Oolong – A labour of love
Since opening Terroir Tea Salon we’ve been asked several times “why do you specialize in oolongs?” Well we think oolong is the most exciting tea type because it covers such a vast array of sensory experiences. Heavenly floral bouquets, deep cocoa richness, milky mouth filling textures and deep delightful honey sweetness that seems to linger forever. Oolong provides all of this diversity and so much more.
Oolong is the western term used for Wulong or Wu Long that literally translates to “black dragon”, and it is placed between green and black on the oxidation scale of teas. This oxidation is anywhere from 8-80% of the leaf, which technically makes the case for a First Flush Darjeeling to actually be called an oolong!
Oolongs are almost exclusively single origin and considered by most professional tasters to be one the finest examples of a tea artisan’s mastery of the leaf, allowing them to showcase their talents. The tea master is key to the result achieved and is present throughout the entire process, using years of knowledge and technique to decide when the texture and aroma of the leaves are right to progress to the next step. There isn’t a recipe to follow; it’s the experience and expertise of the tea master who makes the decisions in the processing and determines when to go to the next step. The processing of oolong is considered an art form and a tea master’s carefully guarded secrets are passed down through each generation.
Steps for processing oolong
What kind of leaf is used?
Oolong production requires a larger, firmer leaf than usual and as such varietals of the C.S. assamica variety of the tea bush is normally used, rather than the more delicate C.S. sinensis which is found in China, Darjeeling and Nepal.
The main oolong varietals in Taiwan are Qin Xin (Green Heart) and Jin Xuan (Milky Oolong), and the leaves are harvested a couple of weeks later to allow them to gain in firmness to withstand the rigorous processing method, but not so long as to lose flavour.
Hand picking during spring
What are the basic steps in the production of an oolong?
There are two basic styles of oolong: strip and semi-ball rolled. Each is processed slightly different, but both are back breaking work to get the highest quality possible. The semi-ball rolled version has become popular over time because it protects the leaf from damage during shipping and storage and has had the positive effect of making an oolong instantly recognizable to tea lovers around the world.
What is the difference in the range of oxidation?
The craftsmanship required to stop the oxidation of the leaves at the optimal time for each style of tea being made is learned over many years of training and provides a wonderful range of aromas and flavours. You can see examples of how much variety is available in our tea shop.
Where are they produced and what influences production and processing methods?
Any tea region can produce oolong if they know the processing method. We’ve seen and tasted oolong from Vietnam, Indonesia, Nepal, Kenya and New Zealand, but Taiwan and China are recognized as the premier countries for producing Grand Cru oolongs of every oxidation level.
The major oolong regions within China and Taiwan are:
China – Fujian province: Wuyi Mountain and Anxi County; Guangdong province
Taiwan – Alishan, Lishan (Pear Mountain), Dong Ding (Frozen Summit), Pinglin (Wenshan), Hsinchu
Much like wine makers, the micro terroirs of tea areas within the country, local traditions, and consumer demands heavily influence what is produced by each region.
Shifting tastes of younger generations can alter long term traditions, such as in Taiwan which over the last 20 years has experienced an obsession with high elevation, low oxidized oolongs that are prized for their deep concentrations of floral notes, rather than the more heavily oxidised and roasted traditional styles. A correlating change to this is easily seen in the Australian and North American wine industry with consumer demand of traditionally oaked chardonnay being outpaced by its unoaked counterpart.
The impact of this change has meant that many of the more traditional oolongs can be far harder to obtain or are processed differently (electric roasted rather than charcoal roasted), as tea masters try to keep up with changes in taste.
Seeing an increase in consumer knowledge about teas, Vietnam has begun to produce a few semi-ball rolled low oxidation styles and Nepal is trialing some heavily oxidised strip versions which can be excellent in their own right, but do not come with the same world renowned pedigree as their Chinese and Taiwanese counterparts.
Tea master checking finished oolong
How are oolongs priced and how do I judge the quality?
As the technique for making a high quality oolong developed over centuries as a skilled art form rather than for commercial reasons, they normally command higher prices due to the numerous hours of labour and hands on skill required.
As with most tea types, there is however a wide range in pricing which depends on several additional factors such:
Was the leaf was machine harvested or hand plucked? Hand plucked costs more
What is the elevation of the tea garden? The higher the elevation, the higher the cost
What was the harvest season? Spring first pluck is the most expensive
Most of the highest quality teas produced in these regions are actually never exported as they are all pre-sold every year and in many cases it requires a personal relationship with the tea grower in order to access their most prized selections.