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Tea 101: All about oolong tea

When we say oolong tea, does the image of balled-shaped teas come straight to mind? You’re not wrong—it’s just that the world of oolong is actually a lot bigger than that! 

What is oolong tea? 

Many seem to think that oolong tea is a specific tea, when, in fact, oolong (烏龍) refers to a broad category of tea. In China, oolong tea is more commonly known as qing cha (青茶). Technically, all semi-oxidised tea falls into the oolong category—that’s a huge spectrum covering Tieguanyins and Wuyi Rock teas to Phoenix Dancongs and Taiwanese High Mountain Oolongs. 

Rock tea from Wuyishan | Plantation by teakha

In the long history of tea, oolong is a relatively new tea style. It dates back to the Qing Dynasty when loose leaf tea became the norm, and the industry developed more complex processing methods and could better control the level of oxidation. 

One way to think about oolong tea is that it combines the best of green and black tea-making techniques: it retains the freshness and aftertaste of minimally oxidised green tea and the lush aromas of black tea. 

Oolong tea varieties | Plantation by teakha

Oolong tea: how it’s processed

Generally speaking, oolong tea is considered the most complicated tea to produce. It’s an incredibly labour-intensive and time-consuming process, involving a lot of muscle and constant monitoring of the leaves—often throughout the night—to determine how much more oxidation is needed. 

This special processing step—not applied to any other tea type—is called make-green (做青). Tea leaves are repeatedly shaken, rolled, or tumbled by hand or machine to bruise the edges and promote oxidation; and then placed in a warm and humid environment for oxidation to take place. This step is repeated every several hours and can last for days.

Make-green oxidising the tea leaf for oolong tea | Plantation by teakha

 

In Taiwan, oolong teas are also roasted (焙火) at the very end to further refine the flavour profile and body of the tea. 

A spectrum of tasting notes

Oolong tea spans a mind-blowing range of aroma, tasting notes and textures. From floral and fruity to chocolatey and sugary, smooth and tender to thick and robust, oolong tea is like a magical pocket holding an infinite list of tasting experiences.  

Three types of tieguanyin oolong tea leaves | Plantation by teakha

Here are the main types of oolong flavour profiles and respective examples. (This is a limited list; go to our Oolong collection to discover more!)

🌼 Floral and fresh 🌼

Lighter oolongs are lightly oxidised and lightly roasted, usually to retain the grassy freshness from the tea plant and show off the unique “shantouqi” (山頭氣) or mountain essence from where it’s grown. For instance, High Mountain Oolong teas—ball-shaped teas made from plants grown at an elevation higher than 1,000 meters in Taiwan—are treasured because of the distinctive climate in which they are grown. At high altitudes, the climate is cool and the tea takes longer to grow. This results in thicker leaves rich in vitamins and minerals and an incredibly nuanced flavour profile. 

Alishan High Mountain Oolong tea | Plantation by teakha

Try it now: Shanlinxi Milky Oolong, from Shanlinxi, Nantou, Taiwan,
and High Mountain Oolong, from Alishan, Jiayi, Taiwan

Wenshan Baozhong is another famous light oolong. Ever so lightly oxidised—to the point that it’s sometimes regarded as a green tea—it has a slightly grassy flavour, floral aroma and creamy texture. 

 Wenshan Baozhong tea leaves | Plantation by teakha

Try it now: Wenshan Baozhong, from Pinglin, New Taipei City, Taiwan

🍬 Fruity and sugary 🍬

A higher oxidation level turns the grassiness and astringency in tea into a fruity sweetness. Red Oolong, a bug-bitten oolong tea with a heavy roast from Taitung, Taiwan, is smooth and sweet with top notes of a black tea and undertones of an oolong. Wonderfully warming and comforting, it offers a completely different experience than a light oolong.

 Red oolong tea leaves | Plantation by teakha

Try it now: Red Oolong (Organic), from Luye, Taitung, Taiwan

Oriental Beauty is another highly oxidised oolong tea, beloved for its endearing honey aroma. Unlike Red Oolong, it is lightly roasted, yielding a fruity flavor but a much brighter flavour and lighter body. 

Oriental Beauty oolong tea leaves | Plantation by teakha

Try it now: Oriental Beauty, from Pinglin, New Taipei City, Taiwan

💥 Bold and long finish 💥

When you put together a showy cultivar, high oxidation and a heavier roast, you get a dark and bold oolong. Phoenix Dancong is a type of oolong tea famous for being dramatically aromaticso aromatic, in fact, that it's often described as “drinkable perfume”. Tasting notes range from summer flowers to sweet potatoes, but always look out for its  distinct bitter-sweetness—a slight bitter taste and astringency that unfolds into a lingering sweetness.

Phoenix Dancong Oolong Tea Leaves | Plantation by teakha 

Try it now: Phoenix Dancong (Duck Shit Scent) and Phoenix Dancong (Honey Orchid Scent), from Phoenix Mountains, Chaozhou, Guangdong, China

Wuyi Rock Tea refers to all teas grown in Wuyishan, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northern Fujian. The rocky terrain is known as Danxia Landform, ideal for growing tea. Tea bushes can be found everywhere, clinging to rock faces between valleys (hence its name: rock tea, or yan cha 岩茶). Wuyi Rock Teas are recognized for a distinctive mineral flavour, smoky notes, and a bold, long finish. 

Da Hong Pao (Fruit Scent) Tea Leaves | Plantation by teakha

Try it now: Da Hong Pao (Fruit Scent) and Hundred Winter Daphnes, from Wuyishan, Fujian, China

The TCM properties of oolong tea

In terms of Traditional Chinese Medicine, oolong tea is a relatively neutral tea—not as cooling as green teas, and not as warming as black teas—thus a suitable option of everyday drinking. But as we’ve explained, oolong tea comes in a wide range of oxidation and roasting levels. The greener it is, the more cooling the teas, and vice versa. 

Brewing oolong tea

Oolong tea is a complex mix of aromas, flavours, textures and aftertaste. Most teas in this category reveal themselves through multiple infusions, typically lasting 5 to 7 steeps. The first infusion is all about aroma. The second infusion is usually the richest, while the third offers a more balanced understanding of the tea. 

Brewing Red Oolong tea in a glass gaiwan | Plantation by teakha

To enjoy the tea through its various stages, we recommend varying your water temperature when brewing Chinese style or gongfu style. Start off with a cooler temperature at 95°C for the first infusion to focus on appreciating its aroma and top notes. As you progress, transition to 98°C, and finally use boiling water for the last infusions to bring out its full flavour. 

Brewing Red Oolong tea | Plantation by teakha

As oolong tea comes in many shapes, sizes, and processing methods, there is no one best way to brew this type of tea. We have included detailed brewing instructions for each of our oolong teas on their individual pages, but remember, ultimately, it’s all about experimenting, and bringing out flavors that you prefer and give you joy.

 

Curious about other types of tea? Keep reading:

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