For many regular tea drinkers, oolong tea is an exotic category, or even entirely unheard of. Black teas and green teas are now crafted around the world, and have transformed to suit the varied tastes of global populations. But oolong tea production is still centered in China and Taiwan, in four main regions.
Yet oolong teas are far from a homogenous group. In fact, since the oolong category includes any tea that is partially oxidized, the range of flavors in this general group is more varied and dramatic than any other. With such scope, generalizing all oolongs into one lot can be confusing, if not misleading.
Oolong teas vary in style based on the terroir and tradition of the region they come from, just like black or green teas. It may seem as though the relatively small area they come from would reduce diversity of styles, but the mountainous terrain of southeastern China provides natural barriers between each region. Since travel through the mountains has always been difficult, local tea varieties and crafting techniques developed independently, with little overlap. The four most famous oolong growing areas give us four distinct divisions of oolong tea.
Wuyi Shan, Fujian
The Wuyi Mountains were one of the first areas to be recognized as a production center for oolong tea. The area gained renown in the Ming Dynasty, when the Hongwu Emperor declared loose leaf tea superior to pressed cakes. Over the course of the dynasty, tea farmers in this region cut terraces into the rocky mountains and built complex irrigation systems as they developed their own local tea culture.
It was over 100 years later that true oolong production was developed, with the arrival of wok-firing techniques developed for green tea production. In adapting the imported processes to their own tea, crafters eventually began allowing the leaves to oxidize partially before the roasting process. The dark teas produced here were named “Bohea”, and became one of the first oxidized styles to be exported to Europe.
Today, Wuyi Shan is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, a designation which protects both the unique biodiversity of the region and the tea farming traditions. The area is best known for the Da Hong Pao (“Grand Scarlet Robe”) tea variety. The prestigious “mother” plants of this variety are protected and no longer harvested, but high quality Da Hong Pao teas are still grown from cuttings to preserve the genetic makeup of the original trees.
Anxi County, Fujian
Though Anxi County and Wuyi Shan both lie within Fujian province, the geographical boundaries between them are overwhelming. Not only does the mountainous terrain make travel difficult, it also creates language barriers, even over short distances. Being in opposite corners of the provincial region would have made trade between the two areas uncommon in dynastic China.
When compared with Wuyi Shan, differences in terroir are evident. Wuyi teas are known for the mineral-rich taste they develop from the rocky soil. In contrast, Anxi County, at a slightly lower elevation and closer to the coast, has richer soil and higher humidity. Oolongs from Anxi are characteristically rolled and roasted, which serves to reduce exposed surface area and keep the tea fresher in a more humid environment. By contrast, Wuyi oolong leaves are twisted into long, wiry strands and given a heavier roast for preservation.
The coastal access made these teas more accessible for the broader export market, so the rolled leaves from Anxi are familiar to many people as oolong tea. The tieguanyin ("Iron Goddess of Mercy") variety from this region is especially famous. The coastal location also made Anxi oolong tea varieties a prime candidate for transplant to Taiwan when immigrants from the Chinese mainland began settling there.
Phoenix Mountain, Guangdong
This remote part of Guangdong is the only place where the unique Phoenix oolong teas are grown and crafted. In a totally unique process, the farmers in this region grow tea plants from cuttings or clones, preserving the genetic material of the original tree and cultivating plants with very specific flavor profiles. Called dancong (“single grove”), these trees are grown, plucked, and crafted to emphasize the natural flavor nuances of each lineage.
This method of cultivation is unlike any other traditional style, because this area is so inaccessible. Though some of the trees on Phoenix Mountain can trace their lineage back to the Song Dynasty, it was not until more than 500 years later, during the Qing Dynasty, that a Chinese author visited Chaozhou and documented these unusual teas. It is no surprise that Phoenix oolong teas are largely unknown except among tea connoisseurs, even today.
We think that’s a shame, because these teas can be incredible, with overt fruit and flower fragrances inherent within the leaves. In addition, these pedigreed plants grow well past their peak production, growing into small trees instead of pruned into neat hedges. In fact, leaves for premium Phoenix oolong teas are not plucked until the tree is at least 60 years old. The old growth trees develop deep root systems, and an unparalleled intensity of flavor.
Finally, across the Taiwan Strait, the youngest oolong producing region has grown into a modern tea paradise. The first tea plants in Taiwan were transplanted from Anxi County, along with the crafting techniques to make rolled oolongs. But the island is geographically diverse, with terrain ranging from rolling hills and fields on the west side, to rugged mountains in the east. Variations in location, and in elevation in particular, create a wide range of specialized local varieties within this subcategory.
The earliest Taiwanese teas were mid-oxidized and roasted to a golden brown color, but innovations in technology allowed tea farmers a little more room for creativity. Today’s most famous Taiwanese oolongs are sometimes confused with green tea, due to their vibrant color. Once unfurled, browning around the edges of the tea leaf should be obvious, but a lower temperature roast preserves the overall green color and a brings forth a distinctly floral fragrance.
Since 1949, when the Republic of China was defeated on the mainland and fled to Taiwan, the Taiwanese government has invested heavily in the island’s tea industry. The Taiwanese Tea Research and Extension Station has been a global leader in developing new varieties, and President Chiang Kai-Shek reportedly played a personal role in establishing tea farms at the highest elevations. With government investment and a well suited environment, Taiwan has rapidly become a leading power in the oolong tea industry.
Since each of these traditional regions produces drastically different styles of oolong tea, it’s important to distinguish what type of oolong you’re looking for. Each of these four areas has a terroir and crafting tradition particularly suited to the local varieties. While experimental cultivars or non-traditional growing areas can produce interesting teas, these four basic categories are the foundation of our understanding of oolong teas.
Which style of oolong is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
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