Though some say oolong tea is oxidized anywhere from 1%-99%, – and given the definition of a semi-oxidized tea, they’d be right – it nearly always ranges from 10%-85%. A green oolong refers to the lighter variety of that range. It’s also known as a light oolong. or jade oolong; however, jade also refers to a particular kind of green oolong, so its usage is not recommended as a synonym to the previously mentioned terms. A dark oolong refers to the darker portion of that range, and less commonly, a champagne oolong refers to the middle potion. The official Chinese translated spelling is wulong, and you will see both spellings when dealing with the tea community. It’s entirely about preference, which seems to be true for many tea terms, as the community is usually a fairly laid back one.
As my teacher put it, “oolong teas are the most arts-and-crafts” and arguably, he is correct. With a range of 75% oxidation to take in account for, in addition to the already complicated tea production process, you truly have to know what you’re doing in order to make these teas. If tea is an art, then oolongs are one of the most impressive mediums you can use in serving and production.
Oolong tea was invented sometime around 1650 A.D. My favourite origin myth is as follows: a tea farmer was busy picking leaves, and there happened to be a deer wandering around his garden. The farmer was so taken by the deer’s beauty, he got distracted and couldn’t help but observe it for a while. He observed it for such a long time, the tea leaves partially oxidized. Panicked, he fired the leaves immediately after, and thus, oolong was born.
If not by taste, you can usually tell an oolong’s quality based on observation of the wet, unfurled leaf: they should look healthy, fresh, and tender. If the leaves look too old, it probably means the leaves were picked later in the year and aren’t a good quality (note: will do comparison picture before publication.) Oolong plucks are a nontraditional, ranging anywhere from three to five leaves, compared to the standard “two leaves and a bud” pluck in regular tea picking. Oolongs are usually good for several steeps, and are exceptional candidates for Yixing tea pots or gaiwans.
The four most common oolong growing regions, the teas, and their attributes are as follows.
Wu Yi Rock Mountain: This is a Chinese region located in Fujian, which is one of the more renown tea growing regions. I find that all of these teas make wonderful, hearty winter teas.
Da Hong Pao: Translated to Big Red Robe. The most famous oolong for Wu Yi Rock Mountain, and for good reason. This is a dark oolong, and tastes toasty, smooth, sweet, and some traditionally produced da hong pao will taste smoky, as its roasted over charcoal briquettes. According to Wikipedia, a crop of da hong pao once sold for $1,250,000 per kilogram. Usually it’s not quite that expensive, but, there’s an impressive anecdote nonetheless.
Shui Xian: The English name is Narcissus, as the leaves have a flowery aroma and notes in its taste, comparable to that of a Narcissus flower. Originally it’s not from Wu Yi Rock Mountain, but the tea was transplanted to its current location. The tea is a dark oolong, and it’s full-bodied and floral. In Chinese restaurants, they will often have this tea, though it will more often go by the name “Shui Hsien” so be on the lookout.
Rou Gui: Translated to Cassia, which is a type of cinnamon. Good rou gui is a difficult steep to accomplish, but it’s astounding if you get it right. It’s a dark, roasted oolong, and can have chocolate and cinnamon notes to it. To add another level of complexity to serving this tea, you need to age some kinds of rou gui in order to get a better flavour.
Huang Guan Yin: Translated to Yellow Goddess. This is a new tea; only ten years old. It was a hybrid experiment done by tea scientists to combine two different oolong bushes (Ti Guan Yin and Huang Jin Gui.) It has flavours reminiscent of osmanthus and stone fruits such as apricot, all tied together with a sweet flavour and long aftertaste. It is a green-champagne oolong.
Recommended Dealers for Wu Yi Rock Mountain Oolong: