Oolong is the middle child of the Chinese tea family—more processed than green tea (in which no roasting or steaming happens to the tea leaves) but less rich and dark than black tea, which lies on the other end of the spectrum. Since Oolong is only semi-oxidized, it develops interesting and complex flavors.
The History of Oolong Tea
The story of Oolong begins in the Song Dynasty, around the tenth century, when a few regions on the eastern seaboard of China started producing what we now know as Oolong. According to historian Scott Norton, the tea would be pressed into a cake and embossed with an image of a phoenix or a dragon. That's where the tea gets its name—"Oolong," in Chinese, translates to "black dragon," referring to the color of the cake and the accompanying stamp.
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As tea culture on the whole became more popular in China during the Ming Dynasty (starting in the fourteenth century), more areas of China caught on to the semi-oxidation method for tea—subsequently, Oolong production boomed throughout the country.
How Oolong Tea Is Made
Even before any of the brewing happens, making the Oolong leaves themselves is a pretty complicated process. When the leaves are initially picked, they are first laid out to dry (to get rid of moisture), then rolled (to release the various enzymes that will create the specific flavor of Oolong), oxidized, and finally roasted—to halt the oxidation process at just the right moment.
When Oolong was first introduced—in pressed cake form—the primary method of preparing it was to grind it into a powder and "whip it up, in the same way you might prepare matcha," Norton says. Only during the Ming Dynasty, when tea drinking was becoming more commonplace, did whole-leaf brewing of Oolong become standard practice. One of the most common ways to brew Oolong today involves specialized clay teapots that "absorb the flavor and nuances of the Oolong," Norton says. "There's an old adage that if you brew the tea in the same teapot for 100 years, after that time, all you'll need to do is pour in hot water and you'll taste the Oolong."
Types of Oolong Tea
Because there is some variance in Oolong's level of oxidation, there is no singular taste of the tea. Instead, Norton identifies three general categories: Anxi (referring to the region), which produces a less oxidized Oolong that is "very apricot-like, with notes of gardinia, marigold, or honey"; Phoenix, which comes from the city of Chaozhou, and encompasses diverse flavors ranging from "ginger to cinnamon to orange blossom"; and Yancha, or cliff teas—these are usually more roasted, with an "intense wood flavor. They are generally much more robust tasting," Norton says.
Of course, there is even more variation beyond just these categories; and now, China isn't the only country producing Oolong—Thailand, Sri Lanka, and even New Zealand have developed their own distinct versions, some with added flavorings like ginseng or vanilla. Oolong is also one of the most prevalent base teas for milk tea or bubble tea. "Their strong flavors can stand up to condensed or sweetened milk," Norton says, which has helped bring Oolong more into the mainstream—especially in American culture.
Oolong Tea in Chinese Culture
Tea, we all know, is an incredibly important part of Chinese culture—in working circles, you can't even talk business until tea is consumed. But Oolong has become one of the most prominent symbols of Chinese tea culture, both within the country and outside of it. Norton's theory as to Oolong's popularity outside of China (aside from the prevalence of bubble tea) is that that it travels very well—while other varieties become stale and lose flavor in the journey abroad, Oolong is much hardier.
When President Richard Nixon visited Chairmain Mao in 1972, Mao gifted the commander-in-chief a container of Oolong. Nixon didn't think much of the gesture, but it turned out that the present consisted of half of the year's supply of Da Hong Pao, one of the most celebrated heirloom varieties of Oolong tea in China. "It's worth more than its weight in gold," Norton says, with only four to six bushes of the tea left in the entire country. "The only people who drink this tea are royalty or top politicos of China."
But even for varieties that aren't as hard to come by as Da Hong Pao, Oolong is, as Norton calls it, "a status thing" in China, much in the same vein as a rare wine or microbrew. "If you are a scholar and you are drinking that tea, part of why you are doing that is to say that you have access to it," he says. "You are talking about a tea with such complex, nuanced flavors, so each variety is going to feel like something rare and important."