The more I look into the details of tea, the more complex it is. My recent foray deep into the “jungle” of information about oolong cultivars revealed even more complexity. There is quite a variety of oolongs made from an array of cultivars of the tea plant Camellia Sinensis. So much for that outsider’s image of tea as a fairly simple subject. (Buy a box of teabags, heat some water, dunk a teabag in the water, and — voilà! — a cuppa tea!) After this journey exploring information about oolongs, that image is shattered forever. Time to disillusion some of you.
Is It the Tea Leaves or the Processing?
Before diving into talk about the cultivars, I want to address an issue that popped up over an over again. There is a debate going on out there about what constitutes an oolong tea. Three main schools of thought seem to prevail:
- Oolong tea is made from a particular class of cultivars.
- Oolong tea is made from a particular class of cultivars grown only in certain locations (the way Darjeeling teas are).
- Oolong tea is made from tea leaves processed in a certain way.
While I did not see a consensus on which of these is the definitive one, I did see plenty of evidence that each seems to be part of the puzzle. Oolongs are made from certain cultivars grown mainly in Taiwan (formerly Formosa) and the Fujian Province of China, separated from Taiwan by a narrow stretch of water called the Taiwan Strait. However, some cultivars considered acceptable for oolongs are being grown in other provinces of China and in Hawaii, among other places. In fact, there is a Darjeeling Oolong. One common element is oxidation, which varies between about 8% to as much as 70%. They also are withered to some extent and then dried, often using the roasting method.
Some Popular Cultivars
Taiwan boasts a wide array of cultivars (some folks claim that they number in the thousands). Some have proven more popular for the tea farmers due to faster growing rates, more compact bushes that produce more usable leaves and can be machine harvested, and more disease resistance. However, even the cultivars with weaker growth and less disease resistance are grown due to the reputation of the tea they produce.
- Chin-Shin (Green-centered) — usually only lightly oxidized and labeled as “Pouchong” (Light Oolong). Variations include Chin-Shin Da Pan, Si-Ji-Chun, Chin-Shin Oolong, Chin-Shin Gan Zai, TTES No.7, TTES No.8, and TTES No.18.
- Soft-stem — the original oolong cultivar introduced to Taiwan in the 1850s from Fujian, China; often confused with Chin-shin; used to make Dong-Ding oolong. Even though it is weaker growing and less disease-resistant than Chin-Shin, it is still grown for special orders and because some tea farmers have an affinity for it.
- Jin Xuan (Golden Tiger Lily, Day Lily, TTES No.12, Chinhsuan, Taiwan #12) — has higher growth rate, better disease-resistance, very charming “creamy” aroma, sometimes sugarcane-like, a natural milky buttery flavor with fruit notes, and a soft liquid quality.
- Cui Yu (Green Jade, TTES No.13, Tzuiyu, Taiwan #13) — about a medium growth rate but a loose form so that machine harvesting is difficult, liquid has a unique and intensely floral/orchid aroma.
- Si-Ji (Four Season, “Da-To-Hwei son,” “Si-Ji Chuan,” Four-season Spring) — a naturally hybrid cultivar with a strong growth rate year round; the tea has an intense floral/fruity aroma that isn’t as “wide” feeling or as exquisite as Chin-shin.
- Luanze (Qing-Xin, Green Heart) — used to make Dong-Ding oolong (the authentic version is made only from tea leaves grown on Dong Ding Mountain, 700-1200 meters elevation), traditionally only the tea shoots (the bud and 2-3 leaves) are used and oxidized to 25-35%; also used to make Baozhongs that are lightly oxidized and range in flavor from light and sweet like Japanese sencha to floral to fruity.
- Formosa — large-leaved cultivar named after the island of Formosa (now Taiwan); fragrant and floral with a persistent finish; a combination of growing environment and fine processing done by true tea craftsmen.
- Gaoshan — has five varieties (Meishan, Yushan, Wushe, Lishan, and Alishan – priciest and most highly regarded), is similar to Qing-Xin used to make Dong-Ding (medium oxidation, withering, and rolling); some of the oolongs made from this cultivar are aged and all have fairly complex flavors involving fruits, florals, and a sweetness akin to sugarcane.
(“TTES” means “Taiwan Tea Experiment Station” and is used by tea researchers to designate their successes.)
© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.