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"Champagne of Teas" - the Charm of Oolong Tea Taste

Posted by Boyka Mihaylova on

Today we'll talk about a firm favorite among China's 6 tea types - Oolong tea. This remarkable tea is also known under a couple of other nicknames. Some of them include "the perfume of teas" and "the champagne of teas" - all for a good reason! Indeed, Oolong - or Wu Long - is among the most aromatic teas out there. Let's discover the secret behind its charming aroma!


What is Oolong tea? 

Oolong is a semi-oxidized tea. It stands between non-oxidized green tea and fully oxidized red tea (Hong Cha). It is the last among China's six tea types, created as late as the Qing dynasty. Its name translates as "black dragon" (Wu Long, 乌龙) and is tied to a number of legends on its origins. Oolong originates in China's Fujian province. From there, it quickly spread out to the neighborhoods of Guangdong and Taiwan, shaping the unique Gong Fu Cha tea culture. With time, different cultivars took shape in each of these regions. They all became known for their distinctive smell, taste, and flavor qualities! Today, you may find Oolong tea in other areas as well. Still, the most representative Oolong teas come from those three regions.


Production process and its impact on Oolong tea taste

Despite being relatively new to the tea scene, Oolong has the most complex production process! Let's explore the steps in it:

  1. Withering: the workers spread the freshly picked leaves to dry them out in the sun.
  2. Bruising (Zuo Qing – 做青): a series of shaking and resting the leaves to start partial oxidation. The leaves are gently swirled in a circular motion, then left to rest. It leads to the famous "green leaf, red edge" (lv ye hong xiang) expression, which characterizes the look of the Oolong tea leaves after this stage. It is crucial for the creation of Oolong tea's unique aroma and taste.
  3. Kill the green: workers quickly roast the leaves on high fire to halt the oxidation.
  4. Rolling: depending on the region, workers might wrap the leaves in cloth, shape them into balls, or simply knead by twisting them.
  5.  Roasting: repeatedly roasting the leaves at varying temperatures. It is the final stage where the taste and aroma take shape.


gong fu cha


Oolong tea taste by regions

We can divide Oolong tea according to its growing region into Northern Fujian, Southern Fujian, Guangdong (Dan Cong oolong), and Taiwan oolong. 


Here are the four representative Oolong teas for these regions:

  1. Wuyi Rock Tea
  2. Anxi Tieguanyin
  3. Phoenix Dancong
  4. Dongding Oolong


Northern Fujian Oolong

Here we find some of the most renowned representatives of Oolong tea. They grow in the Northern part of Fujian province, namely, in Wuyi Mountain. 


Northern Fujian Oolongs are more oxidized and heavily roasted than Oolong teas from other regions. There is no wrapping during the Rolling phase, either. They include the Rock tea varieties (Yan Cha), like Da Hong Pao, Rou Gui, Tie Luo Han, Bai Ji Guan, and Shui Jin Gui. Da Hong Pao and Rou Gui are arguably the most famous. Growing in the famous WuYi mountain, they possess the highly sought-after "rock rhyme" or "Yan Yun". It refers to the terroir's specifics and how it impacts the tea soup taste. The roots of the tea bush absorb the mountainous soil's rich mineral content that emerges in the tea soup upon brewing. It creates a unique flavor that turns the tea tasting of a high-quality rock tea into a feast for the senses. A pervasive and highly intensive aroma with notes of fruits and spices is another characteristic of Yan Cha, with Rou Gui standing out as a remarkable example. So much so that it gave birth to the saying: "no tea is more fragrant than Rou Gui." 


Another Northern Fujian Oolong is the WuYi ShuiXian, called "Narcissus" or "Water Sprite". It has a pure and mellow taste, a slowly emerging aroma, and an intensive "rock rhyme". 




Southern Fujian Oolong

They grow mostly around Quanzhou and Zhangzhou. The intensive floral aroma with notes of orchid and osmanthus is a distinctive feature of the Southern Fujian Oolong tea taste. Some varieties are wrapped in a ball during the Rolling phase. A typical representative is Tie Guan Yin - one of China's ten famous teas. It originates in Anxi county, which is also its main production base. Tie Guan Yin has a lighter, sweet taste and a highly intensive aroma with strong floral notes. The dark, brownish-green tea leaves look like tightly rolled beads, similar to dragon heads. Due to the lighter oxidation, tea leaves largely retain their green color. 


Tie Guan Yin also exists in other varieties, like strong aroma (Nong Xiang) and aged aroma (Chen Xiang) Tie Guan Yin. Differences in the production process mostly define them. Namely the degree of oxidation, roasting, and aging of the tea leaves.


Other Southern Fujian oolongs include traditional varieties like Shui Xian (Narcissus or Water Sprite), Fo Shou, and Eight Immortals (Ba Xian). There are also newly developed ones, like Golden Guanyin (Huang Guan Yin), Golden Peony (Jin Mu Dan), and Dan Gui.


Guangdong Oolong

The bases for growing and producing Guangdong oolongs are Chao'an and Raoping counties. The leading variety is undoubtedly the Fenghuang Dancong (Phoenix Dan Cong).


Dan Cong Oolong used to be a quality grade of the Phoenix oolong tea in the past. It designated a harvest from a single tree/ bush within a fixed standard of leaf shape, color, aroma, taste, and soup color. It also included the presence of the "mountain flavor" or Shan Yun. Only then is it called Dan Cong. Today, Dan Cong comes in a myriad of varieties. Some of them get their name from the characteristics of the leaf, like Zhu Ye (bamboo leaf), Da Wu Ye (big black leaf), and Ju Duo Zi (sawtooth). Others' names refer to a myth or legend, such as Ba Xian (eight immortals), Song Zhong (Song variety), etc. However, one of the main classifying factors for Dan Cong is its vibrant array of aroma notes. In 1996, a research group led by Professor Dai Suxian identified a total of 104 aroma components of Fenghuang Dancong. That led to the formation of Dan Cong Oolong's main aroma types. The Mi Lan Xiang ("Honey Orchid") and Ya Shi Xiang ("Duck Shit") oolongs are well-known for their overflowing floral and fruity notes, pure and sweet taste, and mellow mouthfeel. Others include the osmanthus-scented Gui Hua Xiang, Xing Ren Xiang with its notes of almond, jasmine-scented Mo Li Hua Xiang, and Rou Gui Xiang with notes of cinnamon and spices.


Taiwan Oolong

Taiwan is an island with high mountains and peaks. Most high-quality Taiwan Oolong teas come from mountainous areas like Ali mountain, or Dong Ding. Thus, they shape a unique category of high mountain Oolong teas. Jin Xuan (golden lily) is a preferred variety in Taiwan. It has a sweet, creamy flavor that makes tasting a good Taiwanese Oolong a charming experience. The lasting taste holds virtually no bitterness.


It's worth noting that to consider a tea as high mountain tea in Taiwan, it must grow at an elevation of at least 1000m (this number is reduced in lowland Guangdong). Due to the rocky soil, low rainfall, and colder climate, high mountain tea is harder to produce. Its yield is lower, too. The increased labor and effort demand a higher price. 


Jin Xuan Oolong tea taste - a warning

Jin Xuan is loved beyond Taiwan for its intensive, creamy sweetness and lasting milky taste. Some people believe the tea actually has added milk into it. Sadly, some producers would maintain the legend by claiming it is true. Indeed the real, high-quality milky Oolong has creamy hints. However, this is entirely due to the tea leaves' properties and the production process. Natural milk is incompatible with tea processing. If the smell is too strong, it probably indicates the presence of artificial aroma or unwanted additives. It also signals low-quality tea and possible health hazards. One quick way to verify this is to brew the tea continuously. If the tea is altered, the strong notes will vanish after the first couple of brews. The taste will then suddenly become stale. A genuine tea will maintain a consistent aroma that will develop with each subsequent brew. Additionally, the creamy aftertaste will be present long after the tea session is over.


Other Oolong teas

Taiwan is known as the biggest producer of GABA tea. GABA (Gamma-AminoButyric Acid) is a component that influences muscle tone and the nervous system. It helps with improving sleep quality and mood regulation. 


GABA Oolong tea production process 

In contrast to other teas, oolong tea with GABA is processed differently. First, the tea plants are shaded for two weeks before harvest in order to raise the GABA content naturally. After that, the leaves are put into vacuum-sealed drums where oxygen is replaced by nitrogen. That allows the tea to stock up on GABA. The tea leaves can then be processed further to create a selected tea type (most often, it's Oolong). Drinking GABA tea puts you into a calmer, more relaxed state.


GABA Oolong tea taste

Along with the unique production process, GABA tea also features a unique taste. It's intensive and lively, with obvious dried fruits compote notes. There is a long and smooth finish, with delicate fruity sourness lingering tongue and cheek. Its character is rich and full, yet refreshing and lively. Reminiscent of fruit essence, GABA Oolong notes are a delightful mix of sweet and sour, moving and balancing you at the same time.