Oolong (烏龍) is a traditional Chinese tea which was thought to have first been produced in the Fujian and Guangdong provinces during the Ming dynasty.
From the misty mountain peaks of the Wuyi Mountains, to the lush tea gardens in Anxi province, or the bustling teahouses of contemporary cities, oolong tea has certainly inspired some captivating imagery.
And as the tea carved out its own unique chapter in history, the story of oolong tea became intimately interwoven into the lives of the people who cultivated, produced, and consumed it.
In parallel to the agricultural industry, an entire culture involving oolong tea developed, giving birth to cherished traditions such as the Gongfu Tea Ceremony.
Oolong was originally known as "wu-long", or "black dragon", a term which was said to have referenced the dark and twisted appearance of the locally produced tea.
The taste of oolong tea
At the core of oolong tea is a unique processing style which results in semi-oxidized leaves.
The oxidization level itself can vary anywhere from approximately 10% to 85%, which means that there is quite a large variation in regards to oolong teas available on the open market.
Being such a broad category of tea, oolong offers an extensive array of flavors, with many varieties having distinct nuances in the flavor profile.
For example, less oxidized oolong teas, which are sometimes referred to as "green oolongs", typically have a lighter, more floral, or even fruity aroma and taste.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the more heavily oxidized varieties of oolong often exhibit a darker, bolder and more complex flavor, often with notes of roasted nuts, fruits, honey, or spices.
The level of oxidization influences not only its taste, but also its appearance, with lighter oolongs often having a greenish or yellow hue, and darker oolongs typically displaying a deep amber color.
Oolong tea in a healthy lifestyle
Beyond it's alluring history and flavor, oolong tea is also revered for its numerous health benefits, and an increasing number of people are choosing to add it to their diet regimen, as oolong tea is known to contain a wide range of antioxidants, including catechins, theaflavins, and flavonoids.
But as with any new dietary addition, moderation is key.
To avoid potential side effects associated with excessive caffeine consumption, such as insomnia and jitteriness, consider limiting your intake to three to four cups of oolong tea per day.
Where does oolong tea come from?
Although there are several stories regarding the origins of oolong tea, it's generally thought to have first been produced in the Fujian and Guangdong provinces of China during the Ming dynasty, being an evolution of Beiyuan tea, an ancient imperial tribute tea produced during the Song dynasty.
Within these two provinces are many renowned agricultural regions including the Wuyi Mountains, Anxi county and the Phoenix Mountains, regions which are known for popular teas such as Da Hong Pao, Tie Guan Yin, and Feng Huang Dan Cong.
The flavor and characteristics of each of these teas reflect their region's unique terroir and traditions.
However, oolong tea is now grown and produced in many other regions throughout the world as well, and some countries, such as Taiwan, have become quite highly regarded for their oolong teas, with regions such as Alishan and Shan Lin Xi gaining strong reputations and helping to define Taiwanese oolong as a distinct category.
Beyond Asia, oolong tea is also gaining prominence in the west and becoming increasingly popular.
Production of oolong tea
The art of producing oolong tea has been refined and perfected since ancient times and these skills are often passed down from generation to generation, but it ultimately begins with the cultivation of the Camellia sinensis plant itself.
Cultivar & terroir
One of the more overlooked aspects of oolong tea's flavor is the tea cultivars which are used to produce it. Even though oolong tea can technically be made from any cultivar of the tea plant, the variety used can impact the flavor and quality of the final product.
Another aspect to consider is the terroir in which the tea was grown, as the soil, altitude, humidity, air and growing conditions all play major roles in determining a tea's attributes.
Plucking and withering
Tea plants also undergo seasonal changes which affect their flavor profile, making the plucking time an important consideration.
For example, spring teas typically have a more delicate and nuanced flavor, while autumn teas are often more robust, but perhaps less complex.
Bruising the tea leaves is a crucial step in the production of oolong tea, a process which involves intentionally damaging the tea leaves in order to modify the tea’s properties.
The producer needs to consider several factors when bruising the tea, such as the desired oxidization level and the type of tea which is being produced.
The oxidation process begins when tea leaves are picked and exposed to air, causing the enzymes in the leaves to react with oxygen and break down the leaf's cellular structure.
Fixation, a process which is also known as "kill-green" or "shaqing" (殺青) in Chinese, halts the oxidization process and preserves the tea in its current form.
Rolling and Shaping
While rolling and shaping the leaves may appear to be purely an aesthetic process, it can also affect a tea's flavor and aroma.
The mechanical alteration of tea leaves in this manner can also influence the results of both the drying and final roasting procedures.
Drying and Roasting
After rolling and shaping the leaves, it's important to finish drying the tea, to reduce the moisture content and ensure that the tea doesn't spoil.
At this point, depending upon which style of tea is being produced, the manufacturer may choose to give the tea a final roasting, but this is an optional step.
Appreciating oolong tea
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