is of white hair, baihao, category, just like the Oriental Beauty. ;)



REFERENCES


Born Tea. Complete Guide to Oolong Tea. Available HERE
Chazhidao. Four Types of Oolong. Chazhidao Chinese Tea Traditions School. Available HERE
​​Gräfenhof Teemanufaktur. (2022). The Definitive Guide To Oolong Tea. Available HERE
Lindeberg, D. (2021). What is Oolong Tea? Open Door Tea. Available HERE
Lovell, H. (2022). Our guide to Oolong. Rare Tea Company. Available HERE
Shevelev, S. (2021). Geography of Chinese tea.
Teasenz. Dan Cong Tea Types Classification. Available HERE.

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