Oolong Tea: Manufacturing and Popular Growths

Oolong Tea: a Complex Category of Tea

Oolong tea truly lives in a world of it’s own! Due to the complex manufacturing processes used for oolong teas, they are harder to identify than one might think. They vary in color, from dark brown like coffee beans to light green like dried out seaweed. Oolong tea leaves can be twisted or lightly curled in one growth, or shriveled into small, oddly shaped pellets in another growth. What fascinates us about oolongs is they do not give themselves away easily. It takes a trained eye to read between the lines and distinguish what is/is not an oolong tea.

The Basics to Manufacturing Tea

It’s important to understand where oolong teas stand out from other categories of tea. To do this, let’s go through a general layout of manufacturing all teas have in common:

Plucking: Depending on the season and region, plucking (by hand or machine) is the process of removing the leaf and/or buds from the Camellia sinensis plant.

Withering/Oxidation: Plucked tea is spread across a surface so that excess water and oxygen is reduced or removed. Simultaneously, chlorophyll in the leaf is broken down in a process known as enzymatic oxidation.

Firing: Heat is applied to the leaves to prevent further oxidation and drying from occurring. A wok or rolling drum is used for this process. Preferred method all depends on how earthy or grassy the manufacturer would like their tea to taste.

Shaping/Drying: The tea is manipulated into desired shape by hands or using a machine. Drying can be done by baking, sunning, air drying, or panning. Shaping takes place in order to complete the process of manufacturing and make the tea ready for consumption.

This is a very quick and dirty explanation of tea manufacturing, but now that you understand the basic stages, we can narrow in on oolong tea production and how it’s so different from other categories of tea!

Oolong Tea Manufacturing: Where It Stands out

  • Oxidation: 10-80%.Oolong tea oxidation levels range so much and leave a lot of room for differences. Color of the leaf can speak to how oxidized the tea is. Just remember this: for lighter, greener oolongs, oxidization falls in the 5-45% oxidized range. Darker oolongs fall in the 50-80% oxidized range. Oolong tea that is less oxidized has a more grassy, vegetal taste due to more chlorophyll being trapped in the leaves. A more oxidized oolong, dark or brown in color, will be a more earthy, wine-like tea. Oxidation levels cannot be determined by the eye as easily as the taste of the tea. However, paying attention to the leaf color can help rule out some white, green, and black teas.
  • Leaf Style: Pellet-like, rolled up, ball shaped leaf, or strip style, more flat and long in length. When the oolong tea is in tiny pellets, the leaves were placed into a large cloth bag or tumbling machine and kneaded into shape. A pellet-like, rolled up oolong, is less oxidized than a flat oolong. This is because the kneading of the tea inside the cloth bag (or tumbling if done by machine), ruptures the cells of the leaf. This process releases more chlorophyll, resulting in less oxygen within the leaf.

Now that we’ve pinpointed some differentiators, lets go over specific examples of two different oolong leaf styles to give you a better picture (literally.) Both teas names listed below stem from popular legends. Take them as you will, but both stories have gems of gratitude that we feel makes both teas so special!

Oolong Tea: Da Hong Pao

The mother of a high ranking Ming Dynasty official fell extremely ill. Desperate to find his mother a cure and hoping to prevent further illness or even death, he was on the hunt for a remedy. Eventually, Da Hong Pao crossed his mothers path and she consumed the beverage which he believed cured his mother of her illness. In order to show his purest gratitude for the plant and lend credence to it’s healing capabilities, the official headed for the Wuyi Mountains, located in the Fujian province of China. Once he arrived, he draped the four very rare plants in his “Big Red Robe” to protect them. “Big Red Robe” translates to Da Hong Pao in the Chinese language.

Oolong Tea: Iron Goddess

Wei, a poor farmer, lived near the Fujian’s Anxi County which hosts the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Everyday, he walked by the temple and was sadden by the statues obvious depreciation. He felt so helpless, admitting he was very poor and unable to afford the renovations himself. Though he lacked the resources, he did not lack the heart. Working with pure ambition, he brought incense and a broom to the temple everyday and put in the work. For many months, this was his ritual in which he prided himself very much.

One night he claimed the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, appeared in his dream. There, she told him of a cavernous location housing a precious gift. When he arrived at the cave the following day, he found a tea plant inside. He planted clippings of the treasure in his field and shared with neighbors and friends. He sold the yield by the name “Iron Bodhisattva of Compassion,” now “Iron Goddess.” Due to his prosperous income from selling the tea, he was well off and able to repair the rundown temple. Once restored, the temple became a totem for the region and the name of the plant remained.