“You were not my first love, nor were you my first relationship, but only you inspired me to get on my knees and make a lifelong commitment.”

Dancong

I am talking, of course, of my love affair with oolong. Though green tea (Dragon Well) was the first to set my heart fluttering and Pu-er was the first tea I regularly brewed on my own, it was only after I tasted oolong (Wuyi Shuixian or Sacred Lily) that I knew I had found enduring love, a love that would accompany me for the rest of my life.

Perhaps due to its somewhat exotic name and relative lack of fame, oolong has been a bit of an enigma to “mainstream” tea drinkers. It has also been somewhat inaccurately labeled as an acquired taste. With a diverse range of teas and corresponding characteristics, surely there is something for everyone.

Unfortunately, much of the information widely available in English is often contradictory and inaccurate. If you google “oolong” and click on all the sites that appear on the first page alone, odds are your state of mind would be closer to confusion than comprehension.

  • Is oolong made by halting the “fermentation” of black tea?
  • Is oolong different from wulong?
  • Is oolong a weight loss tea?
  • Is oolong made by scenting with jasmine flowers?

Sacred Lily

These are but a smattering of the questions that the misinformation on oolong will lead you to ask. The answers, incidentally, to the questions above  are “no,” “no,” “yes,” and “no.”

To get to know oolong better, let us start off with the four main sub-categories of oolong and a representative of each. The four main sub-categories based on origin are:

  1. Guangdong Oolongs – Grown in Guangdong province; includes the Phoenix Dancong family, Lintou Dancong and Phoenix Sacred Lily
  2. Minbei Oolongs –  Grown in Northern Fujian; includes the Wuyi Rock teas, such as Big Red Robe, Wuyi Sacred Lily, and Minbei Sacred Lily (from the Shuixian cultivar grown in areas outside of Wuyishan, such as JianOu)
  3. Minnan Oolongs – Grown in Southern Fujian; includes Anxi Iron Goddess, Golden Cassia (HuangJinGui), and Hairy Crab (Maoxie)
  4. Taiwanese Oolongs – Grown in Taiwan; includes Dongding, Oriental Beauty, and Taiwanese Mountain Teas, such as Alishan, Lishan, Sanlinxi, and Dayuling

There may be other up-and-coming oolong production areas, such as Sichuan, or even Thailand and Vietnam, but as of now, they have yet to reach the same popularity and repute as these four.

Iron Goddess

Breaking down oolongs by geographical location is a good starting point, as the geographical and geological conditions of each area influence the growth and taste of the tea. Hence, a Wuyi Sacred Lily is likely to have more in common with an Iron Arhat or a Big Red Robe than with an Iron Goddess, for example.

In addition, each production area has its own processing style, which would also affect the nature and taste of the tea. For example, in general, most Taiwanese Oolongs and Minnan Oolongs are made in the “beaded” style, which you can see is quite different from the “curled leaf” style of a Minbei Oolong and Guangdong Oolong.

To better understand the peculiarities of each sub-category of oolong, let us take a representative from each sub-category.

Dongding

Guangdong Oolongs

The best known Guangdong Oolong is probably the Phoenix Dancong, known as Mi Lan Xiang or Honey Orchid Fragrance. As its name suggests, it has an aroma that brings to mind – yes, you guessed it – orchids and honey. It also has a natural honey-like sweetness and a lingering sweet aftertaste.

Dancongs have been gaining in popularity in China and the West in recent years due to their fruity flavor and depth. Just a note of caution: Dancongs tend to fare better with water temperatures (around 85°C/ 185°F) that are lower than those used for other oolongs. So unless you like your tea really bitter (like the local Chaozhou farmers), that would be a good starting point.

Minbei Oolongs

Though the most well-known Minbei Oolong is probably the Big Red Robe or Dahongpao, the chances of getting an authentic Big Red Robe of a decent quality are increasingly slim. Instead, the Wuyi Sacred Lily would be a good representative since it is the same cultivar from which many of the famous Wuyi Rock Teas originated.

The Wuyi Sacred Lily, if grown in the core-producing area (zhengyan) of Wuyishan, emits a distinctive, full-bodied, vibrant taste that leaves a lingering viscous texture in the mouth, known as Yanyun or the aura of the cliffs. This is attributable to the volcanic, acidic, red soil of Wuyishan that gives it the unique taste that is beloved by aficionados.

Minnan Oolongs

Almost any discussion of Minnan Oolongs would have to include the Iron Goddess, possibly the best known of all Chinese tea. Unfortunately, much like the Big Red Robe (and Dragon Well and probably Pu-er), the range of quality and grades available in the market is quite expansive.

Often I have heard tea drinkers disdain the Iron Goddess, believing it to be overrated, but I would reckon it is simply because they have yet to sample an authentic Iron Goddess. Taste is very personal, but a quality Iron Goddess is one of the most rewarding brews available with a powerful aroma and the ability to invigorate and intoxicate the drinker, often simultaneously.

Taiwanese Oolongs

Taiwanese Oolongs are a diverse sub-category – from the light floral aroma of the Taiwan Jade Oolong to the full-bodied, almost black-tea-like quality of the Oriental Beauty. But arguably the most well-known of all Taiwanese Oolongs is one of the oldest as well, the Dongding Oolong.

Grown with shoots originating from Wuyishan in the early 19th Century, Dongding Oolong has been long revered by tea lovers for its smooth, silky texture and soothing aftertaste.

Whether your preference is floral, fruity, woody, strong, or mellow – there is an oolong out there for you. Don’t be put off by the exotic names and fanciful claims. Most tea lovers agree that this is the most diverse and rewarding category of tea. Try it for yourself.

This post first published on the blog 22 June 2012.