Mar 06 2010

[Colors of Tea] The Oolong

The name, “oolong,” to me is just as scary as it is intriguing.  And rightfully so – it means “black dragon.”  Neither as sweet as black tea nor as grassy as green, oolong is brewed to be bold and bitter, but it is one of the most popular teas served at Chinese restaurants.

Oolong tea, like green, white, and black, is made from the Camellia sinensis plant.  The color of a tea is determined by the degree of processing it undergoes.  Like white tea, leaves destined for oolong tea are first allowed to wilt.  Unlike our white and green, though, oolong is then bruised (to speed its oxidation) and set to oxidate until the leaves are 30% red and 70% green.  Oxidation is then ended in stages (through Firing or Kill-Green – heating the leaves to deactivate the enzymes that cause oxidation) to preserve this special balance that gives oolong its unique profile.

The longer a tea oxidizes in processing, the more caffeine it has.  That said, an 8oz. mug of properly brewed oolong tea has only 30mg of caffeine.  By contrast, a standard soda contains roughly 45mg, and the average 8oz. cup of coffee has about 150mg of caffeine.  In addition, each time you re-steep the bag for a new cup, you get about one third of the previous mug’s amount of caffeine. (Stash Tea)

Properly brewing oolong tea can be quite complicated.  While there is an entire culture and methodology to extracting the ideal oolong brew, you can follow some simple guidelines at home.  First, steep the bag or loose leaf no longer than three to five minutes in water no hotter than 190 degrees.  The boiling point for water at sea level is 212 degrees, so let your tea kettle sit for three to five minutes after it screams.  Unique to oolong: this tea actually improves with each infusion made per bag.  True oolong connoisseurs will often dump the first cup in favor of the second, third, and fourth.  You might need to increase water temperature and steeping time for successive infusions, but experiment with it to see what notes and qualities you can unlock!

“Oolong” comes from the Chinese “wu” and “long” (also transliterated ‘lung’) for “black” and “dragon”.  There is quite a mystique surrounding the Black Dragon Tea, and it has inspired its own creation myths.  Among other stories, it is said that a man named Wu Liang (which later became Lung) either discovered it in the Anxi region of the Fujian Province or accidentally created it when he was distracted and allowed his tea leaves to ferment too much for green but not enough for black.

Also adding to the air of mystery is the fact that oolong is often scented with Night-Blooming Jasmine, a hauntingly seductive aroma that comes from a flower that only blooms and releases its scent in the dead of night.

Night Blooming Jasmine by curtlinda5

The leaves and buds of C. sinensis change dramatically during the oxidative stage in cultivation.  While caffeine content rises with fermentation, polyphenols, specifically catechins (antioxidants widely believed to improve general health) decrease.  This is made up for by the development of theaflavins and other minerals and compounds unique to black and oolong teas.  Although the health science of tea is still largely considered holistic or new-age, oolong tea is said to be effective in treating or affecting: high cholesterol, allergies, eczema, high blood pressure, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, spinal bone mineral density, and metabolism and fat-burning. (Liu Yi Fei)

Some popular Chinese and Taiwanese oolong teas that you might know or ought to try:

  • Wu Yi Yan Cha (Rock Tea) one of ten China Famous teas; rich, earthy, and smoky
  • Shui Jin Gui (Golden Water Turtle) a bright green oolong, from the WuYi mountain
  • Shui Xian (Water Sprite) a very dark oolong tea, often produced elsewhere
  • Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess) one of ten China Famous; flowery and delicate
  • Donding (Frozen Peak) Taiwanese, floral with hints of honey and melon
  • Dongfang Meiren (Eastern Beauty) Taiwanese, bright red-orange, fruity and sweet
  • Ali Shan (Alishan) Taiwanese, golden yellow, sweeter and less astringent oolong
  • Baozhong (Wrapped Kind) Taiwanese, almost a green, but very mild, non-grassy

I thus far have very limited experience with oolong tea, but I fully intend after writing this post to change that!  Why don’t you try it with me and let me know what you think?  If you already have a favorite oolong tea blend or product, leave it here in the comments!

Leave your feedback and share this page to keep the discussion going!

Here’s a low-cost, five-star-rated tea to start you on your journey.  The reviews for this company swear that it’s close to what you get in China.  Quick tip: Toss your first cup and brew again with the same bag, checking the flavor every 30 seconds.  Oolongs develop very dynamically, and a single minute can change the profile quite a bit.

Unless otherwise sourced, all information comes from Wikipedia and its prodigious list of sources.

Photo credits: Monkey-picked oolong by selva
Taiwan Oolong Tea by  掌 生穀粒


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