At some point, all tea lovers will find themselves at the door of the oolong. And it will feel like a portal has opened to another universe.
For the longest time, it felt like this mysterious tea style. The names Iron Goddess of Mercy, Formosa, Wuyi rock oolong, Da Hong Pao, Alishan…were too complex, and seemed forbidding. Call it the new year effect but I have taken baby steps on the road to oolong discovery.
The oolong, or wu long, translates to “black dragon”. As a tea style, it too originated, like so many great teas, in China, although Taiwanese wu long today ranks among the finest. As a partially oxidised tea, it’s slotted between the unoxidised green and fully oxidised black tea in the tea spectrum.
The browning we see on cut apple or potato is oxidation, and it’s a step in tea production too. To make green tea, the leaves have to be plucked and handled carefully so they don’t bruise accidentally, because that will set off oxidation. Black tea, on the other hand, is put through complete oxidation, which is what leads to the dark red liquor colour. Wu long falls in a range between these two since the extent of oxidation varies.
The oxidation is a crucial step: too much, and it cannot be undone. The leaves go through the withering, tossing, rolling stages, repeated many times to achieve the effect sought by the tea master. Yes, the cultivar matters but the steps from plucking to finished tea are all art.
Once the leaves have achieved the oxidation desired, heat (charcoal or electric) is used to halt further oxidation. The wu long goes through a roasting stage (light, medium, heavy) that adds depth to the flavour and increases shelf life. This intensive processing can take days or weeks. The heavy roasted oolong needs weeks to “breathe out” the charcoal flavour. During this stage, the tea master will forego sleep to look after his tea, stirring and turning it as often as needed. Between the oxidation levels and extent of roasting, the flavours go from light and vegetal to creamy, nutty, fruity. Some wu long, I hear, are so complex every steep can be like tasting a different cup. The gong fu method of short multiple infusions is recommended as it unravels the complex layers of flavour better than the Western style of a single long steep.
And to think these flavours are coaxed out of tea leaves is nothing short of remarkable.
The home of the wu long is Anxi county in China’s Fujian province. In India, it’s still in its infancy, and as with green tea, exceptional wu long is still hard to find. Since Anxi and Formosa wu long are not easily available, there isn’t a ready benchmark to compare what we make here. I recommend trying any wu long you can lay your hands on (I have enjoyed the wu long from Dharmsala Tea Company, Gopaldhara and Bermiok Tea). Steep it, either Western style or gong fu, and use the ones you enjoy most as your benchmark and starting point. Chado Tea offers a selection of Chinese wu long, including a jade oolong (less oxidised/more green), the milk scent oolong (not artificially scented) and even a monkey-picked oolong (not picked by monkeys!).
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.