3 Oolong Teas Worthy of Cold Weather

Loose Leaf Oolong

Loose Oolong Tea Leaves

As temperatures start to drop, warmer heavier flavors come to everyone’s mind. It is no surprise Pumpkin Spice Chai is popular in the fall, it contains both spice and the flavor of a vegetable Americans associate with fall. There are plenty of other teas that carry warmer, earthier flavors that can fill the bill for a fall/winter tea, without being a chai. Oolong teas can carry the much needed warmth and earthiness while allowing you to enjoy something other than black tea. Here are 3 of our favorite oolongs for colder mornings.

  1. Ruby Oolong – This darker oolong, meaning it is allowed to oxidize longer, from Nepal is amber in color and complex in flavor. It carries earthier flavors than a typical oolong, making it closer in flavor to black tea yet more complex. It has a heavier mouth feel, with a lingering butterscotch flavor on the finish.
  2. Fanciest Formosa – This oolong from Taiwan carries both floral and woody flavors while also being creamy. If you are paying close attention, you can even pick up stone fruit flavors like peach with this tea. It has a slightly sweet finish that is reminiscence of honey pastries and breads. It is not as dark in color as the Ruby Oolong but still brews a golden orange color that reminds us of fall leaves.
  3. Golden Buddha – While having a floral aroma, this tea carries a heavier mouth feel with a stone fruit flavor, like plum or peach. This brews a light amber color and finishes with a sweet caramel flavor that lingers. If you are not sure you want to try oolongs, this is a perfect place to start.

Oolong teas are often overlooked here in the U.S., which is a shame given their wide range of flavors. So explore and enjoy this category of tea with us.

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Bao Zhong Oolong – Green Oolongs

Bao Zhong Pouchong

Bao Zhong Oolong leaf and infused liquor.

Bao Zhong Oolong is a light creamy oolong that belongs to a group of oolongs called pouchong oolongs, or green oolongs. These oolongs are lightly oxidized, around 20%, which is typical of a green tea. However they are characterized as oolongs due to the steps taken in their manufacturing process and their sharper more melon like flavors.

History of Bao Zhong Oolong

The name Pouchong translates to “paper wrapped” tea. A reference to the older manufacturing process of wrapping the tea in paper as part of the drying process. As technology advanced to allow for more consistent ovens that better controlled the temperatures during the baking process to stop oxidation, this practice has stopped. Bao Zhong Oolong is now produced mainly in the northern part of Taiwan. However, you can periodically find Bao Zhongs from the Fujian province of China. Pouchong oolongs where produced in mainland China for many centuries, but fell out of favor during the 1800’s. Taiwan at that time was looking to distinguish its tea manufacturing from China and adopted the practice of Pouchong teas, which it still keeps today. Bao Zhong is produced in the Wen Shan mountains of Taiwan about 30 miles south of the capital city of Taipei. The terroir of the region is high mountain with ocean mist and fog blanketing the mountains most mornings and burning off later in the day. This gives the the right amount of moisture and sun, allowing for the perfectly subtle and yet complex flavors that are expected from this tea. This oolong is hand twisted as opposed to being balled like Ti Kuan Yin. The minimal handling and light oxidation of this oolong creates a light, creamy oolong that is closer to a green tea than most other oolongs.

Bao Zhong Pouchong

Infused Bao Zhong Oolong Leaf

How to Prepare Bao Zhong Oolong

Like other oolongs, you are going to use a lower water temperature. However, because of its green tea characteristics, the water temperature can be dropped even lower to 175°F. You can use 3 grams to 8 ounces of water and keep your steeping times between 2-3 minutes. If you happen to own a Gaiywan, and enjoy this way of consuming tea, this is a perfect tea to steep in it as it does contain smaller particulates that will come out  of the twisted leaves when brewed that give it a full mouth feel when consumed in the water. Bao Zhong oolong should sit on every tea drinker’s list as a tea you must try at least once to consider yourself a true tea connoisseur.

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History of Tea in Taiwan

Map of Taiwan relative to China

Taiwan is home to many of the best world’s best oolong teas.

Being an island 90 miles off of the Chinese southern coast, Taiwan was destined to grow tea and be a strategic trading and military port for several different countries. The tea trade in this country reflects centuries of constant change in rulers and customs. It is believed that there were Camilla sinensis plants growing natively on Taiwan, but they produced very thin leaves that were brittle and bitter (Kevin Gascoyne, 2011). Tea plants where brought onto the island in the mid-1600s from the Fujian province of China when Taiwan was controlled by the Chinese Qing Dynasty. As more Chinese immigrants came to Taiwan, the plants where moved to several locations throughout the island. It wasn’t until the end of the 1800’s, with European intervention, that a commercial tea trade was developed.

European Influence on Taiwan Tea Trade

The Europeans were looking for other ports to trade tea given the Opium Wars with mainland China in the mid-1800’s. The need to diversify tea ports away from mainland China, led John Dodd to start offering financing to Taiwanese peasants. This enabled local Taiwanese start tea plantations as well as build factories in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to process the tea. Prior to those factories, all the tea leaves in Taiwan where sent to Anxi or Fuzhou China for the final processing. By bringing the final processing to the island, Mr. Dodd put Taiwan on the US and European tea maps with Taiwan producing mostly black teas for those markets. The name “Formosa” was put on most of these teas, as Portugal was the first European country to stumble across Taiwan and that is the name they gave the island. It means beautiful, so it worked well for a marketing name at the time (Kevin Gascoyne, 2011).

Taiwan Tea Industry From 1895 to Present

Close up of Fanciest Formosa Oolong

Fanciest Formosa Oolong from Taiwan

Japan took control of Taiwan in 1895 and proceeded to invest heavily in tea production in the country, introducing new tea cultivars, fertilizer and mechanization of the processing of the tea. Very skillfully, the Japanese kept the focus on black tea so the island would not compete with the Japanese green teas. The Chinese took back control from Japan at the end of the Second World War. This shifted tea production from black to green as trade with Europe and the US was dramatically cut. Competition with Japan and China forced Taiwan to shift again in the 1970’s to the oolong production they are well known for now. Even today, most of the tea in Taiwan is consumed locally even though they are considered among the finest of available teas worldwide (Richardson, 2008). The tea industry in Taiwan is still dominated by small family owned farmers giving them control over both the growth and the manufacturing of the tea. This is a unique arrangement and is credited with creating the proper atmosphere for the creation of their diverse and superior oolongs. Below is a quick chart describing some of the better known oolongs which are exported from Taiwan. If you get your hands on one of these, drink them over multiple infusions to enjoy the full complexity of these wonderful teas.

Dong Ding (Tong Ting) Produced in the Dong Ding region (while most people refer to Dong Ding Mountain, most of the tea is not grown on the mountain side). This is a tightly balled oolong that should be brewed with boiling water. It produces a greenish golden liquor with heavy floral notes with a buttery cream finish.

Bao Zhong (Jade Pouchong) This 18-20% oxidized green tea – almost an oolong  but mostly a green tea (called Pouchong) is a full twisted leaf green that produces an amber green liquid that is delicate floral and sweet.

Oriental Beauty This balled oolong is famous for the green-leaf hoppers that munch on the leaves just before harvesting. Their biting causes the plants to release L-Theanine producing a complex flavor in this tea. It makes an orange-brown liquor with woody, floral notes followed by a creamy finish. This oolong is traditionally enjoyed with a Gong Fu set that allows for multiple small steepings of this tea to enjoy all the different flavors.

Fanciest Formosa This higher oxidized oolong is produced in the traditional Chinese method with twisted leaves instead of balled. It produces an amber to dark brown liquor with honey and peach flavors. It is the typical “first” oolong for someone wanting to experience oolong for the first time.

Ali Shan This high altitude oolong  is a tightly balled oolong that produces a yellow liquor with a sweet intense creamy flavor with some toasted nut notes. It is less oxidized oolong, so brew more like a green than black tea (not at boiling).
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Discover Oolong Teas

Oolong teas are actually some of the youngest types of tea.  It is believed that the Chinese started to really understand and control oxidation of tea in the 17th century, leading to the first oolong teas.  Given that the first teas in China where documented over 3,000 years earlier, a few hundred years old is still young.  Highly regarded Taiwanese oolongs only began to make an appearance during the 1960’s, when the Taiwanese realized they were losing market share to Chinese and Japanese teas.  Taiwan needed to do something different to distinguish themselves in the marketplace.  Prior to the 1960’s, Taiwan was producing mainly green teas for consumption by the Japanese.

Ti Kuan Yin Dry Leaf and Liquor

Ti Kuan Yin, Balled Style Oolong

What’s in a Name?  Origin of the Oolong Name

The name oolong literally means black dragon, which refers to the shape of the hand rolled oolong tea leaves.  There are other theories that the name originates from the Wuyi Mountains in the Fujian Province of China where it is believed that the first oolong teas where made.  There is an alternative theory that it is named after the man who made the first oolongs, Wu Liang, and was later corrupted to Wu Long before being anglicized into oolong.  No matter where the name came from, this type of tea is worth exploring for every tea drinker.

Oolong Flavors

Ginseng Oolong Dry Leaf and Liquor

Ginseng Oolong, Rolled Oolong with Ginseng and Licorice

As discussed on an earlier post which covered the broader types of teas, oolongs are partially oxidized teas.  They can appear both black and green given their level of oxidation.  Due to the wide range of oxidation, the range of flavors is truly wide and complex.  Some oolongs are now flavored or rolled with ginseng and licorice powder to form small pellets.  Taiwan is continuing to innovate in oolong production by taking the finished product and baking it again to enhance the flavor and aroma.  From teas with a delicate taste of flowers to spicy finishing notes, oolongs provide a nice variety for everyone to enjoy and is a type of tea production that occurs in many countries.  Also, with cold brewing, the complex flavors produced in this manufacturing process can be enjoyed cold.

Oolong Styles and Brewing

Oolong teas usually take on two shapes.  The first is the tightly rolled balls, or balled style, with a stem tail.  While the second is a long curly leaf shape, or open leaf style, which can look like the dragons in Chinese mythology.  To get these shapes, oolong is typically harvested from older leaves on the tea plant, so don’t expect two leaves and bud.  It is more common to find four leaves and a bud or what is sometimes five older leaves.

Oriental Beauty Oolong Wet Leaf Up-Close

Oriental Beauty Open Leaf Style Oolong, Wet Leaf

Given the oxidation level of the oolong, it can be brewed with water ranging from 185-205 degrees Fahrenheit and for anywhere between 3-5 minutes.  Like any good tea, oolong deserves fresh water in the kettle to allow the oxygen in the water to carry out the complex flavors of this tea.  Also, this tea should be steeped multiple times to enjoy the wide array of flavors with each steeping.  So drink this tea when you have time to stop and enjoy the flavors being presented to you.

I like to think there is an oolong tea for everyone, whether you prefer subtle green or forward blacks.  So when you are looking for something new, oolongs are the best place to look and they rarely disappoint.  It’s unfair to pick a favorite oolong because there are so many to enjoy.  Is there one that you are curious about?

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Terroir of Tea

Tea Plantation

A Tea Plantation somewhere in Alishan
By Alexander Synaptic (Flickr id)
CC BY-SA 2.0

Terroir (ter-war) is used to define the characteristics of a place (soil, water, altitude, latitude and climate) that effect the taste of a final agricultural product.  Wine is the main agricultural product defined by terroir.  The French really drove the use of terroir in describing agricultural products with its regulations requiring use of region in labeling of French wine. For example, wines produced in the Bordeaux region of France are classified by a sub region in relation to where they are to the Garonne River – Saint-Estèphe, Paulliac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Graves, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.  These classifications were originally made in 1855 and have been adhered to since then because they have helped the producers to distinguish their products from each other, define quality and drive up prices.  Tea can also be defined by terroir; the only problem is that the producers of tea are not always using this to their advantage.  India is one exception – Assam, Darjeeling, Kangra, Dooars, Terai and Nilgiri teas are all named after the region in which they are grown and marketed in a fashion that helps the consumer associate the region to the flavor of the final beverage.

So what conditions does tea need to grow?  To its advantage, the tea plant is a very versatile perennial, so it can grow in a variety of soil types.

Photo of Dragon Well Plantation

Dragon Well Tea Plantation – Hangzhou
By Dave Proffer (Flickr id)
CC BY 2.0

However, for optimal production the soil should be acidic, between 4.5 to 5.5 ph., loose enough to allow the 6 foot tap root to burro down to its preferred length, and contain a good mix of nutrients (Nitrogen, Magnesium, Calcium, etc.) that the tea plant uses to grow.  Like other plants, it will strip nutrients from the soil necessitating replenishment via some manner of fertilization.  The Japanese use grasses to re-fertilize their tea plants, which influence the taste of the final tea and is credited by the tea farmers for the complex flavors of their teas.

Five hours of direct sunlight is optimal, however, less light disturbs the chloroplasts in the tea leaves, creating more aromatic oils and slowing growth.  This is why high altitude teas are considered the higher quality tea, they get between 2-3 hours of sunlight, creating more aromatic oils.  Those oils create the complex flavor of those teas.  More than five hours and plant will continue to grow, but the flavor will be dramatically different.

The tea plant likes lots of water, but doesn’t want to sit in it.  Plants need at least 50 inches of rain annually and 70-90% humidity.  By definition the water and humidity requirement put the plant in the sub-tropic to tropic zone, and while it can handle some weather variation it cannot survive prolonged dry seasons or freezing.

Latitude effects terroir through the length of the growing period.  The closer to the equator (think Kenya and Argentina), the longer the growing period.  In Kenya, tea is harvested year-round while it is only harvested twice a year (spring and fall) in most Chinese regions.  Tea in Taiwan is harvested five times a year between April and December with the July and August harvests continually ranked as the finest.

Photo of Munnar Plantation

ST831850 – Munnar tea plantation
By fraboof (Flickr id)
CC BY-SA 2.0

So how does one use terroir when purchasing tea?  Look for where the tea comes from, and if possible search for single origin teas from one tea plantation.  This will allow you to identify the flavor unique to the tea produced in that region, for instance Assam tea is consistently malty in flavor.  Dongding Oolong produced in the Nantou county of Taiwan is said to gets its unique award winning flavor from the constant fog in this mountainous region.  There are many black teas from China associated with the provenience it is grown it.  A Yunnan black tea tastes very different from a Fujian black tea.  So treat your teas like wine, know where they come from, learn their flavors and enjoy comparing them.  It makes drinking a cup of tea a truly special experience.

What do you think?  Can you taste the terrior in your tea?

@HillaryColey

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