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What is oolong tea?

Oolong tends to be less well known and understood than other types of tea, and for good reason. Oolong undergoes the most complex processing methods of all teas and it is said that producing it is an art form that takes a lifetime to perfect. Among the most artisanal of all teas, Oolongs have a uniquely complex taste that is a constant source of intrigue and wonderment. 

One of the reasons for this complexity of flavour is due to Oolong being a partially oxidized tea. This means that its level of oxidation falls somewhere between green and black tea. You can sample Oolongs that are very light, green and and flowery such as Tie Guan Yin to dark oxidized oolongs, like Organic High Mountain Oolong which is very dark with a smooth, tobacco-like taste.

What is oxidation?

Oxidation is a chemical process where the tea leaves turn from green to brown. In food and tea, oxidation happens when a damaged surface is exposed to oxygen (picture above of partially oxidized apple), during that time, new compounds are created at the molecular level that are responsible for flavour. This reaction converts the polyphenols known as catechins into flavanoids called theaflavins and thearubigins (which are also polyphenols).

Do not confuse oxidation with fermentation, we will cover this in a different article.

One of the reasons for this complexity of flavour is due to Oolong being a partially oxidized tea.

Oxidation is the key factor that differentiates one tea from another. Whilst all teas originate from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis, it is largely the processing that creates the huge breadth of flavour. An easier way to visualize this is to know that white and green teas are un-oxidized, while black tea is 100% oxidized. Furthermore, Oolongs tend to be rolled or twisted before they are dried which releases natural oils, further enhancing their aroma and flavour.

Light oxidized oolong: dry leaves vs steeped leaves
Dark oxidized oolong: dry leaves vs steeped leaves

Like all teas, Oolongs are steeped in history and legend.

Such is the case with one of our favourite oolongs, Tie Guan Yin. The story goes that Tie Guan Yin originated in the 19th century in Anxi province, Fujian. The name translates to ‘Iron Goddess of Mercy”, an appropriate name for a tea whose leaves are dark like iron yet the taste is light and ethereal like Guan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of Mercy.

Guanyin – the goddess of mercy and considered to be the physical embodiment of compassion.

The legend goes that in Anxi there was a dilapidated temple dedicated to the goddess Guan Yin. A poor farmer started to sweep the temple and continued to do so for many months. One night the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to look in the cave behind the temple. There he found a single tea shoot which he cultivated and from this the finest tea was produced. Still to this day there is a large statue of Guan Yin at the temple in Anxi. 

Beyond its mythical qualities, oolong is also popular for its health benefits. It is thought that oolong is great for boosting the metabolism. The high level of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals present in tea also help to rid the body of free radicals. That said, the most important thing is that you drink tea because you enjoy the flavour and this is one of the wonderful things about oolong. Whether you tend to go for light, floral teas or smoky dark ones there is an oolong for you. Never forgetting our famous Milk Oolong which is flavoured with vanilla extract making this infusion sweet, creamy and delicious both hot or iced.

Steeping Guides:

To create the perfect oolong infusion we suggest brewing 2g tea per 200ml water (90 degrees) for 3-4 minutes. You can re-steep the same leaves for up 4 times. To make iced oolong tea simply double the quantity of tea per 200ml water and once the brewing time has finished, pour directly over 200g of ice. Let us know if you would like the help of our Tea Specialists to guide you towards finding the perfect tea for you.

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