Oolong Tea
Credit: "Oolong Tea" by Toby Oxborrow on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Oolong is a class of traditional Chinese tea. It is also known as “wulong” which is Chinese for “black dragon” tea. This is probably because the dark, heavily fired leaves of traditional oolongs resemble the fraceful and enigmatic figure of the mythical Chinese dragon[1]. Like all true tea, oolong is made from the leaves of the Camelia sinensis plant.

Oolongs are extremely diverse. Some varieties can be as strong as black tea while others might come closer to the light flavour and delicate aromas of green tea. This is because oolongs are partly oxidized, and the level of oxidation ranges from 12 to 80 percent. Generally speaking, traditional varieties are much stronger but some manufacturers have perfected lighter, really “green” oolongs.

Tea in Different Levels of Oxidation
Credit: "Tea in different grade of fermantation" by Haneburger, licensed under Public Domain.

This rich, complex and sophisticated type of tea has a lot of devoted followers around the world. There is a wide choice of styles, aromas and flavours. So, whether you are a black or a green tea drinker, you are bound to find an oolong you will simply adore!

Oolong Tea Styles

Oolongs are quite complicated to create. There are many steps in the process of crafting the leaves, and this gives the manufacturers a lot of room for experimentation and creating unique teas. As a result, oolongs come in numerous forms, shapes and colours, so there's really a lot to choose from. Most varieties come from China and Taiwan. Here are some examples:

Bai Hao (Oriental Beauty)

Taiawan's most famous oolong has the sweet and fresh taste of “honeyed” fruit. Its wonderful aroma brings to mind apricots and peaches. This is one of the more oxidized oolongs (65-75 percent). Bai Hao is idealy drank plain and it can be a delicious indulgence when paired with food, sweet or slightly savoury snacks.

Wenshan Baozhong (Paper-Wrapped Oolong)

 A light oolong from Taiwan that is minimally processed. The degree of oxidation ranges from 12 to 18 percent, making Bao Zhong “the greenest” of oolongs. The leaves are gently handled and only slightly twisted. One traditional technique employed in some places involves wrapping the leaves in paper before roasting them.The end result of the process is a soft and sweet liquor with a fresh floral aroma and an elegant aftertaste.

Da Hong Pao (Royal Red Robe)

Da Hong Pao is 80 percent oxidized and closer to black tea than other oolongs. It is made in the Fujian province of China. This is traditional style tea with dark, smokey aroma that changes after each steeping. The liquid has a deep golden or dark amber colour (like Scotch only much healthier!). This is a full-bodied tea with a deep, rich flavour and a sweet aftertaste. In China, this high quality tea is often reserved for honored guests.

Ali Shan (Ali Mountain)

This is one of the high-mountain oolongs of Taiwan. Ali Shan in one of the country's most famous tea growing regions. The leaves of this variety look like tight little balls and they are fully dried and 25 percent oxidized. Ali Shan is known for its wonderful floral and cirtrus scents, and a fresh flavour with a slightly sweet aftertaste. 

Tie Guan Yin Oolong
Credit: "Tieguanyin2" by Quelcrime - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain.

Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy)

This is one of the most sought after types of tea in China. Tie Guan Yin is about 25-40 percent oxidized and the leaves are traditionally charcoal-fired. The flavour is deep, rich and sweet. The leaves are semi-ball rolled with attached stems. This tea has to be steeped multiple times for a brief period of time. This wonderful oolong is traditionally enjoyed plain to fully aprreciate its flavours and complexity.

Tung Ting

This is considered one of Taiwan's best oolongs. The high quality varieties are made with leaves processed by hand, picked from tea gardens high up on Tung Ting Mountain. This particular variety is known as “frozen-peak tea” in the area[1]. This oolong combines a smooth, nutty and sweet flavour with a nutty, caramel and chestnut aroma.

Other varieties worth mentioning include Formosa Oolong from Taiwan, Feng Huang Dang Cong (Orchid Fragrance) from China, and Darjeeling oolong from India.

Oolong Tea Health Benefits

Oolong has possible health benefits similar to those of green and black tea. It is partially oxidized, so one might argue that you actually get the best of both worlds. However, while there are numerous studies regarding the health benefits of green tea, oolong consumption hasn't been extensively researched so far.

Weight Control

Oolong can be helpful in weight management. Its active polyphenol compounds have the ability to enhance fat metabolism in our body. These substances can block the enzymes responsible for fat accumulation. There isn't a lot of research on oolong and weight loss at the moment. There are, however, some promising indications. In one study, for instance, chronic oolong consumption was shown to be preventive against obesity[4].

Antioxidant Power

Oolong tea polyphenols can also protect us against the activity of the much despised free radicals. These free roamers play a part in the development of many serious health conditions including atherosclerosis, cancer, diabetes and rheumatoid arthitis. All classes of tea share similar antioxidant profiles since they come from the same plant.

Strong Bones

Drinking tea daily, especially black and oolong, has some long term benefits for bone structure and mineral density. Studies have shown that regular tea drinkers where less likely to lose the minerals from their bones after a period of ten year[5]. It appears that some tea components help our bones retain our mineral intake from other food sources.

 Diabetes Management

Oolong tea can help patients with type-2 diabetes to regulate the amount of blood sugar found in the blood stream. Oolong works really well in combination with oral antihyperglycemic medication and together they can prevent the dangerous blood sugar fluctuations[6].

Skin Health

Certain skin conditions like eczema are related to allergic reactions or skin sensitivities. Since oolong tea is an antioxidant combatant against free radicals, it has the ability to supress these allergic reactions and heal the skin. Oolong consumption in combination with dermatological treatment has been shown to reduce the symptoms of eczema[7].

Oolong Tea and Caffeine

Oolong Tea Being Poured
Credit: "Oolong tea being poured, Holiday Restaurant, Semarang, 2014-06-19" by Crisco 1492 (own work), licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Caffeine might as well be the most adored, longed for, dreaded and hated substance found in nature.It exists in the seeds, fruits and leaves of several plants. Caffeine can be found in abudance in coffee beans, cocoa beans and the leaves of the tea plant, Camelia sinensis.

Depending on the brand or variety of oolong, the caffeine content can be anything between 16.6 mg per cup to 55.4 mg[8]. Given the fact that everyone's tolerance towards caffeine is different, a lot of people might worry about how much tea they can actually drink on a daily basis.

The good news is that you can limit the actual amount of caffeine in your tea quite easily. Simply steep the tea leaves for approximately 30 seconds and pour out the liquid. Then, use the same leaves for your next brew. This one you can drink since there are only traces of caffeine left.

One amazing thing about oolong is that you can brew the same batch again and again. Most varieties are suitable for multiple steepings and your tea will only improve with each cup! This is how serious oolong drinkers can have their tea all day long without becoming caffeine addicts.

Tips for Buying Oolong

The first thing to do is, of course, to decide on what type of oolong you want to try. Lighter oolongs might appeal to avid green tea drinkers. On the other hand, if you love black tea, you may opt for a more traditional oolong. You can also buy small amounts of different varieties to see what really strikes your fancy. Look for sample packs that contain four or five different oolongs.

Regardless of your choice, you will want to look for specific information about the origin, style and manufacture of your tea. Things you would like to know include:

  • The country of origin and the specific region or mountain of cultivation. For example: China, Fujan province or Taiwan, Ali Shan mountain.

  • The particular sttyle of oolong. For example: semi-ball rolled leaves or strip-style.

  • The subvariety of the Camelia sinensis plant. For example: Shui Xian or Tieguanyin.

  • The year of harvest and, in some cases, the specific season (tea is very seasonal).

  • If the tea leaves were hand picked or machine-sheared.

  • The oxidation level of your tea. The range is 25 to 80 percent for Chinese oolongs and 12 to 75 percent for the Taiwanese varieties [1].

Tips for Brewing Oolong

A gongfu tea table with accessories
Credit: "A gongfu tea table with accessories" by Neptunati (own work), licensed under Public Domain

You can brew your oolong once like you do with black or green tea and this is fine, but may want to know that this tea actually improves with multiple brewings. This is the traditional way of brewing and drinking oolong in China and Taiwan. The process of brewing and serving the tea in consecutive rounds is best represented in the traditional gong fu tea ceremony.

To brew your tea gong fu style you need a small teapot filled with two or three tablespoons of oolong. The leaves are usually rinsed with lukewarm water, before brewing them for one minute. After you pour the tea into your cups, you repeat the process with the same leaves while enjoying that very first cup. Each fresh pot must be brewed a bit longer than the previous one, usually an additional 30 seconds[2].

You can go up to five or seven rounds for some oolong styles and really appreciate the evolution of flavour and aromas in your cup. Oolong is drank plain without any sweeteners or flavourings. In the traditional gong fu ceremony the tea is served in six or seven tiny ceramic cups, so you can savour oolong tea with friends or family and have a relaxing afternoon. You can also serve it cold. Enjoy!