Tea

Brief Guide to Oolong Tea

Background

Oolong is the style of tea that is the most varied. It is most commonly produced in Anxi, Wuyi, Guangdong in China and Taiwan. The style began in Fujian around the early Tang and was compressed into a cake. The style exploded after the prohibition of tea cakes in the Ming dynasty and popularization of Tieguanyin during the Qing dynasty. Tea seeds and processing secrets were transported to Taiwan from Fujian in the late 18th century. Oolong in the west gained acclaim when Elizabeth II named Oriental Beauty tea for its exquisite flavor and unique appearance.

Wuyi, Fujian, China – Oolong production most likely began in the Wuyi Mountain region of Fujian. Yancha, or rock tea, is a type of oolong with characteristics of roast, minerality, florality, and sweetness. The tea is roasted over low heat several times, with months of rest in between each roasting. The Si Da Ming Cong, or Four Famous Bushes are Da Hong Pao, Shui Jin Gui, Tie Luo Han, and Bai Ji Guan, but there are several other yancha that display similar flavor characteristics at a lower price point like Shui Xian or Narcissus tea.

Anxi, Fujian, China – The most common style of oolong from Anxi is Tie Guan Yin. It is also the most consumed oolong in China. True Tie Guan Yin uses a specific tea variety by the same name, but many producers will use other varieties to create their version of Tie Guan Yin using a specific production style. It is heavily macerated with the producer staying up all night to continuously shake and bruise the leaves. It is then rolled and roasted. Se Zhong oolong is a generic term for all of the other oolongs produced in Anxi other than Tie Guan Yin.

Guangdong, China – The Fenghuang or Phoenix mountains in Guangdong produce high quality oolongs specific to each micro-region. They are Dan Cong or single-bush teas that are produced from a single variety native to that specific micro-region. There are two main styles: traditional or bouquet. The traditional style is more heavily oxidized and roasted yielding more sweet and smooth flavors. The bouquet style is lighter, and more floral. They are named based on flavor or fragrance. For instance, Mi Lan Xiang is Honey Orchid Fragrance.

Taiwan – The high-mountain or Gao Shan oolong from Taiwan are some of the highest quality, grown above 1,000 meters. Jin Xuan and Qin Xin cultivars are the most commonly used. Jin Xuan is most known for its use in milk oolong, named for its flavor and creamy texture. It is better suited for slightly lower elevations. Qin Xin is more delicate and expensive. It is used at the highest elevations.

Mao Xie or Hairy Crab (Se Zhong) field

Processing

Oolong Teas are partially oxidized. They fall between green teas and black teas with lower oxidized teas behaving more like green teas and higher oxidation levels being more similar to black teas.

Plucking

Plucking or picking depends on the oolong style being produced, but rarely are buds used for oolong. Lighter oxidation oolongs will generally use younger, more delicate leaves, while larger, older leaves will be used for more oxidized teas.

Withering

Withering is the partial drying of the leaves to 50-60% moisture in about 2-4 hours. The loss of moisture softens the leaves which allows them to be rolled and shaped without breaking. The rate of withering will impact the final flavor and can be manipulated by sun withering or moving the tea into indoors into cool environments.

Hariy Crab Withering on Bamboo mats

Macerating

Macerating or bruising the tea is important in breaking down the cells and releasing enzymes to accelerate oxidation. Maceration may not occur in all styles of oolong and is more common in more heavily oxidized teas. The tea may be flipped in bamboo baskets or stirred using brooms or rakes to break down the leaf cell structure.

Oxidation

The degree of oxidation is dependent on the style of oolong being produced. Oxidation will happen more rapidly if the tea was macerated or bruised, but may still be heated for 8-12 hours to accelerate the process. It may be on Bamboo mats or in drums.

Fixing

This step haults the oxidation of the leaves, similar to Sha Qing in green teas. Most oolongs are pan fired.

Mao Xie Shaping and Drying Equipment

Shaping

Most oolong is either twisted or rolled to release any aromatic oils during the fixation step, but it may occur after. The tea may be rolled several times with periods of rest in between.

Drying and Firing

The final step is to completely dry the oolong and stabilize the oils and aromatics. The drying may be with hot air in drums or it may be fired at a higher temperature, sometimes over a charcoal flame. Firing is more common with Chinese oolongs and imparts more caramelization and sometimes woody flavors.

Mao Xie finished product

Brewing

Brewing oolong is heavily dependant on the processing style. Using standard western brewing methods like tea infusers, bags, and pots, heavily oxidized teas should be brewed at a higher temperature (205°F) for longer periods of time (4-6 minutes) while less oxidized options should use lower temperatures (185°F) for shorter periods of time (2-4minutes).

Brewing oolong tea Gongfu style can reveal complex and nuanced flavors that may be less clear brewing western style. This style uses a stronger brew ratio and several shorter steeps to reveal what flavors are extracted at varying parts of the brew.

What you will need:
Gaiwan
Filtration device, optional
Small pitcher (Gong Dao Bei)
Tea tray (chachuan), optional
Scale
Kettle
Tea cups
1g/fl oz loose leaf tea

Step 1: Add tea to gaiwan
Step 2: Rinse tea with hot water and immediately
discard, this removes dust and preheats vessel
Step 3: Add water to gaiwan until full, and steep for 30 seconds
Step 4: Carefully shift the lid away from the gaiwan lip, creating a small space for water to pass. Pour the infusion through the filtration device into pitcher
Step 5: Decant first steep evenly into separate cups until pitcher is empty
Step 6: Repeat this process for 3-5 steeps, remarking on the change of flavor with each successive steep

Patrick McKeown

Patrick began his coffee journey on Long Island at a small coffee bar and roasting at home. Since then he has been a barista, manager, and craft roaster in NYC.