Monday, January 21, 2013

The 5 Tea Siblings: Oolong (Wulong) Tea

First off, apologies for taking a week hiatus; I was swamped (to say the least) with work. Nevertheless, I thought of my next article and here it is!

If you are looking to showoff to your friends about your knowledge of tea, then look no further; oolong tea is the way to do it, and luckily for you, it is today's topic. So bust out your leaves, put the water on the stove, and get ready to learn about one of the most revered & sophisticated teas in the world.

(Just did a fair bit of reading and wow, I am in for a heck of a post! There is SO much to say about oolong. Only one way to get through it all!)

Oolong is a tea produced solely in China and Taiwan and, unlike Pu-Er teas that are specific to one region, are produced in a wide range of conditions and climates and with a wide range of picking and preparation techniques. This is precisely where the magic in oolong lies. The lack of standardization allows oolongs to be incredibly diverse and cover a very wide range of flavours, aromas, colours, and tastings experiences. They can be closely related to green teas (0% oxidation) with as little as 12 percent oxidation, or can be shoulder to shoulder with black teas reaching as high as 80 percent oxidation (ok, black tea is 100% oxidation, but they can almost be shoulder to shoulder!). This wide range of oxidation (combined with picking & preparation techniques) makes it so oolong spans the entire range of the tea family and contains hints belonging to other types of tea. Although Pu-Er tea holds the "most complicated tea to study" award, a well rounded knowledge of oolong tea is incredibly respectable and even holds a certain level of class and prestige among tea experts.

One intriguing aspect of oolong lies in the appearance of it's leaves. Upon first glance, they look unremarkable and may even look slightly worn compared to green tea leaves, upon second glance, they can look just as unappealing. A third glance will not chance that, nor will a forth or fifth or even a sixth.  Remember that oolong is caught in it's own world lying between green tea and black tea. This means that it's leaves can greatly range in appearance; from a fresher looking green to the older heavily fired look of black tea. Beauty pageants aside, oolong tea leaves really show their hidden qualities when they are allowed to release their aromas and flavours in right temperature of water; this is it's greatest source of pride.

Oolongs are incredibly layered, meaning their flavour changes and evolves with each subsequent steeping. Each steeping peels back a flavour layer and reveals an ever enriching & changing aroma. They are known to be earthy (though less so than Pu-Ers & Black teas), aromatic, smooth, and sometimes, sweet teas.

1/4 pictures showing the diversity of oolong tea. Image courtesy of  here

As if they were not complicated enough, oolong exists in three basic categories: strip-style, open leaf-style, and semiball-rolled style.

Strip-style tends to be more oxidized (between 50-80%) and are heavily roasted. As their name implies, the leaves are long, complete, large, and gifted with a slight curl or twist. They tend to have stronger flavours (earthy, almost fruity, with lingering aftertastes) and occupy a small range of colours (deep earthy brown to a ashy-flint like grey). This type of Oolong is specific to China and not produce elsewhere, unlike the next type which is produced solely in Taiwan.
2/4 pictures showing the diversity of oolong tea. Image courtesy of here

Open leaf-style are characterized by their open, slightly wrinkled leaves ranging from medium to large. The leaves are more presentable as they are not involved in roasting at all. This gives way to sweeter, crisper, and gentler aromas. Unlike strip-style, they have a wider range of oxidation (can be from 12-18% or from 65-75%)

The last general type of oolong bridges the gap between china and taiwan and is produced by both countries. This is the most recognizable type of oolong as it is a leaf rolled into a ball with the stem still attached. From here, it gets a bit more complicated as they can branch off into two categories: the older, more traditional style of oxidation, or the more recent modern style of oxidation. The former often has ranges of 35-65% oxidation and is slightly roasted which imbues the tea with a honey like quality. It's colour range starts from a light brown, progresses through a shade of amber, and finishes with a reddish, woody brown. Though the modern style has some similar appearances, it differs slightly, both in oxidation levels and in overall aroma. It's oxidation levels range from 25-40% and it is only slightly roasted to preserve the floral and light undertones. It's colour is quite different (due to both the lack of roasting, and oxidation) as it is on the green side of things; ranging from a gold-green to a deep jade-like shade.
3/4 pictures showing the diversity of oolong tea (I know right, creative with the captions today!).. Generously provided by these fine people

As was the case with Pu-Er, I could go on and on for another few pages. Sadly, I think this would defeat the point of a general introduction so I will expand on oolongs (what to look for when buying, preparation methods, and more facts) at a later date. I will simply end with how to make the perfect cup of oolong so that you may start enjoying steep after steep between now and then.

So pretty! 
Oolong is much less forgiving than Pu-Er (and even then some experts would have me lined up and shot for saying Pu-Er is forgiving). To make a good, relaxing cup of oolong, you have to use a generous amount of leaves (2-3 tablespoons per 180ml of water (6 ounces))....(those should really be measured in teaspoons in my opinion...). If this seems like a lot, feel free to play with what is right for you, however I beg you not to worry, running out of tea simply means it is time to explore and try a new variety. The water temperature starts at around 82C (180 F) and can go up to 93C (200F) with slowly increasing temperatures. It is recommended to do a first wash of the leaves (quickly pour the hot water over the leaves and pour it out immediately to quickly replace with new water to start your first steep). Depending on the type of oolong, steeping time should range from 10-60 seconds for the first infusion, 15-65 seconds for the second, and 20-70 for the third. It can be steeped up to 8 times though the steeping time should be greatly increased for the final few steepings (add 30 seconds or more) and the water temperature should be brought to its maximum of 93C.

There will be a follow up post to Oolongs, but I would first like to make my way through the rest of the tea family.

Happy Steepings teanions!

Edit: Quick jump!

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