In the world of tea there are many poetic names. Usually, tea varieties are named for either a key characteristic of the tea’s appearance or taste, or the tea’s legendary origin.
However, there are also names that refer to broad categories of teas. These nonspecific terms can easily be misused. "Milk Oolong" and "Silk Oolong" are general terms that are commonly used, but not commonly understood. These terms are applied to teas across a wide spectrum of quality. In this article, we’ll be clarifying just what kinds of teas these terms are actually describing.
Milk Oolong or Silk Oolong can be any Taiwanese oolong tea.
Taiwanese oolongs are famous for being naturally milky in taste and texture, with sweet fruit or cream notes. They are classified by the name of the mountain, and how high in elevation they are grown. When these teas are grown at high elevation, the aromas and flavors within the tea become more intensely concentrated. The higher the elevation, the more developed and rich the flavors and aromas will be.
This means there is a huge difference between a tea grown at 700 meters above sea level and a tea grown at 1,800 meters. Knowing the name of the mountain and the elevation at which the tea was grown is critical. Generic terms like “Milk Oolong” or “Silk Oolong” do not specify the origin, meaning the tea could come from anywhere. It could have been grown at a high elevation on Lishan mountain, a lower elevation near Taipei, or even from somewhere other than Taiwan.
This means teas from any mass market tea plantation can potentially be bought and sold as “Milk” or “Silk Oolong”. Given the rise in popularity of Taiwanese oolongs, there is certainly incentive to capitalize on that popularity. A low grade tea can be marketed as “Silk Oolong” and suddenly be sold at far greater value than its worth.
Milk Oolong or Silk Oolong is a common name for the Jin Xuan variety.
Jin Xuan is a very new tea in terms of tea history. It was created in the 1980’s by the Taiwanese Tea Research and Extension Station as a new tea cultivar. It is so well known for its creamy and sweet flavors that “Milk Oolong” is a common alternative name for the variety.
Fresh and mildly sweet, thick and creamy in body, both bright and mellow, a true high elevation Jin Xuan is a dream to drink, and is considered the most authentic version of “Milk Oolong”.
Like most tea drinkers that favor Taiwanese oolongs, I was first introduced to them by trying Jin Xuan. The experience gradually turned me onto trying Taiwanese oolongs grown at higher elevations, but it was the first taste of sweet and milky Jin Xuan that started it all.
These days, “Jin Xuan” and “Milk Oolong” are used interchangeably, but this was not always the case. Years ago, the name “Milk Oolong” typically described teas that had added sweeteners and milk flavorings. This gave rise to an untrue and bizarre myth: that “milk” oolong meant tea leaves somehow infused with milk in the production process.
Taiwanese oolongs are not produced using milk, cream, or any dairy products.
This is a common myth that has somehow taken root. It’s difficult to trace the origin of a rumor, but one likely answer is that it began decades ago when naturally sweet and creamy Taiwanese oolongs first started gaining recognition. Taiwan is a small island with little land mass to put to use growing tea, so natural Taiwanese oolongs have always been limited in supply. Imitations of these oolongs rapidly appeared on the market, using artificial sweeteners and milk flavorings to replicate the tea’s natural creaminess.
The myth claiming these artificially scented teas were actually “naturally” infused with milk during the harvesting process probably came about as a way to explain away any concerns about the uncanny sweetness, to make it seem more natural, or to make it sound more exotic. In any case, it’s most certainly not true.
For one thing, milk or cream are not commonly consumed or produced in Taiwan, and the amount of milk or cream it would require to somehow flavor the tea would make the cost of production far too high. Most importantly, how milk or cream could even be used to flavor the tea without the milk spoiling and ruining the tea is never explained.
Occasionally you might hear of teas “watered with milk”, but that begs the question: how does milk flavor transfer through to the tea after simply pouring milk on the ground? Sometimes you might hear that the leaves are “steamed over milk”, or “coated in milk” during production, but given how quickly milk products expire, how would they prevent the milk from spoiling in the process? The chances of using real milk or cream to impart any flavor to dried, preserved tea leaves seems impractical and unlikely.
These days finding any tea seller that perpetuates this myth is rare, and more tea buyers are leaving this myth behind as well. Still, be wary of any source that makes this claim, and consider shopping for tea elsewhere. Anyone who tells you that their oolongs are infused with milk is not selling a natural tea.
The best tea is naturally grown tea.
There’s nothing like drinking a tea and tasting it as an expression of the earth and the skill of the tea craftsman. The experience is always unique and rewarding from brew to brew. This is why it’s important to examine teas with generalized, nonspecific names a little more carefully than most, as you can never be completely sure of their origin.
Mountain, elevation, harvest date. These are the factors by which you want to search for naturally grown Taiwanese oolongs. An even better way to determine naturally grown oolongs is to test the flavor over multiple steeps. Natural flavor lasts over many brews, while artificial flavorings rest on the surface of the leaf, and wash away after the first steep.
For those interested in discovering what the taste of natural “Milk Oolong” is like, we highly recommend starting with our high mountain Jin Xuan. We’re sure it will taste so lovely that you’ll remember it by name.
And if you want to treat yourself to something truly special, we recommend our Jin Xuan Winter Sprout: a tea harvested in the colder winter months when the tea is dormant, and far sweeter than the typical spring harvest Jin Xuan. The elevated notes of sweetness developed during the plant’s dormancy are perfectly captured, and naturally, deliciously creamy.
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