I’m planning a series of posts about oolongs, a class of tea which has been intriguing me a lot lately.
First, let’s get through with some basics: what is oolong?
Oolong is a class of tea, 烏龍, “wulong” in modern Chinese, which got adopted into English as oolong. Class, type or a genre of tea is a group of teas which are similar. Some other, possibly more familiar classes are green tea and red tea. (Red tea is often known in the West as ‘black tea’, but the original Chinese means ‘red’, so when speaking about Chinese teas, I stick to ‘red tea’) So, oolong means a family of different teas, sort of like 'green tea' is a family of different teas.
Generally speaking all teas have unique geography, plant (different cultivars of Camellia Sinensis or few other closely related Camellias), processing and heritage, history and human culture. Each kind of tea is unique in all of these aspects, and all families, or classes of tea also vary by all of these aspects. I'm actually going to start from a regional overview, since oolong is something specific to certain regions in Chinese speaking area.
Oolong is something specific to certain regions. In China, almost all tea producing regions have red tea and green tea, but only a few regions process oolongs. When speaking of China, there are three regions with their own styles of oolongs. Above is a linguistic map showing different local languages in the area, which hopefully helps us get a picture of a culturally diverse region.
WUYISHAN AND MINBEI OOLONGS
It is usually given that the origin of oolongs is in Wuyishan（武夷山), Northern Fujian in southern China. Wuyishan is a specific mountain area which produces the finest oolongs on Earth (fight me!). Oolongs of Wuyishan are known as yancha (岩茶), or cliff tea, and they have “skeleton of rock and fragrance of flowers”. Tealeaves are dark, long and twisted, and the steeped tea is deep red. Most famous is the dahongpao (大紅袍), “big red robe”, which is sometimes used a general name for all the oolongs from the area. Other common styles are Shuixian 水仙 “Narcissus” or “Water Immortal”, and rougui (肉桂), “cassia” or sometimes “cinnamon”. More generally, teas from Wuyishan and rest of Northern Fujian are known as Minbei oolongs, Minbei being the general name of the region. Above is a map showing local languages of the area, and red is the Minbei area.
ANXI AND MINNAN OOLONGS
Coming south, still in Fujian we have Minnan oolongs. Most important of these is Tieguanyin (鐵觀音）from Anxi. These teas are typically rolled into balls. These days most of these oolongs are processed very lightly, leaves being very deep green, and the tea steeps green or yellow. Traditionally, tea from Minnan was dark as well, and it is still possible to find dark leaves which steep into amber coloured tea. Minnan region is the blue region on the mainland, and as the language map shows, the same language is also spoken in Taiwan.
CHAOSHAN AND DANCONG OOLONGS
Third main region of China for oolongs is Chaoshan in eastmost Guangdong, with their Fenghuang Dancongs (鳳凰單從）being highly sought after, unique teas. Chaoshan is also the home of the art of gongfu tea brewing. On the map, Chaoshan region is on the pink area, around Chaozhou and Shantou (Chaoshan is actually a shorthand for these towns). Tealeaves from Chaoshan are again long and twisted. Traditionally they also were roasted heavily, though these days there is more variance: some kinds are usually available very green, while others retain the darker style.
TAIWAN AND GAOSHAN OOLONG
Most of the population of Taiwan is actually descendants of Ming dynasty immigrants from these regions, especially Minnan area. That’s also the reason why Taiwan is world famous for it’s oolong teas: Chinese settlers were from oolong regions of the mainland, so they naturally planted and cultivated oolong tea there as well. In the history of Taiwanese oolong one can see influences both from Minnan and Minbei areas, though these days the style of oolong there has changed. Most famous of taiwanese oolong styles is the high mountain oolong, or gaoshancha (高山茶), which is generally speaking very light and steeps pale yellow. Other kinds include typically extremely green baozhong (包種), soft and oxidised baihao oolong (白毫烏龍).
So, what was the point of this overview? Why does this matter?
We started by defining oolong as a class of tea, sort of like 'green tea' is a class. Now we can see that oolong actually is a class with smaller classes within it. This is logical, since we're talking about a regional specialty coming from an area with diverse culture: all these regions even have their own languages!
On the next part we'll have a glimpse of the oolong processing and other aspects of the human labour which make these teas unique. Later, I'm hoping to write a bit about brewing, and then go into more detail about these regions.
Text written by Jesse Örö