Oolong or Wu Long means "Black Dragon". Oolongs are half-fermented (or semi-oxidized) teas that are in the specialty tea family. Half-fermented because the processing of Oolong tea requires only a partial fermentation (oxidation) of the leaves. Oolongs occupy an intermediate position between non-fermented green teas and fully fermented black teas and are the most diverse and interesting loose leaf teas. Oolongs can have varying degrees of oxidation that ranges somewhere between 10-35% in classic Chinese Oolongs to 60-70% in classic Taiwanese (Formosa) Oolongs. Oolong specialty tea is often made from mature leaves, collected from older tea trees.
Processing Oolong is considered the art of tea, where the character of tea is created. Tea masters participate in Oolong tea processing competitions to demonstrate their professional skills at this fine art.
Let’s take a look at Oolong manufacturing process.
There are no standard recipes on how to manufacture oolong tea; it is up to the discretion of each tea garden or tea master to decide on processing and the level of oxidation.
Immediately after gathering, the tea leaves are spread in a thin layer on special bamboo mats under direct sunlight for withering that will let most of water evaporate. The withering process time varies depending on the ambient temperature.
The next step of processing is very peculiar, withered leaves are placed in a large bamboo basket and put in a shady area. Approximately every hour, the tea leaves are shacked and gently tumbled in order to bruise the edges of the leaves to start an oxidation, at the same time avoiding breaking or crushing them. This procedure has to be done several times, until following effect will be reached: bruised up edges of the leaves due to the fermentation become brown blush (like 'rusty'), while veins and parts of the leaves should remain green.
Once the desired level of fermentation is reached, the oxidation process should be stopped immediately. This is achieved through the heat drying phase of raw materials in scorching air called "panning". The pan roasting of the leaves requires extensive experience in Oolong tea processing.
Most Oolongs are dried in two stages: first is partially, primary drying and rolling of tea leaves, then a final finish drying. Some highly fermented Oolongs undergo an additional stage of wetting and softening.
The partially drying process is carried out manually. This stage is necessary to stop the fermentation. Partially drying can be done in 2-4 steps, when the raw material is taken out of the oven, quickly cooled, then rolled. Then again dried in the oven, rapidly cooled, then rolled again, and so on. Afterwards, the leaves go through a final drying phase, ending oxidation and often followed by baking (roasting). Several kinds of Oolong are not rolled just dried after panning. With such a "multistage" technology, taste and degree of fermentation of Oolongs differentiate. Although, manufacturing Oolong is very intensive and meticulous process, unique aroma and flavor profile of this specialty tea makes this tea worth the trouble.
Good quality Oolongs are only loose leaf teas, not tea bags!
The most widely known and actively exported Oolongs are Chinese (Fujian and Yunnan) and Taiwanese (Formosa). Among the most well-known are Formosa Oolongs. Grown and manufactured in Taiwan, named after the province in which grown, these teas are considered the best in quality and affordability among Oolong the loose leaf tea family. Taiwanese Oolongs are often called "Champagne of Teas". Typically Taiwanese Oolongs are specifically labeled that indicates the quality of tea:
1. Fanciest or Extra Fancy
3. Extra Choice or Extra Fine
5. Fully Superior
Chinese Oolongs are famous for the fact that are used in a Chinese traditional procedure named Gongfu Cha and withstand up to 7 steepings.
Brewing Oolong is a very delicate process because it strongly depends on the type of oolong, more precisely, the degree of its fermentation. A lightly fermented Oolong is closest to the brewing of green tea with 190-195 degrees water and the brewing time 1-3 minutes. More fermented Oolong (such as Formosa) is brewing a little longer 4-5 min in hotter water 203-212. After brewing a quality Oolong has pronounced specific characteristics that cannot be mixed with any other kinds of tea.
The best quality Oolongs expresses a strong and rich floral aroma and a remarkable peachy flavor with a honey-sweet aftertaste. Oolongs that closer in oxidation to black teas, have a nutty, toasted flavor. Color of brew is very diverse: from light yellow with green notes (like green tea) to a dark red. Oolong specialty teas contribute 2% of tea consumption of all the teas all over the world.
Enjoy a great cup of Oolong, happy drinking!