Oolong is a tea that thrills twice: once while it steeps and the fragrance travels gently from the teapot’s spout to your nose, and once again when the steeping is done. While this could be said of many teas, Oolong trumps them all. It truly is, in my most unhumble opinion, the pride of Asia.
The ever elegant Oolong, also called Wu Long (I’ve seen various spellings and capitalizations), is a far cry from your ordinary, everyday tea — the kind I grew up with in a bag with string and tag attached. It is mainly produced in China and Taiwan (considered the world’s finest), but is also grown and processed in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and other countries in small amounts. Taiwan’s unique climate conditions are especially ideal for producing oolong tea, with plantations being found at 2,000 meters or higher elevations.
Some Oolongs are called “Wu Yi,” a name that comes from the Wuyi Mountains in the Jiangxi province. The area has a “tea climate” where tea production flourishes. People there recognized the value of the crop they were growing (Camellia Sinensis) and took care to use proper farming methods (as all smart farmers do) that ensured the best quality tea for centuries. Today, they still produce some of the best tasting teas on the market.
Protecting from the northwestern cold, the Wuyi Mountains also keep in the warm moist air from a sea eastward, and thus assure a perfect mix of humidity and high rainfall (along with some real “pea soup” fogs). No wonder drinking a cup of hot tea became so popular. What could be better on a rainy or foggy day? (Of course, tea is great on sunny days, too!)
Getting from the bush to your teacup is quite an Oolong journey. Fermentation (oxidation) and other processing result in a tea that’s halfway between green and black. It’s the key to achieving that distinctive Oolong flavor — actually, a variety of flavors. Typically, oolongs have a medium-bodied taste with fruity overtones. Along with splendid flavor comes a host of health benefits (who says things that are good for you always taste bad?), starting with the fact that a cupful contains only about half the caffeine in the same amount of coffee. Polyphenols in the tea are another factor since they have strong antioxidant properties, proven to help ward off several diseases and health-related issues, as well as increasing metabolic rate and efficiency to avoid the dreaded “dryer shrunk my pants” syndrome.
The finer oolongs are full-leaf, with very large, unbroken leaves, and usually need more steeping time to fully release their flavonols or catechins, giving the tea its flavor. They can also be quite a pretty sight to watch, the leaves unfolding in the water, spreading out as they soak up those molecules of H2O and their own molecules start to break down and float out into the cup or pot.
You could steep in a glass teacup or pot, or be bold and try it the Asian way, known as gong fu style. For that, use a small tea pot filled with tea leaves, brew for less than a minute, and re-steep the leaves many times. Then, pour each infusion from that steeping pot to a serving pot (through a strainer, keeping the tea leaves in the pot as much as possible), and then pour into small tea cups. Add more hot water to the steeping pot. Steep, pour, steep, pour until the tea leaves are spent (that is, tea is bitter and missing that fruity quality).
You can read great reviews of Oolong and other types of tea on A.C.’s blog, Little Yellow Teapot Tea Reviews!