What is oolong tea?

Oolong is the wide, wide category of tea in between green and black. Through highly skilled, labor-intensive processing, a tea-maker can craft anything from creamy florals to rich chocolate to toasted nuts to tropical fruit out of a single batch of leaves. No tea offers more diversity of flavor, complexity, and body than oolongs. They are among the teas that are simultaneously most beloved by those who drink them and most ignored by those who don't. So if you've been drinking tea for a while and are getting bored of your malty ceylon and your springy matcha, here's an introduction to the entire universe of tea in between.

First, what’s in the name? In Chinese, the name for what we call ‘oolong’ is actually two characters meaning black (wu) dragon (long): 烏龍. This name is thought to refer to the shape of the leaves after they've been rolled into balls that resemble little dragons.

Oolong is a variety of tea derived from the Camellia Sinensis plant - just like Black Tea, Green Tea, and White Tea. It is a semi-oxidized tea that goes through unique processing and can range from 5% - 90% oxidation. It’s genuinely a craftsman’s tea — meticulously processed to draw out unique rounded qualities and powerful fragrances and finishes.


What's special about oolong tea?

Oolong’s unique processing means endless flavor possibilities. Black tea is 100% oxidized, green tea has 0% oxidation, oolong embodies the whole spectrum in between. Each variety can range from floral and light to rich, toasty, and full-bodied. As a partially oxidized tea, oolong’s characteristics change based on the level of oxidation. Each new variety of oolong is an adventure! 

We love oolong because every tea is different and brings new surprises or flavor and complexity. We like to compare the differences between the types and flavors of oolong teas to the differences between fine wines. While all wine comes from a grape, it is the combination of the variety of the grape, how and where the grape was grown and the artisanal style of the winemaker that ultimately determines how the wine will taste in your glass. The styles of oolong produced across Taiwan vary just as much as the styles of wine that come out of France. 

The different microclimates and growing conditions in Taiwan give rise to distinct region specific tastes. Tea from remote mist-covered mountains tastes wildly different to temperate bamboo-forested foothills, and flavours vary from mountain to mountain, township to township. Some are plucked in spring for a flowery herbaceous flavor, while others are picked in winter and roasted for a warm toasty flavor. Generations of tea artisans in Taiwan have adapted their traditional tea processing methods to the evolving conditions of their environment. The varying weather patterns, temperatures, altitudes, soil, and local tea craftsmanship ultimately result in differences in appearance, aroma, and flavor of the tea grown in Taiwan. 



Origin of Taiwan oolong tea

Taiwan is an island in the sub-tropics zone, with a very tall Central Mountain Range in the middle. It has a temperate climate that rarely drops below 12° celcius with over 79 inches of rainfall on average providing the perfect environment for growing tea. The combining factors of elevation, cool, moist air, slower growth, and fertile soil gives the tea their one-of-kind flavor and aroma.

In the early 1800s, a Chinese tea merchant decided to see if tea would grow in Taiwan. A very hospitable climate for tea, the cultivation of tea quickly spread throughout the island. It wasn't until 1868, however, that the Taiwanese began processing oolongs themselves, having previously sent the leaves to Fujian, China for processing. During the Japanese colonial period (1890's), the Japanese invited tea-making masters from Fujian to improve the production process and taste in Taiwan. Then in the 1970s, the tea industry in Taiwan expanded at a rapid rate, in line with the rest of the economy. Due to high domestic demand and a strong tea culture, most Taiwanese tea is bought and consumed in Taiwan.

What does oolong tea look and taste like?

Oolong represents a true artisan mastership of tea processing. The appearance, shape and flavor of an oolong tea can vary wildly depending on the region where it’s grown and how it’s processed.

Shape: Oolong teas are traditionally rolled, twisted or curled into tight balls or thin strands. These artisanal shaping techniques depend on the traditions of the tea master making the tea. Rolling is an important aspect of oolong processing that alters the appearance, color and aroma of the final tea leaves. Depending on how and when the leaves are rolled during processing, the tea master can subtly alter the entire direction of the tea’s final flavor.

Color: Black tea is fully oxidized during processing, giving the tea leaves their dark color and rich malty aroma they’re known for. Green tea is barely oxidized at all, so the leaves keep some of their original green leaf color and fresh-picked flavor. Oolong tea is partially oxidized, and falls somewhere in between. Depending on the oxidation levels, some oolongs (i.e. Spring Ripples) may have a fresh green tea (less oxidized) with green-yellow brightness and others (i.e. Midnight Amber) can be cocoa-coloured or jet lucious black (more oxidized).

Taste: Oolong is a delightful, versatile tea type with a nuanced flavor. They can take on a spectrum of flavors from light to dark, fruity to floral, sweet to smoky, herbaceous to chocolaty, and everything in between. and those flavors are determined by two main factors: oxidation level and roasting. Traditionally a step to prolong a tea's shelf life, roasting also adds considerable flavor, aroma, and body to an oolong, while balancing out oxidized fruitiness with a deep woodsy undertone.


If you want to see what oolong is all about for yourself, take a look at our teas and make a selection. If you need some help, just reach out and we can guide you.

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