Oolong tea is a unique and distinctive Chinese tea, known for its slightly oxidized taste and aroma that sits somewhere between green and black tea. This tea is produced mainly in Fujian and Guangdong provinces, as well as in Taiwan, and includes famous Chinese teas such as Tieguanyin, Dahongpao, Phoenix Narcissus, White Crest, Phoenix Bush, and Iron Lohan. In Taiwan, the most well-known Oolong teas are Dongding, Wenshan Pouchong, and Oriental Beauty, also known as Formosa Tea or White Tipped Oolong Tea.
The Origins of Oolong Tea: Beiyuan Tea
The history of Oolong tea can be traced back more than 1,000 years to a traditional form of tea known as Beiyuan tea. This tea was the earliest known tribute tea produced in Fujian and was one of the most well-known teas during the Song Dynasty. The Beiyuan area, located around Phoenix mountain in Fujian, had been a tea producing area since the earlier Tang Dynasty. Beiyuan tea was a compressed type of tea, with the leaves compressed into cakes. When these cakes went out of fashion with the royalty, the area began producing a partially oxidized loose-leaf tea instead, which would eventually become the original Oolong tea.
The Legendary Story of Oolong Tea
There is also a legendary story about the origins of Oolong tea. During the Qing Dynasty, a tea farmer in Fujian was picking tea one day when he saw a deer. Deciding to hunt the deer instead of processing the picked tea, it was not until the next day that he got around to finishing the tea. By that time, the edges of the leaves had partially oxidized, giving off a surprisingly good aroma. When the processing was finished, the resulting tea had a completely new, strong sweet flavor, without any of the bitterness that was usually produced. This farmer’s nickname was Oolong, and so the new tea was named after him.
The History of Taiwanese Oolong Tea
In the early 1800s, a Fujian tea merchant took some seeds to Taiwan to see how well the plants would grow there. It proved to be very successful, and in the following years, tea production in Taiwan became widespread. However, for the first half of the century, most of the tea was sent back to Fujian to be processed. This changed in 1868 when a British man named John Dodd decided that this was hugely inefficient and hired some Fujian tea masters to set up tea processing in Taipei. This worked out very well, and in the following year, Dodd shipped 127 tonnes of what was then called Formosa tea to the United States, where it was a great success. From that time on, Oolong tea has been the most widely exported type of tea from Taiwan.
Oolong Tea Today
In the mid-1900s, oolong tea’s popularity had surged so much that its production had expanded to Taiwan. Taiwan’s variable weather and terrain make the overall quality and taste profiles of teas grown there unpredictable, which can change significantly from season to season.
Today, oolong tea is cultivated in various parts of Asia, including India and Nepal in the past decade. Despite this expansion, the best oolongs still tend to come from the Anxi and Fujian regions of China or Taiwan. To savor the full experience of oolong tea, it is best to prepare it using the methods that were crafted during its early inception.
Oolong tea’s fascinating history, from Beiyuan tea to Oriental Beauty, demonstrates the evolution of tea production over time. Its unique characteristics and flavor profile have made it a popular choice among tea drinkers worldwide. So, whether you prefer Chinese Oolongs like Tieguanyin or Taiwanese Oolongs like Dongding, there is an Oolong tea out there waiting for you to discover.