Milk oolong is a tea that has generated a loyal following, but also a lot of controversy and confusion. There are countless online discussions asking, “what is milk oolong?” and about as many conflicting answers. Even on this blog, writers have given several different explanations of milk oolong. Of course, it doesn’t help that the tea companies themselves provide contradictory information. In fact, the only thing people seem to be in agreement about concerning milk oolong is that there is a distinct lack of agreement.
Since milk oolong is a tea that I enjoy immensely, and since I do not like being under informed about a tea I drink, I decided to do some research. I can’t promise this article will provide a concrete answer to the question, but I hope it will help to clarify some of the confusion for any of you out there wondering about that delicious tea known as “milk oolong.”
On some level, the confusion stems from issues of marketing. The term “milk oolong” is used somewhat indiscriminately to describe oolongs with a milky taste despite the fact that they can obtain this milky quality in different ways. Some are pure teas, and some are flavoured; so, there is not one milk oolong, but several.
Jin Xuan is the variety of Camellia Sinensis that produces pure milk oolong. It is a high-mountain oolong that originated in Taiwan [see footnote below], and when Jin Xuan undergoes partial fermentation or light roasting (the processing that produces oolong tea) is acquires a creamy, milky quality. This is known as Nai Xiang, or “milk fragrance.”
There is an alternative explanation for the milky quality that says it is due to a sugar created in the tea leaves when there is a sudden drop in temperature before harvesting. I am less inclined to believe this based on the sources I have found. However, since there seems to be no proof, just many conflicting accounts, feel free to disagree. Perhaps both are true. But whether the milky quality arises in the processing or because of a temperature drop, it occurs naturally in the leaves and therefore qualifies this milk oolong as a pure tea.
The milky fragrance of Jin Xuan is subtle. Realising it was a popular taste, some tea producers decided to amplify the natural milky quality by flavouring the tea. These flavoured, or scented, milk oolongs tend to be preferred by tea drinkers who favour more overt creaminess over a subtle milky tone.
I hesitate to say that the pure milk oolong is higher quality than the other, since there are many flavoured teas that are considered high quality (a jasmine green tea might be one example). However, it does seem that there are various methods used in flavouring the tea, and some are definitely more questionable than others. Spraying tea leaves with artificial “milk-like” substances after processing, for example, does not meet my requirements for high quality tea. However, incorporating milk into the processing so that the aroma is absorbed seems less objectionable; you could argue it is no different from teas that are scented with flowers or fruits. Nevertheless, it is worth considering that tea producers can get away with lower quality tea leaves if they are relying on added flavour to produce the milky taste. While this makes many flavoured milk oolongs a cheaper option for both producer and consumer, they are also lower quality.
When all is said and done there is no one milk oolong. There are pure oolongs that have a subtle milky undertone, and there are oolongs flavoured with milk that are richer and creamier. But there is a lot of conflicting information out there about the tea’s production and processing, although this is certainly not a phenomenon unique to milk oolong. Ultimately, as with any tea, if you feel strongly about what you are drinking, I would recommend investigating the specifics of the teas carried by different retailers. Or, if you are not as concerned with the distinction between the flavoured and pure milk oolongs, then trust your taste buds and, as always, go for the one that makes the most delicious cup of tea.
Footnote: I have seen several milk oolongs that are marketed as pure teas, but are grown in China. These may cases where Jin Xuan, although originally Taiwanese, is being cultivated in Chinese tea growing regions.
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