Friday, September 19, 2008

Tea Basics - Oolong

The word oolong comes from the Chinese words: 烏 meaning black (or dark) and 龍 meaning dragon. It is typically produced in China and Taiwan. There are hundreds of exciting and delicious types of oolong teas to discover. I will use the most common market names and add the Chinese characters to improve understanding.

To make oolong tea, carefully selected leaves are gently withered and bruised to start the oxidization process, then at just the right moment, sometimes 12 to 16 hours later, they will be shaped and fired. Oolong tea is produced in small batches and the flavor profile depends on the length of oxidation and the degree of roasting. The tea makers will often stay up for 24 to 48 hours to see a batch of oolong tea through all of the production steps. Because of the many variables involved, no two oolongs will ever be exactly the same.

There are many varieties of tea produced on the island of Taiwan. Some are lightly oxidized, such as Wenshan Baozhong (文山包種), which has a natural floral note and an almost sparkling sweetness. High Mountain Tea (高山茶) from Taiwan is grown over 1000 meters high in places such as Lishan (棃山) and Alishan (阿里山). They have amazing complexity, brilliant liquor and a lingering sweet aftertaste due to the cool air and misty weather in the mountains. Another exceptional oolong from Taiwan is Formosa Bai Hao (白毫), a higher oxidized tea which usually has a warming "honey-peach" aroma. This style of tea is sometimes called Dong Fang Mei Ren (Eastern Beauty) (東方美人). Tung Ting (Frozen Summit) (凍頂) is a famous tea from central Taiwan's Nantou (南投) county. It traditionally has a medium roast and medium oxidation.

China is the birthplace of many wonderful oolongs such as Tie Guanyin (Iron Guanyin) (鐵觀音). Although Tie Guanyin is traditionally a darker oolong with a sublimely smooth and roasty aroma, the latest trends in Tie Guanyin production seems to be a much lighter tea with a sweeter, buttery flavor.

Shui Xian (Water Fairy)(水仙), Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe)(大紅袍) and Rougui (Cinnamon)(肉桂) are a few of the wonderful heirloom cultivars of oolong tea found in the Wuyi Mountains (武夷山) of China's Fujian Province (福建省). These teas are sometimes called Yancha (cliff tea) (岩茶) because of the Wuyi mountain's rocky terrain.

High Mountain Tea Pluckers in Shizhuo (石桌), Taiwan:

Basket withering:

Oxidation on rattan racks:

My friend 明忠 roasting some oolong in an electric basket:

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