A Beginner's Guide to Drinking Better Oolong Tea

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

Imagine if you went to a bar and the only beers on the menu were the lightest, most crisp pilsners and darkest, most molassesy porters. No nutty brown ales, bitter-citrusy IPAs, or twangy sours.

For a round or two, you'd probably make do. Pilsners can be great! And I love a good porter now and then. But you'd know something's missing, and chances are, unless the beer was really cheap or the flirtatious bartender was really good-looking, you wouldn't exactly be planning your next trip back.

For tea people in the U.S., this is pretty much everywhere. Want dark, malty black tea? Americans get that, and we're not short on options for drinking it. Prefer bright, springy green, the most popular choice in Asia? We're getting better about that too, and you can even find a halfway decent sencha at plenty of coffeehouses these days.

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But tell someone you'd like an oolong and they'll likely just stare. It's a tea so uncommon in the West we don't even have an English word for it, and that's a shame, because when it comes to tea, no category offers more diversity of flavor, complexity, and body than oolongs. And no style better shows what carefully manipulated processing can do to a tea leaf.

Oolongs are the wide, wide category of tea in between green and black, and through skilled, labor-intensive processing, a tea-maker can coax anything from buttery florals to deep chocolate to roasted nuts to tropical fruit out of a single batch of leaves. So if you've been drinking tea for a while and are getting bored of your malty Assams and your springy sencha, here's a basic introduction to the entire universe of tea in between.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Oolongs

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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

In a way, oolongs are the most cheffy teas out there. While good growing conditions certainly matter, the quality of an oolong is largely dependent on the skill of the person processing it. Get something wrong and a batch may reek of grandma's perfume or taste as charred as a blackened steak. Get it right, though, and you have a tea with marvelous complexity, one that develops and evolves in your cup more than any black or green tea. Some oolongs can be steeped a dozen times or more, and by the time you're finished, the final steep may feel like it's from a totally different tea. (Try that with your English breakfast and all you'll get is brown water.)

So what does it mean to get an oolong right?

As soon as you pluck a tea leaf, it starts to oxidize. Let that oxidation run its course and you get a malty black tea with plenty of tannic astringency. Stop that oxidation as soon as it starts and you'll preserve the leaves' bright green qualities for green tea. Oolongs, or partially oxidized teas, are what happens when you manipulate a batch of leaves to achieve a specific oxidation level in a specific way, then heat the leaves them to fix the flavor and aroma at a desired point. Any tea that's between eight and 85 percent oxidized can be considered an oolong.

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Oolong tea leaves partially through their long withering process. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

But it's not just a matter of timing. How you let that oxidation happen, and what you do to the tea while it's happening, are just as important. Oolongs have recipes and variables that have to be tightly managed, from withering time to the way the leaves are tossed, bruised, rolled, and compressed, to exacting temperature and humidity standards. And that's before we even get to the roasting phase many teas need to undergo before they're considered complete.

The goals of all this processing, which takes a couple days with as many as a dozen steps, is to evaporate water from the leaves, to bruise and compress them in specific ways to encourage the right kinds of water-release and oxidation, and to let the leaves rest long enough to develop particular flavors. Skilled oolong makers can do this all by feel, looking at and smelling and touching the leaves and putting a finger to the wind to decide what else they need. But they're also not above enlisting heavy machinery and precise thermoregulation tools to ensure a consistent product.

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The leaves are repeatedly bruised, rolled, and compressed to encourage oxidation. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Teas this complex demand some skill in brewing. Clean-tasting water is a given, and for the most part oolongs thrive with full-boiling (or just-off boiling) water. But the real trick with oolongs is to brew with a heavy hand for short amounts of time. Oolong teas are best savored in a series of small infusions to appreciate their evolving character in your cup, which means five grams of tea per hundred milliliters is usually my minimum; for darker oolongs I'll use as much as eight to 10 grams for that same volume, then steep them in a series of short (30 second or so) infusions, adjusting as I go.

Oolongs are usually made with larger leaves than greens and blacks, and they need extra room to unfurl and release their full flavor. You can find all the brewing equipment you need to do them justice in this teaware guide.

An Oolong Tour

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Oolongs run the gamut from light and floral to dark and chocolatey, and those flavors are determined by two main factors: oxidation level and roasting. Traditionally a step to prolong a tea's shelf life, roasting also adds considerable flavor, aroma, and body to an oolong, while balancing out oxidized fruitiness with a deep woodsy undertone.

Fresh and Fragrant: 'Green' Oolong

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Light or "jade" oolongs can look a lot like green tea. They're usually green, though a little darker than green tea leaves, and their twisted or rolled-ball shapes (as opposed to needle-like flat leaves) are a dead giveaway that you're dealing with an oolong. Like green tea, light oolongs taste fresh and bright, and can manifest snappy vegetal and sunny-sweet flavors. But a kick of oxidation tends to bring out more floral characteristics, a rich, buttery body that lingers on your palate, and a rounded, airy quality more complex than your typical green.

The most noteworthy producer of green oolongs right now is Taiwan, where tea leaves grow slowly on remote high mountaintops for concentrated sweetness and a flavor reminiscent of the very misty air that cloaks the tea bushes. Styles range from the perfumed, aromatic baozhong to creamy "milk oolongs" made with jin xuan cultivars to refined and airy Lishan, Shan Lin Xi, and Da Yu Ling. Those last three teas, some of the island's famous gaoshan (high mountain) oolongs, are named for specific well-reputed mountains, and they're some of the most prized teas in the country.

In the past few decades, Chinese teamakers have been producing more light oolongs of their own, in some cases completely redefining the tastes of classic traditional teas. One famous example, tieguanyin (which translates poetically to Iron Goddess of Mercy), used to exclusively mean a higher oxidized oolong with a dark roast. Now it's much more common to find Chinese tieguanyin light and either unroasted or very lightly baked, full of floral garden patch flavors (especially orchids) and a nutty verve of toasted glutinous rice.

Mellow and Warming: Medium Roast or Oxidation Oolong

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Kick up an oolong's oxidation more, or subject it to a controlled roast, and you lose the super-fresh aromatics of the jade styles. These more heavily processed teas develop more warm spice notes and a deeper, more mellow body. You'll notice accents of honey, toasted grain, or white sesame, but with a more woodsy character than the red-wine fruitiness of black teas.

Taiwanese dong ding oolong is one of my favorite moderately oxidized oolongs, full of nutty, sesame flavors that can be brought out even more by controlled roasting. A related style, so-called concubine oolong, uses similar processing methods but with leaves that have been bitten by a tiny, leaf-hopping insect that drives the tea bush to develop extra-fruity and honeyed flavors. Then there's the traditional hong shui (red water) style of processing, which kicks up oxidation closer to black tea levels but balances out the tea with a long, low-temperature roast. The result is an exceptionally mellow and sweet brew that's full of roasted nut and dark fruit flavors, but smoother and with a thicker body than most black tea.

Generally speaking, these more oxidized teas will last for more infusions than their green cousins. A green oolong starts getting grassy around the fourth or fifth steep, but you can push many moderately oxidized oolongs—especially the roasted ones—to twice that number of steepings easily.

Dark and Intense: Heavily Roasted Oolong

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The most powerful teas in the oolong kingdom are made by subjecting moderately oxidized oolongs to heavy roasts. These darker teas can brew up as thick and intense as coffee, and if you're a coffee fan looking to get into tea, they're a great place to start.

Over in the Wuyi mountains in China, where tea grows on steep cliffs, so-called "cliff" teas develop a distinct minerality from their rocky growing conditions that comes across almost like Scotch on the palate. The kicker on top is the heavy roast, which makes for a robust, layered brew that adds chocolate, nuts, and charcoal on top of the tea's honeyed sweetness. Popular Wuyi teas include da hong pao, shui xian, and rou gui. They have their subtle differences, but they all share a that signature rocky taste that lingers in your throat.

On Phoenix Mountain in Guangdong province, farmers make an oolong that looks like Wuyi teas—long, dark, twisted leaves—and with the same powerful roasted character, but an entirely different flavor. Instead of mineral peat and brine, dancong oolongs develop resonant stonefruit and floral aromas and flavors—even more fragrant than many green oolongs.

And then there's that Iron Goddess of Mercy again, but this time the traditional form you'll find in the Muzha area of Taiwan and some corners of China's Anxi Province—where the tea originated—that are still making the tea the old fashioned way. A good roasted tieguanyin has an almost ferrous intensity balanced out by deep caramel, orchid flowers, and layers of baked grain and heather that slink all the way down your throat. It's hard to believe it's even the same kind of tea as the modern green version, but that's oolongs for you—impossible to completely pin down.

Recommended Vendors

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It's best to buy oolongs from specialists, vendors that make their own sourcing trips over to China and Taiwan and which have developed relationships with individual farmers rather than faceless wholesalers. Here are a few online oolong tea sellers worth seeking out.

  • T Shop: A small but excellent selection of Taiwanese oolongs ranging from green high mountain styles to dark and rich traditional charcoal-roasted teas.
  • Eco-Cha: A Taiwan-based company that focuses on traditional oolongs from central Taiwan. Though pretty much all their teas are good, the lightly roasted dong ding and high mountain styles are more unique offerings in the oolong tea world.
  • Song Tea: Pricy but excellent teas with a focus on oolongs from China and Taiwan, with a mix of common and rare styles. You won't find many teas like the candy-sweet Winter Sprout, a high mountain tea that evokes cotton candy and kettle corn.
  • Té: Interesting twists on some common Taiwanese oolongs, including a jin xuan (there called Graceful Hill) that's remarkably oily with a toasted hay bite, and an Oriental Beauty that delivers unexpected kicks of cinnamon and lemon alongside the usual fruity black tea notes.
  • White2Tea: Wuyi oolongs and dancongs can get very expensive very quickly, but this China-based vendor offers some solid versions of both at more gentle prices. Don't get turned off by the Duck Shit dancong's name; it's a beautifully fragrant tea worth seeking out.
  • Everlasting Tea: A variety of Taiwanese oolongs, but the main draws here are the long-aged baozhongs, which over the course of 30 years or so have developed deep plummy and earthy characters that take days to steep out.