Oolong tea is probably the most universally loved tea type out there. Why? Because it can cater for all tastes. From the floral to the fruity, from the creamy to the roasted, Oolong has all the bases covered no matter what your preference.
The reason for this wide variation in flavour profiles is that Oolong goes through the most steps of processing. At each stage, the tea producers make decisions which can fundamentally shift the tone and aromatics of a tea.
PRODUCING OOLONG TEA
The basic processing steps of Oolongs are:
Picking -> Withering -> Shaking -> Oxidising -> Fixing -> Rolling -> Drying -> Roasting
Phew, that is a lot of steps. From field to cup, an average Oolong undergoes many days of processing spread out over a period of weeks or months.
Such an extensive range of processes means that a skilled producer can really control the profile of the finished tea. It also means that an average-quality tea plant from a lower-quality terroir can be manipulated to have aromatics which may delight at first whiff but lack depth of character. Be wary of pretty-smelling Oolongs at high prices masquerading as pinnacle tea.
The picking style for Oolongs is usually medium and larger leaves. These more developed leaves have a robust quality to withstand the many processes of Oolong making and contain compounds more suitable for Oolong's sweeter and creamier tastes.
After picking, the leaves undergo a long withering process to develop potent aromatics. Ideally, some of this withering should be outdoors (solar-withering) because the broad spectrum light of the sun amps up the diversity and quantity of aromas.
During the withering, the leaves will be shaken to redistribute water, micro-damage the surface and even out the exposure to the sunlight.
After many hours of withering, the leaves are usually piled up on bamboo trays. They are then left to oxidise in a controlled environment. Often times, oxidation is encouraged by shaking the leaves more vigorously during this piling phase. This shaking can be done gently by hand or by oscillating the bamboo tray in an undulating motion to make the leaves ‘dance’ or by loading the leaves into slow-spinning bamboo cylinders.
The oxidising phase will continue with the producers determining the duration and the amount of shaking according to the tea character they intend to produce. Therefore Oolong tea can be lightly oxidised, medium oxidised or heavily oxidised.
The level of oxidation is assessed by eye and nose. Once the tea producer feels that the tea has reached the desired amount of oxidation, the tea is fixed by heating. This is usually achieved by loading the leaves into large heated spinning drums – imagine a very hot tumble dryer with no door.
The tea will heat at over 250 Celsius (500F) for several minutes. The workers check on the leaves attentively by putting their hands into the hot drum, grabbing some leaves to smell and touch. This is scorching work, but it is crucial that the leaves are fixed entirely without burning.
After fixing, the leaves are left to cool for a few minutes (usually wrapped up to maintain moisture). They are then rolled vigorously to break the outer membrane and bring all of that aromatic juiciness to the surface. Rolling is usually performed by machines which twist the leaves over a ridged surface but it can be done by hand too.
The sticky ball of leaves are then untangled and dried using a conveyor belt oven which carries the tea through different temperature levels so that the emerging leaves are dry.
At this point the tea is called Mao Cha – raw and unfinished tea.
The tea can then be shaped into balls or left as strip. A great deal of time is then spent removing stems or large ‘yellow’ leaves. This is an important refining step in all tea making but is incredibly intensive for Oolong.
Most Oolong teas will then be sent to specialist tea roasters who will bake the tea in ovens or over charcoal for many hours at carefully controlled temperatures. The goal of the roaster is to further evolve the flavour and texture of the tea and settle the aromatics so that the Oolong is suitable for storing. It is common for the roasting phase to take a few months as it is performed in stages with resting in between.
So here is your snapshot of Oolong production. Each stage can be adapted depending on the style of tea being crafted, making Oolong tea a bewildering tea type with a vast diversity of personalities.
In China, there are three very general styles which you should try:
Anxi Oolong (also generically called Tie Guan Yin) – floral and creamy teas with high, bright aromatics and a lighter mouthfeel.
Dan Cong (also called Phoenix Oolong) – intensely aromatic range of teas mimicking fruits and flowers with a punchy mouthfeel.
Wuyi Yan Cha (also known as Rock Oolong) – darker Oolongs with a rich taste of fruits, woods, rocks and roasts and a vaporous mouthfeel.
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