From bai haos to tieguanyins, oolongs are what some call “the champagne of teas” – complex, subtle, and very flavorful. But you don’t need to be a tea expert to love them!
Here’s your primer to the incredible oolong.
What is an oolong?
Oolong teas, also called wu long teas, are considered connoisseur teas because of their complexity, but that’s no reason for a beginner to avoid them. If your first oolong is a really good one, it might just rock your world.
The video below is from Teavana’s YouTube channel and gives a brief visual-aid description of oolong tea (plus a plug for their monkey-picked oolongs. I haven’t verified the truth to that legend yet.)
Like other teas, oolongs are prepared by plucking, withering, and oxidizing Camellia sinensis leaves. However, the leaves are shaken after withering, which bruises them. After being oxidized (anywhere from 12-80%, depending on the kind of oolong), the leaves may be pan-fired, which stops the oxidation process and creates a roasty flavor.
Oolongs are mainly produced by China and Taiwan and are frequently found in Chinese restaurants. They have only recently begun to find popularity in the United States, since their flavors tend to be very different than what most Americans are used to in their tea. Much of their American popularity is due to supposed weight loss benefits, which I will address below.
Why drink oolongs?
Because “oolong” is fun to say! OK, I’m kidding, but it is true.
Because they’re delicious! Oolongs are extremely diverse in flavor. Depending on the oolong, you may get anything from spring flowers to chestnuts, from leather to stone fruit and more (sometimes in just one tea!) You may also find a lingering aftertaste.
Because they’re healthy! Like any tea, oolongs have some amounts of antioxidants, and their caffeine content makes them a good alternative to coffee (they’re somewhere between green and black tea.) Some studies have also linked oolongs to cancer reduction.
NOTE: If you hear talk about “slimming oolongs,” take it with a huge grain of salt. While oolongs do tend to marginally speed up metabolism, drinking any tea is not an effective weight loss method by itself. Tea is always a supplement to a healthy lifestyle. (Also, while we’re at it, beware of teas advertised as “weight loss” teas – many of them have laxatives and diuretics that do more harm than good!)
Types of Oolongs
There are many ways to classify oolongs, but the one below is taken from The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to the World‘s Best Tasting Teas by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss.
Open Leaf/Large Leaf Style
- Large, slightly crimped leaves
- Varying oxidization
- Not roasted
- “Pure, sweet, bright” flavors
- Unique to Taiwan
Example: Bai Hao
- Rolled, balled-up leaves
Traditional preparation method:
- Medium oxidization
- Moderately roasted (in between green and black tea)
- Honey, stone fruit flavors
Modern preparation method:
- Light oxidization (closer to green tea)
- Lightly or not roasted
- Floral flavors
- Long, large, slightly twisted leaves
- Medium to heavy oxidization (closer to black tea)
- Heavily roasted
- Fruity flavors, earthy aroma
To get a better look at some oolongs, check out the videos below from Samovar Tea Lounge, a San Francisco-based tea cafe and retailer whose YouTube channel has a lot of cool tea information.
- Wuyi Dark Roast (strip-style)
- Tieguanyin “Iron Goddess of Mercy” (semiball rolled-style)
- Golden Phoenix , which is a dancong (strip style)
- A longer video about Bai Hao (open leaf style)
Because oolongs are such a diverse group of teas, it is important to check the instructions for each. General guidelines below.
Oolongs are traditionally rinsed before steeping. To “rinse,” pour hot water over the leaves, then pour it out. This opens the leaves and smooths the flavor. Bai hao is the exception.
Measurement per cup: Semiball-rolled–style: 1 teaspoon. Large-leaf or strip-style: 1 tablespoon.
Water temp: 180 – 200° F (“the darker the leaf, the hotter the water”)
Steep time: 3 – 5 minutes
Can be steeped more than once; resteeping brings out different flavors.
Although the above steps outline the Western tea-making method, oolongs have historically been prepared using the Chinese gongfu method, which involves very short steeps allowing the tea’s flavors to shine.
Where to buy
Arbor Teas (organic and fair trade options)
Butiki Teas (permanently closing, but are selling their stock and still have some great options)
Oohing, aahing, and longing for all the oolongs? Already tried some and got a favorite? Tell me in the comments below!