Throughout the long history of tea in China, crafting methods have evolved and diverged to create the vast array of styles we know today. One such shift has transformed the colors and flavors of oolong teas within the last century, fundamentally changing the world’s definition of what makes a good oolong.
Nong xiang (“strong fragrance”) oolong teas are the more traditional variety, while qing xiang (“clear fragrance”) oolong teas are the modern style that has taken the world by storm. This distinction is clearest among rolled oolongs from Taiwan and Anxi County, where qing xiang crafting is now much more common than the traditional nong xiang style. Preference depends on personal taste, of course, but understanding the difference can make it easier to pick the right oolong tea for you.
Traditionally, most tea crafting methods centered on the core problem of removing moisture from the tea leaves in order to preserve them for long-term storage or travel. In Anxi County, the preferred method was to roll the tea leaves into small bundles, thereby reducing exposed surface area and making the tea easier to transport. Before and during the rolling process, the leaves were left to wither and wilt, slowly releasing moisture throughout the crafting steps. Finally, the rolled leaves were given a long, slow roast over a charcoal fire, which imparted a new layer of flavor while also serving as a final drying step.
This series of steps resulted in a tea that would keep much longer in the humid climate of China’s southern coast, when compared to the delicate green teas that came from regions to the north. The oxidation and roasting also served to mellow any sharp notes of bitterness that might be present, especially in the plentiful tea leaves harvested in the summer. These teas quickly became known for their unique flavor profile, a mix of rich, toasty, and notably nutty notes.
Today, given the popularity of the greener, qing xiang style, these nong xiang crafting methods are not commonly practiced, and are in fact being lost to memory as a new generation of tea makers take the helm. Modern oolongs from Anxi County may be called nong xiang with just a heavy finishing roast, but minimal oxidation. This is usually enough to give the leaves the characteristically dark color, but does not generally live up to the flavor complexity that comes from the most traditional crafting methods.
Today, the most common rolled oolongs are a vibrant green color, and are often referred to as “Green” or “Jade” oolongs. Developed in the relatively recent past, these qing xiang styles are oxidized no more than 20-30% before undergoing a gentle finishing roast, usually in a convection oven. As might be expected, these teas don’t typically retain their flavor as long as the traditional nong xiang styles, but their shelf life is commonly extended with modern technology like vacuum-sealed bags and climate-controlled storage.
First developed in Taiwan, the Qing Xiang style puts the natural flavor of the tea leaf on full display. Without heavy oxidation or roasting, there is nothing to mask any bitterness, astringency, or vegetal flavors that might emerge in fast-growing leaves. The development of this style coincided with the emergence of high mountain Taiwanese oolongs, and it suits these slow-grown leaves by showing off their naturally creamy textures and incredible complexity of flavor.
It is also a faster, easier method for crafting tea in bulk, without the tedious and careful monitoring needed to oxidize leaves evenly or roast them without burning. Convection ovens, especially, have made this style fairly accessible to produce. This has, inevitably, led to the dissemination of these techniques, which are now used to craft oolongs at all elevations and levels of quality. Unfortunately, mass-market versions are usually less palatable than their more oxidized counterparts, and can be notably harsh or vegetal, especially when brewed with a heavy hand.
When done right, qing xiang oolongs can be wonderfully rich and creamy, with naturally bright and floral nuances on the palate. But their worldwide popularity has spawned a vast array of low-quality examples, and despite a recent resurgence of interest in traditional nong xiang styles, it is becoming ever more difficult to find tea makers who are well-versed in the older techniques.
Seismic shifts in tea culture are nothing new, though, and both styles of oolong require a careful balance of terroir, cultivation, and craftsmanship to turn out well. Ultimately, the distinction is one of personal flavor preference, rather than overall quality.
Do you like your oolong teas on the dark side or the light side? Let us know in the comments below!
Sign up for our newsletter to get blog updates in your inbox!