Oolong teas compose one of the most varied categories of tea because they cover the entire range of oxidation levels between green and black tea. Newcomers to this category might be surprised to find that two teas called “oolong” could be completely different in aroma, flavor, and even leaf shape. In fact, there are four main types of oolong, hailing from four geographically isolated regions near the eastern coast of China. Each region has its own unique terroir and specialized varieties of Camellia sinensis, but the easiest influence to observe in the final flavors of the tea is each region’s specific crafting style. And one aspect of the finished tea that gives us a clue to crafting style is leaf shape.
Some oolong teas consist of compressed, or “balled” tea leaves. Though high quality versions will expand into large, unbroken leaves, these oolongs are always tightly compressed into small, round pebbles. Commonly used in both Anxi County, Fujian and across the strait in Taiwan, this technique reduces the amount of surface area exposed to air, and is preferred for most lightly oxidized oolongs, which remain green in color. More oxidized leaves can be rolled as well, and some rolled teas from both regions are heavily roasted, resulting in richer flavor profiles and a darker leaf.
Green-style oolongs from both Taiwan and China are well known for intense floral aromas, but Taiwanese teas are also notable for the creamy textures that develop at high elevations. Oolong teas from Taiwan are typically named for the mountain they are grown on, like Tung Ting (Cold Summit), Alishan, or Lishan (Pear Mountain). Lightly oxidized styles are a popular recent development in Anxi County, where traditional nong xiang Tieguanyin are still valued for their rich flavor and nutty finish.
Just as with rolled oolongs, twisted oolongs are produced in two main regions, but these two styles have much less in common than the two rolled types. In the southern province of Guangdong, oolongs from the Phoenix Mountains are twisted and oxidized up to 30% to bring forth natural flavor notes of fruit or flowers. These teas are finished with a light roast to emphasize their bright aromas and subtle flavor notes. Meanwhile, in the Wuyi Mountains of northern Fujian, leaves are bruised and allowed to oxidize until they are nearly 70% brown before undergoing heavy roasting, traditionally over charcoal wood. These teas emerge bold and toasty, fortified with the flavor of the roast.
Again, color is a clue to the specific style, but this difference is more subtle than in rolled oolongs. Instead, the aroma and flavor notes are the greatest distinguishing factor when observing these two styles of tea. Wuyi oolongs will appear darker, almost black, and smell smoky or toasted, while Phoenix oolongs will lighten to a mottled red and green when rehydrated, and smell more honey-like or fruity.
Unfortunately, leaf shape alone tells us little about the actual flavor of the tea, which depends more on factors like harvest date and oxidation level. But paying attention to leaf shape along with other details can help identify specific styles that you like (or don’t like), and choose new teas accordingly.
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