The wonder of tea is that as well as there being so many different types to choose from, within those types each tea often boasts a bevy of different fragrances and flavours. Oolong tea is one such type. Half fermented and, because of this, standing between green (unfermented) and black (fully fermented) teas, the various tastes of an oolong brew can range between fruity or floral to deep and roasted.
While much of this is down to good growing conditions, a really great oolong also owes a lot to the skill of the tea maker. A craft that involves a complex rolling, roasting and cooling method, the skill in this and the resulting shape of the leaf will determine whether the oolong is a light tea, a dark tea or a ruined tea with a taste and smell similar to a ton of spilt perfume or, even worse, a pot of boiled socks!
With its warm, humid climate, Taiwan is one of the best producers of tea, with oolongs grown on this small island nation accounting for 20% of total world production. The oolongs here are renowned for their light, fragrant flavours, somewhat similar to green tea, and are in contrast to many of the oolongs grown on mainland China which generally have a richer, roasted character.
The most popular Taiwan oolong is high mountain oolong, which early Chinese settlers brought from mainland China to Taiwan during the late 17th century. Over hundreds of years this tea was carefully cultivated in Taiwan’s mountainous centre becoming what is often referred to as one of the finest oolong’s – if not teas – in the world.
Nonetheless, taste is all down to personal preference and there are a host of other oolongs that should be sampled, including Iron Buddha (also called Tie Guan Yin, Chinese Oolong or Buddha of Mercy), Phoenix Tea and Da Hong Pao (also known as Wuyi Cliff Tea and Big Red Robe).
However, regardless of whether your cup of oolong is light or deep in taste and aroma, a key feature of all oolongs is that the more they are steeped the better the flavour. Unlike the regular black teas that people in the west primarily drink which, if steeped, will turn into a pool of murky brown water and will probably stain your tea cup too, oolong teas can evolve their taste be being steeped several times.
A tradition of Taiwan tea drinkers which is catching on among tea enthusiasts in the West is to drink oolongs Gong Fu style. This involves successive brews of loose tea in small Yixing clay teapots. The tea is then poured into ceramic cups and enjoyed steep by steep.
The aim is to draw out the oolong’s flavour more fully with each successive infusion. In this way you and whomever you’re sharing your drink with, can enjoy the tea’s evolving taste and bouquet.
Concentrating the mind on fragrance and flavour is also somewhat meditative and a truly pleasant way to relax after a hard day’s work or to power up for a busy time ahead.