Tea World

Lesson 23

Processing of Oolong Tea

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Oolong teas are partially oxidised teas and undergo the most difficult and time consuming processing method. Oolong teas are prepared in South China (mainly in Fujian and Guangdong provinces) and Taiwan. Oolong teas were initially prepared in China and then in Taiwan.

Oolong Tea-Its Origin

Oolong tea began life in Fujian province of China, with a history there stretching back more than 1,000 years to a traditional form of tea called Beiyuan tea. Beiyuan tea was the earliest known tribute tea (a tea given in tribute to the emperor or royal family) produced in Fujian, and one of the most well known teas produced during the Song Dynasty. The Beiyuan area is located around Phoenix mountain in Fujian, and had been a tea producing area since the earlier Tang Dynasty. This tea was a compressed type of tea, with the leaves compressed into cakes.  When these went out of fashion with the royalty, the area began producing a partially oxidized loose leaf tea instead – the original Oolong tea.

Here is a separate Chinese legend about the origins of Oolong. 

During the Qing dynasty a tea farmer in Fujian was picking tea one day when he saw a deer.  Deciding to hunt the deer instead of processing the picked tea, it was not until the next day that he got around to finishing the tea.  However by that time the edges of the leaves had partially oxidised, and gave off a surprising good aroma.  Thus, deciding to finish the processing as usual, he was surprised to find that the resulting tea had a completely new strong sweet flavour, that didn't have any bitterness that was usually produced.  This guy's nickname was Oolong, and so the new tea was named after him.

How are Oolong Teas Prepared?

First the leaves are withered in direct sunlight and then shaken gently in bamboo baskets to lightly bruise the edges of the leaves. Next the leaves are air-dried in the shade until the surface of the leaf turns slightly yellow. The process of shaking and drying the leaves is repeated several times. The oxidation period for oolong teas is less than that for black teas and depends on the type of oolong. This can vary from about 20% for a green oolong to 60% for a classic Formosa oolong. After the desired oxidation level is reached, the leaves are pan-fired at high temperatures to prevent further oxidation. Due to the higher firing temperatures, oolong teas contain less moisture and have a longer shelf life than green teas.  

Being a slightly oxidised tea, Oolong has a taste and aroma that sits somewhere between green teas and black teas. Individual types of Oolong tea can range from almost like a green tea to almost like a black tea, depending on the degree of oxidation during processing.

Types of Oolong Teas

There are several types of Oolong tea produced in China and Taiwan. The most famous Chinese Oolong teas include Tieguanyin, Dahongpao, Phoenix Narcissus, White Crest, Phoenix Bush and Iron Lohan, while the most well known of Taiwanese Oolong's include Dongding, Wenshan Pouchong and Oriental Beauty.  Taiwanese Oriental Beauty is also well known as Formosa Tea, or – because of the abundance of white pekoe – White Tipped Oolong Tea.

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