On a cold winter night
A friend dropped by.
We did not drink wine
But instead drank tea.
The kettle bubbled,
The coals glowed,
The bright moon shone
Outside my window.
The moon itself
Was nothing special -
But, oh, the plum-tree blossoms!
—Du Lei (Xiaoshan)
During the processing of Oolong tea the leaves are shaken and then the edges of the leaves are left to “bruise”. This brings about a brown or red color, while the middle of the leaves stays green. The actual amount of oxidation depends on the desired finish of the tea, as well as the skill of the tea maker. This can result in Oolong teas that are lightly fermented, like pale delicate-tasting green teas, to forms which are almost fully fermented, like dark and bold flavored black teas.
Although now the areas which are most famous for producing Oolong tea are Fujian, Guangdong, and Taiwan, the tea originally started its journey in Fujian, over 1000 years ago during the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279).
Back then it was known as Beiyuan tea.
Because of its exceptional quality and taste, it was the first tea to be designated as a “tribute tea”, being produced as an offering to the royal court.
The tea’s grandeur spread all across China and it remained a tribute tea all throughout the Qing Dynasty (1636 - 1912).
But how did Oolong tea initially come about? One common legend tells of a tea farmer in Fujian who was picking his crop. Suddenly he saw a deer and abandoned the tea-picking for the sake of hunting the deer. By the time he got back to processing the tea, it has already started to oxidize, giving off a surprisingly pleasant aroma. Once processed, the farmer discovered that the finished tea had a new taste, much stronger and sweeter than his usual tea. Since the man was called Oolong, the newly developed tea was named after him.
The production of Oolong tea requires some of the most artisanal and sophisticated skills of tea making.
Oolong tea artisans are much like boutique winemakers.
Most Oolong teas are sold under simple trade names (e.g., Tie Guan Yin, Wuyi Oolong, Dan Cong). However, experts categorize and understand oolong by its region, age, bush variety and season of harvest, just like wine.