Oolong is one of those teas that came about by accident. A veritable quirk in the ever-changing world of tea.
As one story goes, a tea gardener in China was interrupted while processing his fresh-picked leaves. Normally, he would have dried the leaves either by roasting, oven drying, or steaming (the story doesn’t specify). This stops them from oxidizing (where oxygen attacks the cells of the tea leaves and turns the leaves black). He saw a deer go by and, there being no butcher shops nearby, he had to take what he could get. So, he left the tea leaves and went for the deer. The next day, he noticed that the tea leaves had started to blacken (oxidize) but decided to dry them anyway. The result was Oolong tea.
The name “Oolong” is an alternate to “Wu Yi” which is a shortening of this tea gardener’s name: Wu Liang.
Oolong is truly the pride of Asia. Unique, varied, and full of healthy things like flavonols or catechins, oolongs are not quite as mysterious as pu-erhs, but run a close second. As my Oolong Roundup showed, there are different types of oolongs, each with its own characteristics.
Ranging from almost green (little oxidation) to almost black (lots of oxidation), Oolongs can be planty, fruity, and even smoky, depending in part on how much oxidizing has been allowed to take place. When you buy an Oolong, therefore, you need some idea of where it ranks. So, I put together a ranking bar to indicate which side of the range an oolong falls on. For example, Imperial Formosa Oolong from Golden Moon Tea would rank:
On the other hand, a Tie Guan Yin Oolong I tried awhile ago was more along this rank:
Another Oolong I tried recently was more of this rank:
A rather inexpensive Oolong I purchased at a local Asian market had a comfortingly familiar flavor that combined the plantiness of a green tea with a light smokiness (not heavy like Lapsang Souchong). It would rank about the same as Golden Moon’s Oolong.
Unfortunately, until Oolong makers adopt such a ranking indicator for their labels, you’ll have to rely on tea review sites like Little Yellow Teapot Tea Reviews for such information. Meanwhile, you might want to keep your own record of which Oolong is more on the green side and which is more toward the black.