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Oolong tea - the pride of Taiwan

Oolong (烏龍茶 wūlóng chá), or Black Dragon, as the name translates, is by far the broadest category of Chinese tea. This partially oxidized tea is famous for its wide variety of fragrances and rich mouthfeel. Its complex production process contains many steps, which means more opportunities for experimentation that results in a beautiful bouquet of shapes, fragrances and tastes.


Taiwanese high mountain oolong tea leaf

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Ooolong classification in Taiwan

Chinese tea is classified by its production technique into the following categories:

  • White tea

  • Green tea

  • Oolong tea

  • Yellow tea

  • Red tea (known as black tea in English)

  • Black tea (known as dark tea or post-fermented tea in English)


However, the Tea and Beverage Research Station TBRS (ex. Tea Research Extension Station TRES) acknowledges oolong as a Taiwanese specialty, classifying the most famous Taiwanese teas the following way based on their flavor wheel:

  • Green tea

  • Black tea

  • Fragrant Strip type Baozhong (Paochong)

  • Fragrant Ball type Oolong

  • Heavy Roast Ball type Oolong



The picture above illustrates the difference in the complexity of the production of different teas. While green and black tea production includes 3-4 steps on average, various oolong teas need to go through 5 and even 8 steps until the final product is presented. Particularly the roasting stage can take months for some teas before the leaves reach the desired state. Dear visually impaired visitors, worry not, we will name and describe the steps illustrated in the picture in greater detail in future articles, dedicated to each tea type.


Taiwanese high mountain oolong tea leaves

Fragrant Ball type Oolong tea


Perhaps the most visually recognizable, this kind of oolong has low to medium oxidation levels and is rolled into tight balls by machines, hands, or a combination of both. High-mountain oolong is one of the teas belonging to this category. High-mountain oolong is produced at altitudes over 1000 m above sea level, hence its name 高山烏龍 (gāoshān wū lóng). The cooler temperatures and moisture that are left by clouds and fog brushing over the mountain slopes reduce the amount of astringent chemicals in the leaves (such as catechins) and increase the amount of sweet chemicals (such as theanine and soluble nitrogen). The tea liquor has a noble aroma and a mild sweet taste, and the leaves can endure many steepings. I find high-mountain oolong tea has an energizing effect on the body and lifts my mood. This can also be explained by the tea's chemical content, particularly the higher concentration of theanines.


How to brew high-mountain oolong?

Just like with any tea, preparing high-mountain oolong is easy to learn but requires patience and attention to master. Here are some suggestions for an easy start:


Low commitment: in a mug

You can prepare this tea as easily as by adding 1 tbsp of tea to your regular tea mug and steeping it in 95°C-100°C water for 2-3 min and repeating the process as many times as you like. The leaves expand at the bottom of the cup, allowing you to enjoy the drink hassle-free. I believe that brewing in a cup doesn't do the proper justice to this outstanding tea. Other Fragrant Ball type oolongs grown at lower altitudes like Ms. Gardenia and Ji Long might be more appropriate for using this method daily.


high mountain oolong in a cup
High commitment: in a small teapot or a gaiwan

When brewing in a small pot (under 200ml), TBRS recommends filling one-fourth to one-third of the vessel with ball rolled oolong leaves. The water temperature is recommended to be above 90°C, and the leaves should be rinsed with hot water first to open them up. The tea can be steeped around 5-6 times, starting with 60-75 second steeps, and increasing the steeping time by 15, 25, and 35 seconds respectively to ensure an even concentration of tea with each steep. Each tea is unique just like the person drinking it, which is why these recommendations shouldn't be taken as an axiom but as a simple starting point for your acquaintance with the tea.


red oolong in a cup

Heavy Roast Ball type Oolong tea


Labor and time-intensive, this type of tea differs drastically in flavor from the previous one. Heavy Roast Ball type oolong teas are characterized by medium to full oxidation which leads to a darker leaf and liquor color as well as fruity, sugary, woody and roasted notes in taste and fragrance. Higher levels of oxidation and the application of heat change the chemical composition of the tea leaf, allowing it to store better and yield a fragrant and mellow aftertaste even after repeated brewing. I find these teas to have a calming, relaxing effect while still allowing me to maintain a high degree of focus.


We can further differentiate between Dong Ding (tongding) oolong, Tie Guan Yin (Tieh-Kuan-Yin) and Red oolongs (Hong Shui Wu Long) as having quite distinct flavor profiles even within the Heavy Roast Ball Oolong category. As mentioned before, the more steps are in the production process, the more variety there is among the teas.


How to brew Heavy Roast Oolong tea?

While the amount of leaf used will be relatively similar, the water temperature and steeping times may vary. As a rule of thumb, the stronger the roasting, the higher the water temperature should be. Luckily, all good quality oolongs can be brewed with 100°C water without becoming too astringent and bitter, even the lightly oxidized ones. So don't be afraid to make a mistake: Taiwanese tea is very robust and forgiving.


Low commitment: in a mug

Brewing this kind of tea in a mug is possible, but doesn't do it justice, as large mugs and large sips make it harder to enjoy the fine aftertaste and fragrance of heavy roast oolong teas. If you really want to, then red oolongs might be the most suitable out of this category in my personal opinion, particularly the ones made for daily drinking in mind. Simply add 1 tbsp of tea to your regular tea mug and steep it in 95°C-100°C water for 2-3 min and repeat the process as many times as you like. This tea needs more heat, so covering the mug for steeping might be a good idea.


Heav roast ball oolong in a cup
High commitment: in a small teapot or a gaiwan

Fill one-fourth to one-third of the vessel with ball rolled oolong leaves and use water above 90°C just like with high-mountain oolongs, rinsing the leaves with hot water before steeping. The tea can be steeped around 5-6 times, starting with 60-75 second steeps, and increasing the steeping time by 15, 25, and 35 seconds respectively to ensure an even concentration of tea with each steep. For heavier roasts, don't be afraid to increase the steeping temperature and extend the steeping times for later steeps. Roasted oolongs require the most experimentation from the person preparing the tea and might take several tries to find the right approach to making them the way you would enjoy them the most. Take your time and appreciate the effort you make to bond with your tea.


Fragrant strip type baozhong

Fragrant Strip type Baozhong (Paochong) tea


Moving back to the more fragrant and floral side of Taiwanese oolong tea, we discover that oolong tea can also be shaped as strips. White-tip Oolong and Wenshan Baozhong are some examples of strip-rolled oolong. Baozhong belongs to the oolong umbrella due to its production process. Hailing from 1881, when Wu Fulao introduced this tea production method invented by Wang Yicheng in Anxi, it was wrapped (bao) in square Chinese writing paper the way flour and sugar are still packed in the present day; Hence the name baozhong (包種茶, bāo zhǒng chá), which can be translated as wrapped tea.


Fragrant Strip Taiwanese teas tend to lean on the, well, fragrant, fresh and floral side of things. Oriental Beauty (also known as Eastern Beauty or 東方美人 dōngfāng měirén), in particular, has a vibrant palette of all kinds of sweet notes. It also has very beautiful leaves, with higher-grade teas even having white hairs intact.


How to brew Fragrant Strip type Baozhong tea?

The different leaf shape and more gentle flavor profile command a different approach to brewing than that of the ball-rolled oolongs.


baozhong tea brewed in a cup
Low commitment: in a mug

You're probably starting to see the pattern here. Once again, we don't recommend brewing fragrant teas like Oriental Beauty in a mug, as this method doesn't allow the level of control that would let the tea show you all of its facets. However, I find baozhong quite suitable for this simple method. After all, late 1800s baozhong was originally produced complementary to oolong and used lower-grade leaf material to be mixed with flowers and sold to markets in Southeast Asia. Today, baozhong is available in many different grades.


Baozhong can be prepared just like green tea in a mug. Simply add 1-2 tbsp of tea to your regular tea mug steep it in 80-90°C water for 2-3 min and repeat the process as many times as you like.


baozhong in a cup
High commitment: in a small teapot or a gaiwan

We'll take a white-tip oolong such as Eastern Beauty for this example. TBRS recommends filling half to three-quarters of the pot with the leaves of the strip type tea. Rince the tea with hot water and steep in 80-90°C water, starting with 60-75 seconds for the first two steeps, and increasing the steeping time by 15, 25 and 35 seconds respectively to ensure an even concentration of tea with each steep. This method aims to show the fragrant top and smooth body notes of the tea.


A brief history of oolong in Taiwan

Tea cultivation in Taiwan started with the settlers from Fujian and Guandong (mainland China), who brought with them tea seeds to establish the first tea gardens on the island. However, the earliest records of the tea "industry" in Taiwan date to the end of the 17th century. In 1865, a British merchant called John Dodd imported plant cuttings from Fujian and distributed them to farmers in Taiwan's Tamsui district, setting up a tea factory to produce oolong tea. It is this tea that gained popularity as "Formosa tea" in the United States and Europe.


During the Japanese rule, the focus shifted towards the production of black tea and the Tea Manufacture Experiment Station TMES was established with the task to research more effective ways to grow, harvest and process tea. TMES has changed names several times, so don't be surprised by the abundance of abbreviations. Many famous tea cultivars that are staples of Taiwanese teas have come out of the Station's doors: #8 Assamica, #18 Ruby, #12 Jin Xuan, etc.


Throughout the end of the 20th century and into the present day, the Taiwanese government has actively promoted domestic consumption and the corresponding production of oolong tea. this has led to both the rising popularity of high-grade oolongs among the native population as well as the soaring consumption of drinks based on oolong tea such as bubble tea. Taiwanese oolong teas maintain worldwide recognition as some of the most exquisite teas available on the market.


Conclusion

Oolong is a complex and exciting tea category, and Taiwan perfectly excels at it. It lies at the very core of Taiwanese culture. The Taiwanese continue to innovate, developing new teas, ways to drink them and the culture around them. We will examine these aspects in more detail in future articles. For now, we hope that we've managed to spark your interest in Taiwan and its tea culture. We will explore other kinds of tea produced in Taiwan in the next article.


 

This article is based on a combination of personal knowledge, the information provided by the Tea and Beverage Research Station and the following papers:


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