What makes tea an Oolong Tea? What’s so special about them…and which Oolong Teas are the best?
A lot of people never venture into oolong teas because they are focused, and maybe enamored with white, green, and black teas, or they simply don’t know enough about Oolong Teas to be as enthralled with them as they should.
Experiencing Oolong Teas takes on a sensual journey different than what we experience with other tea types, even if they are high quality. How, and why? Complexity.
OK, so let’s look closer at complexity in tea: Complexity in tea comes from influencing sensory factors. In this case while great oolongs deliver a delightful range of tea enjoyment characteristics, it is the aromas that create tea drinking bliss different than other tea types.
With Oolong Teas there are three primary factors that influence the final result in the cup: The leaf material, the processing technique, and the level of oxidation the leaves are taken to.
White & green teas are unoxidized and black teas are fully oxidized. (Oxidation turns an apple brown after you bite it) Oolong Teas are partially oxidized which is a big part of opportunity for aromatic complexity.
Processing of oolong tealeaves creates conditions that yield both abundant aroma content, and also variation in that aroma content. This comes from the art of varying oxidation levels in the leaves which results from leaf shaping then oxygen exposure.
Oolong processing technique most often includes the synchronized steps of shaping the leaves into a twisted or balled shape concurrently with oxidation in an amazing transformation of specially harvested leaves into magical aromatic delight. It is like a syncopated dance between the Oolong Tea Master, the tea leaves and Mother Nature.
After harvesting, the leaves are softened and intentionally bruised by tumbling. This triggers oxidation from the edges of the leaves gradually inward both deepening the color of the leaf edges and activating the aromatic oils within the leaves.
In China and Taiwan, unlike white, green and black teas, oolong tealeaves are not harvested until they have become mature and have reached a ripeness like a ripe piece of fruit. This maturity has allowed the organic compounds in the leaves to develop to the point where it is possible to coax alluring aromas from them during the processing of the leaves.
The dance consists of allowing the leaves to rest, occasionally being fluffed but continuing to soften and oxidize from the outside edges-in, resulting first in the activation and release of aromatic compounds, then alternating with more tumbling, resting, tumbling, resting until the desired aromas have been achieved. Leaves are then suspended at that aromatic level by applying heat to stop the process.
Finally, the leaves are shaped, dried, and sometimes finished with a final baking step.
Back to Complexity…
the allure of Oolongs…
The processing of Oolong Teas creates variation in Oxidation within the individual tea leaves themselves. This means that within the leaves there is variation in the development of the aromatic compounds. It is this variation that contributes to the Complexity of Oolongs…
Amazingly, we have about 150,000 olfactory nervous cells in our nasal chamber. Just as the 8,000 taste buds we have on our tongue taste the tea, the olfactory nervous cells in our nasal chamber taste the air, the aroma molecules that make their way into the chamber.
This is why Oolong Teas give us an abundant complex aromatic experience, and for those that have not explored them fully there are many great tea experiences ahead of you.
Because oolongs are processed to varying degrees of oxidation and complexity we classify them as Jade, Medium and Dark. Within this range we have variation not only in aroma and complexity but also in the kind of aromas that we experience, the taste profile and the broth color.
Most jade oolongs will have aromas that are more floral like gardenia or lilac. Dark oolongs offer nuance aromas of stone fruits and medium oxidized oolongs are known of honeysuckle and almond types of aroma notes. So which Oolong is Best?...That is going to depend on you. Just remember that along with the health benefits of oolongs comes their signature aromas…this makes oolongs stand out in ways other teas don’t. Jade, Medium, and Dark oolongs will all give you uniquely different and delightful aromatic experience.
An important note to be aware of is that in some non-traditional Oolong Producing Countries like India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, teas are produced that are partially oxidized and are referred to as oolongs. While this meets the industry definition of oolongs as being partially oxidized, these are Oolongs by Oxidation Level Only and don’t usually include the leaf maturity, bruising, and leaf shaping that are essential part of oolong processing in China and Taiwan.
Oolongs Offer Captivating Complexity…
Oolongs require the most interaction between man and the tealeaf during processing as the Oolong Processing Cycle is implemented to optimize the complexity of the leaf.
Considered The Agony of The Leaf, the leaf shaping and processing of oolongs is designed to yield character gradually by building-in a delayed or gradual diffusion as the leaves unfurl slowly over multiple infusions. This allows a more gradual increase in leaf surface area to the water as the leaves open into the full leaves that were used to make the shaped tea leaves.
The maturity of the leaves, the level of oxidation and the shaping of the leaves combine with the plant DNA and its growing environment resulting in what thrills us about oolongs.
The majority of what influences the cup comes from the leaf ingredient which is greatly determined by the terroir the plants grow in.
The cultivar then, combined with the soil type, climate, elevation, topography, processing technique, history and people are all the necessary influencing factors that bring us incredible oolongs.
All this effort, this attention to detail is invested to create complex, alluring, outstanding tea experiences that we are so very fortunate to be able to enjoy.