Chinese oolong tea is not one tea but many different teas. By varying the amount of oxidation, different teas result each with its own characteristics. Despite this wide range of unique qualities, oolong tea only comprises about 2% of the world's total consumption of tea, and yet, it is the tea that is most commonly served in Chinese restaurants in the US! The majority of oolong tea is produced in the Province of Fujian, on China's southeast coast.
Directly across the Taiwan Straight, from Fujian Province, is the island of Taiwan. Oolong, is also Taiwan's number one tea. The processing of the tea leaves to produce oolong tea involves four steps. The third step, oxidation (incorrectly called 'fermentation'), is the key to defining what makes oolong tea unique. Whereas white and green tea are non-oxidized and black tea is fully oxidized, oolong is partially oxidized tea.
- After plucking, the tea leaves are allowed to wither.
- Then the leaves are shaken in baskets to break open the leaf edges or they are rolled.
- Next the leaves are allowed to oxidize ('ferment') for varying amounts of time. Depending on the length of time, Oolong tea varies from 'lightly' (~14%), to 'moderately', to 'heavily' (~70%) oxidized.
Pouchong, which is only lightly oxidized, actually belongs to a category that is between green tea and the more typical oolong teas. Pouchong is referred to as 'green oolong' in mainland China. Each level of oxidation has its own characteristics. Pouchong is more closely related to green tea and the 'heavily' oxidized oolongs are closer in characteristics to black tea.
- The oxidation is halted by heating the leaves, which is the last processing step. After processing, the tea leaves are a greenish-black to purplish in color.
No matter the actual length of oxidation that is allowed to take place, all oolong tea has qualities of both green tea and black tea. Oolong teas produce a liquor that is pale or pale yellow in color all the way up to a rich reddish-brown and its taste is slightly sweet and mellow to a unique malty or smoky flavor. Of course, this varies depending upon the amount of oxidation.
It is low in caffeine, about 2%. The amount of tea for preparation is usually 1-2 teaspoons per cup. Steeping time is usually 3-5 minutes starting with boiling water, 100°C. The two minute range indicates that there is no one set steeping time.
As with any tea, preparing it depends solely on the individual. Steeping beyond 5 minutes will result in bitterness. Therefore, if stronger tea is desired, use more tea. Oolong is made from souchong. These leaves are plucked in June, definitely past the Spring flushes. According to, The Tea Lover's Companion;
"Oolong plucking requires taking three --not two-- leaves and a bud. (Souchong is the name for that large third leaf which is plucked for making oolong.)"
For additional discussion of souchong, check Lapsang Souchong
Examples of Chinese Oolong Tea
- Bai Hao Wu Lung, "White Hair Black Dragon", a 'moderately' to 'heavily' oxidized oolong tea. This tea is plucked only within the first fifteen days of July. It consists of only the first two leaves and the fine, white tipped buds. This produces a reddish-orange liquid with a fruity flavor and a floral scent.
- Liupao, from the autonomous region of Guangxi. This is a 'heavily' oxidized oolong tea that some consider a black tea. Its dark reddish-brown liquor is said to have a taste similar to that of betel nuts. In The Tea Lover's Companion, it is stated that this tea "...is flavored with betel nut".
- Min Pei, , "Northern Fujian", (more correctly 'Fujian North') these processed leaves are a dark greenish-black. It has a reddish-brown liquid with medium body and a stronger flavor than Ti Kuan Yin.
- Ming Xiang, , "Fragrant Tea", dark, blackish leaves produce a deep reddish-brown infusion. This is also stronger and full-bodied than Ti Kuan Yin with its own distinctive taste. Very nice.
- Pouchong, "The Wrapped Kind", as stated above technically speaking pouchong is an oolong because it is oxidized, though very little. This is from Taiwan and is almost a green tea such that in China it is referred to as 'green oolong'. It produces a very delicate tea, like a green tea, but also has its own distinct flavor. It truly is neither a green tea nor an oolong tea, making it the 'seventh' category of Chinese tea. If you like white and green teas, you will also like this.
- Shui Hsien, "Water Sprite" or "Narcissus", has an orange colored liquor with a floral scent and an orchid-like taste. This is a 'moderately' oxidized oolong tea that is made from the leaves of a special variety of tea plant that was discovered in Fujian's Dahu area. Its leaves can also be used for processing into black and white teas. Also available as Wuyi Hsiencha, Min Nan Shui Xian, Fonghwang Tan-chung and Fenghuang Shui Hsien.
- Ta Hung Yen, as Min Pei is stronger than Ti Kuan Yin, this is stronger and bolder than Min Pei.
- Ti Kuan Yin, "Iron Goddess of Mercy", Ti = iron, Kuan Yin is the Buddhist 'Goddess of Mercy', the leaves used in making this tea are shinny and thick, from the Fujian Province. This is a classic 'moderately' oxidized oolong tea. It is prepared both with standard steeping techniques but also via the Kung Fu style.
"The leaves are dark like iron, but the tea is sweet and fragrant like Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy."
The 1000-year-old South Putuo Temple, in the city of Xiamen, has a stunning, 3-faced, multiarmed statue of Kuan-Yin.
There are a number of various spellings for the name of this tea. I have been able to purchase a tea just called 'Koon Yum', which I suspect is actually Ti Kuan Yin. All The Tea in China, states the Cantonese name for Ti Kuan Yin is Tit Koon Yam. Koon Yum and Koon Yam are probably just spelling variations.
Here are some other variations in regards to Ti Kuan Yin.
- T'ie Kuan Yin
- Ti Kwan Yin
- Tik Kuan Yin
- Tai Guanyin
- Ti Quan Yin
- Tee Goon Yum
- Tweet Gwoon Yum
- Tung Ting, , "Frozen peak", a 'moderately' oxidized oolong from Taiwan with well rolled leaves.
Because this tea is exceptional, I wanted to share some of my impressions of this tea. The dark greenish black leaves are somewhat irregularly, but nicely rolled. By this I only mean that these leaves do not have the more even and symmetrical shape that pearl or gunpowder tea has. Once infused, the leaves open to reveal many full tea leaves, in addition to many 'two leaves and a bud' combinations. Very noticeable on the finely serrated leaf edges, is the distinctive red color set off from the muted greenish-brown of the remainder of the leaf.
This is the classic indication of the fact that during the tea's preparation only the leaf edges were slightly bruised. The bruising exposes and releases the polyphenols to the air. After partial oxidation the leaf edges turn red as the polyphenols oxidize. Subsequent heating stops the oxidation and further dries the leaves while they are also being rolled.
The resulting infusion is a clear, rich golden color. The scent is slightly floral, very delicate. Reminds me of a very faint lilac scent. The taste is also soft and delicate with a slight lingering pleasant after taste.
In its own way, this tea reminds me more of a Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearl than other oolongs, despite the fact that this tea is an oolong and the Dragon Phoenix Pearl is a scented green tea, its that wonderful! This also make this tea rather different from other oolongs I've tried.
Varying the amount of oxidation makes each oolong unique, but this is one to look for. To me, it is in a very close 'second place', immediately behind the Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearl as far as scent, flavor and delicacy are concerned.
- Wu Yi / Wu I, "Ancient warring barbarian tribes" Anglicilization of this is 'Bohea'. This tea is grown in the Wu Yi Mountains of Fujian Province, which is the area believed to be the origin of oolong tea. Different types of oolong teas come from these mountains, i.e. Wu Yi Shui Hsien Chung and Wu Yi Ti Lo Han.
- Wu Long, "Black Dragon", another classic, this tea's name is the source of the English term 'Oolong' by which all the teas in this category are referred. In eastern Guangdong and southern Fujian Provinces, Wu Long tea is considered the best tea to use for making Kung Fu tea. See below for another legend concerning Wu Long / Oolong.
The Legend of Wu Liang
"Guangdong's Wulong tea comes from Anxi in Fujian Province. Legend has it that the first cultivator of the tea was named Wu Liang. One day, Wu Liang went home after he had picked several pounds of mountain tea and caught a river deer. In the evening, he was busy with killing the river deer, and didn't have enough time to dry the green tea that he had picked earlier that day.
The next day, he found the tea in the basket had fermented after having been stored in the the basket the whole night. He fired the tea at once. To his surprise, he found that the tea tasted very mellow, with no bitter and astringent taste.
Soon Wu Liang taught his fellow villagers how to make the tea. Almost everyone in his village liked the fermented tea and they named it Wu Liang tea. In the south Fujian dialect, liang and long are two homophonic words. As time went by, the tea was called Wu Long tea by later generations."
The source of this Chinese legend is the China Vista web site, an interesting Chinese site to visit.