Oolong tea, or “Wu-long tea” (Chinese: 乌龙 = “Black Dragon”), as opposed to green tea (non-fermented) or black tea (fully-fermented), is tea that is only “semi”, or better, “partly” fermented, whereas the fermentation can have any degree starting from lightly fermented (e.g., Pouchong Oolong teas) and across the whole spectrum to strongly fermented (e.g., Ti Kuan Yin Oolong teas). Mathematically, at least from that perspective, Oolong teas therefore form the broadest segment within the Chinese tea category system: green tea, white tea, yellow tea, black tea, Pu Er tea, Oolong tea. This proportionality, however, is rather counter-reflected on the western tea market. While the average “mass tea consumer” might tend to drink green and/or black tea and not even know what Oolong tea is, even many or most confessed tea drinkers will have more space in their cupboard dedicated to these than to Oolong teas. How comes? Is Oolong tea less good? I do have a theory, of course, but let’s have a look at some basics first.
I will save the common stories and legends about the coming about of the name “Oolong tea,” never mind whether Mr. Sulong-turned-Wulong actually existed or not, or whether Oolong tea derives its name from it, and try to get a line into the historic facts instead.
The processing tradition of what is called Oolong tea today goes back to a time before the end of the first millennium AD, in the Wuji mountains in China’s Fujian province, to a tea called Beijuan. The same is said to have been the first tribute tea to the then reigning Song dynasty of Chinese emperors and this way gained popularity all over China, where it was later mostly referred to as “Wuji tea.” At some point, the term Oolong (Black Dragon) tea became common for teas with fermentation/oxidation degrees between roughly 15% and 85%. I don’t know, when this was, but it was like this when the Queen of England was introduced to Oolong tea by the British ambassador to China. Though the Queen was supposedly excited about the special taste characteristics of this tea, and the event might mark the point where Oolong tea was “officially” introduced to the West, even the Queen’s enthusiasm did nothing to bring Oolong tea, any Oolong tea for that matter, to more than a fraction of the popularity Earl Grey tea, or Black tea, or Green tea, enjoys in England or other Western countries.
Now, what is it that makes Oolong teas so unpopular, comparably? No, it’s not that they would be worse in taste, aroma, health, cost, or other general properties, except for what I use to call “accessibility.” Not physical accessibility, but emphatic, sensitive accessibility. Oolong teas by nature have a tendency to be much more subtle and complex than green or black teas. This applies to their taste, and it applies to at least the same, if not even greater, extent to its preparation.
The vocabulary used for the description of Oolong teas relates to that of black and green teas like the Chinese alphabet to the English, with combinations of attributes that often seem to be virtually impossible: a tea that is earthy, floral, sweet, and fruity at the same time, and then still somebody will say “I can sense some grassy and woody notes there, too”, but if you give the same tea to somebody, who has never tried Oolong tea before, they will find none of that, producing hardly more than a ambiguous “Hmmm…” as a response.
Then preparation: what we know from green and black tea as something that will sound pretty much like “1 teaspoon per cup, boiling hot water, 2 minutes” will convert to something like “3-5 g on 250ml hot water 80-85°C , 1½ – 1 – 2 – 3 – 5”, the latter meaning 1½ minutes infusion time for the first steep, 1 minute for the second, etc. If you then look at the comprehensive and most impressing set of accessories Chinese will bring to “trying Oolong teas,” you are just about getting a glimpse of how complex, subtle, and thereby “inaccessible” these teas are. Of course, the same complexity and subtleness will make Oolong tea a sport, or a passion, or even a philosophy and a lifetime task for those, who aren’t really happy with just “a good cup of tea,” but asking for more depth, embracing the challenge, trying to dig to the very root and nature of things, and being happy with the eternal chaos of imperfections, though pursuing the ideal cup of Oolong tea on every meter of the way at the same time. This, of course, is not for everyone.
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