The Sip – May – Adventures in Oolong

“’Would you like an adventure now,’ Peter Pan said casually to John, ‘or shall we have our tea first?’  Wendy said “tea first’ quickly, and Michael pressed her hand in gratitude, but the braver John hesitated.”  These words were famously penned in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  I happen to applaud Wendy’s desire for a solid cup of tea before delving into Neverland, for how else would the children have been able to so stolidly fend off the nefarious Captain Hook with such alert enthusiasm?  Though, of course, the story was not specific in which type of tea was consumed before fighting the scurrilous crew of the Jolly Roger, I’m going to let my imagination run wild and pretend that it was a daring cup of “black dragon,” or oolong tea, which I believe walks both the routes of traditional tea drinking while also flying into a unique realm of tastes.

Oolong-TeaSo what is it about oolong that makes it such a fantastic adventure of flavor?  Well first off, its origins are just as mysterious as the flavor profile of the tea itself.  It appears that my quest for oolong’s beginning came up with not one, but three historical theories.  Also known as wu-long (wu meaning black, and long meaning dragon), oolong is a Chinese black tea that emerged before the 16th Ming Dynasty.

In the “tribute tea” theory, oolong began within the 10th century Northern Song Dynasty, where the longest existing tea garden, Beiyuan, produced the exalted Dragon-Phoenix Tea Cake (or, Longfong Tuancha).  As tea cakes grew less fashionable in the Ming dynasty, Beiyuan began the process of producing the tea as loose leaf teas, to appease the desires of the culture-driven emperors.

Another theory, which happens to be my personal favorite from a storytelling perspective, originates within the Anxi county in China’s Fujian Province.  According to this theory, there was a dark-skinned hunter called the Black Dragon, who went hunting one afternoon and accidentally left his tea to ferment too long in his bag.  As he gave chase to a wild beast, the tea leaves within the bag became bruised, thus allowing them to oxidize.  The result of this chase was an exceptionally fragrant tea that the people named after the Black Dragon to honor him for this very happy accident.

The final theory of origin falls to the beautiful Wuyi Mountain region within the Fujian Province, where the tea is allegedly named for the part of the mountain where it was produced.  Two literary pieces published within the Qing Dynasty make reference to the tea, both the Wuyi Tea Song by Yi Chaoqun and the Tea Tale by Wang Chaotang.  Both pieces make reference to the fermentation process as well as the unique aromatics of oolong tea.

Where the origins of oolong may be a little shrouded in mystery, the factors that make it unique are not.  As all true teas do, oolong comes from the camellia sinensis plant.  It is semi-fermented, which places it as more oxidized than green teas (which are unoxidized), yet much less so than a black tea (which are fully oxidized).  The result of this fall on the tea spectrum is a less sweet flavor profile than black tea, but a distinctly less grassy flavor than green teas, and a caffeine content that falls just about in the middle of both.

In order for oolong to become oolong, it has to go through seven processing steps.  Once the leaves are picked, they are spread out for withering.  Withering brings the leaf moisture to the surface in order to start the natural fermentation process within the leaves, and also reduces the grassy flavors usually associated with green teas.  Once this process is started, the leaves are then turned over, or repeatedly shaken, in order to further the oxidation and mixes the leaves and stems; this reduces the bitterness in the resulting tea and brings balance to the chemicals within the leaves.  Once this has been achieved, the tea leaves are allowed to rest for further oxidation.  It is at this stage that the flavor profile of the leaves begins to develop, such as whether there will be grassy, fruity or floral elements.  After the resting stage, there is a “kill green” or fixing process, which uses a variety of techniques from steaming to pressing to baking, to stop the fermentation process without any damage to the leaves.  After this process, the leaves can be rolled through hot or cold rollers, depending on the oolong variety, which shapes the leaves and brings out the intensity of the tea’s flavor profile by breaking down the leaves a little more.  Once this has been completed, the drying phase begins, either by use of the sun, pan heat or hot air methods.  This is a critical stage in that the final moisture of the leaves is determined, fermentation is stopped, mold growth is prevented, and any unwanted grassy aromatics are removed.   Once all of this has been accomplished, oolong teas go through some type of firing process, either with pan roasting over charcoal or electric heat elements, which will result in more of a smoky or fruity profile, depending on the type of oolong desired.  One of the wonders of oolong tea is the reach of profiles that can be found.  Oolongs can taste fruity, floral, smoky, grassy, honey toned, nutty, or earthy.  Plenty of different options for many tea adventures!

In addition to the myriad of tastes, oolong teas are becoming more renowned for their incredible health benefits as well.  Being featured with prominence for its metabolism-revving qualities, oolong tea has long been recognized as a slimming tea in Chinese medicine because it improves the way that enzymes in the body break down fat.  The polyphenols within the tea also help to inhibit bacterial growth and prevent tooth decay; the high vitamin C content is great for the skin and overall immune system.  Recent Japanese studies have shown that drinking oolong tea for a month can help to lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and complement diabetes treatments by helping to reduce plasma glucose.  And of course, like all teas, oolong has the ability to neutralize free radicals in the body, by up to 50% in 15 days.

A terrific way to delve into an excursion of oolong would be to visit Liquid Planet’s bulk tea section.  One of the most popular oolongs is the Phoenix #1 Iron Goddess Oolong.  With its light flavor suffused with exotic orchid notes, you’re bound to fall in love in the first sip.  If that doesn’t convince you, try my personal favorite, the Oolong Orange Blossom, which delivers a more heady and toasty profile.  The jasmine tones to the tea make it exceptional in an iced form, which is perfect for sipping on the hot days that (eventually) we will see in Montana summers.  For the traditional tea drinker, the Formosa Oolong is also excellent, being sweet and smooth, and the racy Hunan Red Oolong will also delight the senses from its red hue in the cup to the light spicy finish.  I recommend preparing this tea with water that is slightly less than a boil, and discarding the first infusion to allow the leaves to unfurl and awaken all of the beautiful flavors within.  And remember, as you are drinking, a quote from Catherine Douzel, who expressed that “each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage.”  May your cup be filled to overflowing while you take your next sipping sojourn.

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