Monday, August 18, 2008

Oolong Tea: One of the World's Great, Under Appreciated Teas

Oolong Tea: One of the World's Great, Under Appreciated Teas

Outside of Taiwan or southeast China, Oolong (or wulong, wu lung) tea is possibly the least appreciated or understood of Chinese teas.

And yet, it is one of the most worthwhile teas that combine the freshness of green tea with the smooth body of black teas.

Produced in Fujian Province since the 18th century, large scale production emerged in the mid-1800s in Fujian and across the strait in Taiwan to meet export needs. Curiously, oolong tea was a popular import to New York in the second half of the 19th century.

In the English language, teas are classified into three groups: Green Tea (un- oxidized), Oolong Tea (semi-oxidized), and Black Tea (fully oxidized). But in Chinese, oolong refers to one type of many semi-oxidized teas known collectively as “qing” or “ch’ing” tea. The word qing is difficult to translate as it refers to many shades of the color green.

1. Withering: Freshly picked tea leaves are laid out on a cloth in the sun, and then moved indoors to finish withering. This removes moisture and makes the leaves pliable.

2. Rolling: During the indoor withering process, tea is rolled in long, bamboo cylinder baskets to break the tea leaf cells, thus triggering oxidation (sometimes called “fermentation.”) Oxidation can range from 15% to 70%, although 20-30% is most common for oolong teas.

3. “Killing the Green”: After the tea has oxidized on round, shallow bamboo trays for several hours, the oxidation is stopped with heat in gas heated tumblers that look like large front loading clothes dryers.

4. Twisting the Leaf: The tea is dumped out of the tumblers onto sheets of cloth, and the corners of the cloth are tied together to form a large white cotton ball. These are placed in a machine that has four rotating posts that rolls this cloth ball causing the leaves inside to gradually twist into tiny pellets. This process of “killing the green” and rolling is repeated several times. (Little pellets of tea are desired because they contain intense flavor that is slowly released with repeated steepings.)

Firing Oolong Tea 5. Firing: The mostly dry tea leaf is finally finished in a multi-tray oven and baked at low temperatures until the leaf reaches a 5% moisture level. This process brings out the sweetness and fragrance of oolong tea. Traditional firing in bamboo baskets over a bed of charcoal is also still practiced and highly valued. Skill in firing can often turn a mediocre tea into a great tasting tea.

Taiwan has an excellent reputation for producing the finest quality oolong teas (often called Formosa Oolong). The Taiwan government never collectivized their tea farms as happened in communist China, and free market competition, government supported research, and rising incomes have resulted in extremely high quality oolong tea. The Taiwanese are very skilled in firing tea and generally favor lightly fired, highly fragrant oolong teas.

Famous Taiwan teas include Tung-ting (Dongding) Oolong, Alishan Oolong, and High Mountain Oolong, grown in Nantou County in central Taiwan. Ti Kwan Yin (Tie Guanyin) Oolong is another great tea from Taiwan, which is more flowery in flavor than the darker roasted Ti Kwan Yin tea of Fujian Province in mainland China. Many people are familiar with Pouchong (Baozhong) tea which is oxidized about 15% and has a unique green-oolong flavor. So called “Chinese restaurant tea” is often a large leaf, low-grown oolong tea originally from Taiwan. This is called Formosa Oolong and is not a tightly rolled leaf, but rather very loose leaf tea. Prices for this slightly nutty tasting tea are usually quite affordable.

Most of Taiwan’s tea is consumed in Taiwan, with a limited amount exported to Japan and elsewhere. We import oolong tea directly from Taiwan (visit our Taiwan Oolongs).

Mainland China
Oolong teas from Fujian and Guangdong provinces are darker in flavor and color than those from Taiwan. Most famous is tea from Anxi County in Fujian, as well as the rare “cliff teas” grown in the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian. Many tea names such as Ti Kuan Yin or Dongding are found on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, yet differ in flavor. In recent years, China has de-collectivized and de-centralized tea production and sales. Combined with rising incomes and a newfound appreciation for China’s national drink, the quality of oolong tea has improved considerably. Furthermore, many Taiwan tea farmers are growing tea in Fujian and other provinces to take advantage of plentiful land and labor. They have brought with them highly specialized experience and equipment.

Oolong in other countries
In recent years, oolong teas have also begun to be produced in Thailand, Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka. Because a tea transplant takes three years before entering production, and it takes many more years before processing can be adjusted to match the tea leaf, these new oolong tea areas have yet to establish their reputations.

Gong Fu Cha Steeping Oolong Tea
Most oolong tea is rolled into tiny pellets and is meant to be steeped repeatedly in very small teapots and served in miniature cups. This method, often called “gong fu cha” or “skilled tea,” takes some education and practice, but is very rewarding. A pre- heated teapot is filled a quarter or third full with tea leaves, boiling water is added to “wash the leaves” and quickly dumped out. Next, more boiling water is added and the tea steeps for about a minute and is then drained into a small pitcher from which it is poured into cups. Several more steepings are possible with progressively longer steeping times. The tiny pellets slowly unfurl and release their full fragrance and flavor with each steeping.

Certainly, oolong teas can also be steeped like other teas in a mug or larger teapot, but if you are only going to get one good steeping, it’s probably best to purchase a less expensive oolong tea and steep for a longer time.

Chinese tea drinkers often compare the flavor of oolong teas to ripe fruit, such as peaches and plums. Some astringency is prized, as well as the ticklish and sweet aftertaste that lingers at the back of your mouth and throat after tasting the tea. This sensation is called “hou yun” or “throat resonance.” Flavor and sensation lingers for a long time with high quality oolong teas.

Soil, altitude, weather conditions, and the skill of the farmer and tea roaster can result in an infinite variety of oolong teas. You could spend a lifetime enjoying and understanding this extraordinary tea.

Article source:

No comments: