THIS IS NOT MEANT TO COVER EVERY OOLONG OUT THERE.
IF I’VE MISSED ONE, PLEASE NOTE IT IN A COMMENT.
Oolongs are very special teas, with a wide array of types, and often with lots of processing time and effort needed to get the flavors just right. There are several areas in the world where the best oolongs come from, but how do they compare? We’ll start with a look at those from what many consider the ultimate location for oolongs: Wuyi Mountains in the northern part of Fujian Province, China.
What makes the difference between one oolong and another? Location, location, location. Ha! Actually, it’s things like elevation, climate, cultivars, and of course who is processing those leaves. How fast or slow a plant grows affects it, how much rainfall or mist/fog it gets is another influencer. Does it grow on a slope or on level land? Is the soil more mineral or loamy?
The Wuyi Mountains are one of the most highly regarded areas for oolongs. Wuyishan is one of the most popular mountains in that range. Tea farming has been going on there for centuries, so some of the trees are centuries old, too. They have the perfect climate (humidity mixed with high rainfall, commonly producing dense fog in the mountains, and annual temperatures of 12-18° C). The teas from this area are generally described to have richly brown leaves that infuse a liquid with a deep tawny brown liquor and an exceptionally smooth flavor and satisfying finish. But there are several varieties.
These teas are also commonly called “Rock Oolongs” or “Wuyi Rock Oolongs.” The name refers to what is called their unique “charm of rock,” referring to a rock-like aroma that enriches and mellows the flavor plus provides a sweet aftertaste that lingers. This is definitely an effect of terroir where the geographic composite is absorbed through the roots of the plants into the leaves. No wonder its reputation for excellence goes back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and was one of the royal tribute teas in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). They even established the “imperial tea garden” there in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD).
The province’s climate is overall mild and humid. January is usually the coldest month and has a mean temperature of 5°C (41°F) in the northwest and 12°C (53.6°F) in the southeast. July is usually the hottest month with a temperature range of 25-30°C (77-86°F). Rainfall is very high, averaging 800-1,900 mm per year, with most of it falling in Autumn, the typhoon season. This can cause erratic periods of growth, slower during the times when there is less rainfall, and faster during the higher rainfall periods, and going dormant in the colder months. How fast the leaves grow can affect the chemistry of the leaves, the development of chlorophyll, and the resulting flavors. There are also pockets of micro-climates due to the mountainous terrain, especially in the northern part of the province.
Some Northern (Wuyi Rock) Fujian Oolongs:
- Bai Ji Guan (“White Cockscomb/ White Rooster”, 白鸡冠, 白雞冠) – A member of Si Da Ming Cong, the four famous Wuyi Oolong tea bushes (Da Hong Pao, Bai Ji Guan, Shui Jin Gui, and Tieluohan). Produced in Waigui Hole at the foot of Flame Peak in Huiyuan Rock and in the back of Gongci Hill of Wuyi Mountain. A light tea with light, yellowish green leaves and bud sets that are curved and fuzzy. The name comes from the tree’s appearance which is said to be a comb of a rooster. The 2nd or 3rd leaves of branch stems are picked in the last 10 days of May. The liquid has a lasting mellow fragrance and sweet taste with an orange and bright appearance.
- Bai Sui Xiang (“100 year fragrance”) – An exceptionally high-grade Wuyi Mountain oolong. The incredibly sweet amber-green liquid has great depth that endures through many infusions and maintains a light aroma unlike most of the common Wuyi Mountain teas.
- Ban Tian Yao – A small subset of Wuyi Oolongs with some of the same characteristics of top quality Da Hong Pao and Shui Jin Gui oolongs. A surprising flavor with layers of intense fruity aromas that comes from the roasting of the tea leaves. Ages well, so a good choice for collectors of fine teas.
- Da Hong Pao (“Big Red Robe”, 大红袍, 大紅袍) – One of two oolongs on the list of Chinese famous teas. A member of Si Da Ming Cong, the four famous Wuyi Oolong tea bushes (Da Hong Pao, Bai Ji Guan, Shui Jin Gui, and Tieluohan). Considered the best quality in Wuyi Rock Chinese tea. The tea tree it is made from is the most famous one in Wuyi Mountain, honored as “king of the tea.” and growing on a steep rock in Jiulongke. It gets a limited number of hours of sunshine there and is subjected to a wide temperature spread between day and night. The most pronounced “charm of the rock” quality for which this category of oolongs are named. It can be infused 7 or 8 times and still produce a high-quality liquid. Several versions/grades, including medium roast and light roast. Shop.
- Fo Shou (“Buddha Hand”) – The name came from the observation that matured leaves look like a tiny hand. This tea is grown and processed in small quantities, but since it is roasted (medium level), you can store it at room temperature for several years. Some of the leaves after infusing are 8-10 cm long. Infuse lightly in a gaiwan and observe the sweet, fruity aroma.
- Qi Dan – A uniquely multi-dimensional flavor and a silky-smooth aftertaste that endures through multiple infusions. Made from the Qidan varietal and considered equal to the finest Da Hong Pao with a flavor more like a mid-roasted tea. Naturally sweet and delicious with fruity overtones.
- Qi Lan – A lighter Wuyi Oolong with hui gan (a sweet aroma after drinking). It shares many characteristics with Qi Dan but has a quite different overall flavor.
- Ròu Guì (“Cassia”, “Cassia Bark”, “Cinnamon”, 肉桂) – Long lasting cups of this strong, full-bodied tea are both stimulating and refreshing. This tea’s name comes from the famous fragrance similar to the cassia tree’s spicy bark. There is, though, no actual cassia or cinnamon in this tea; the aroma is naturally occurring. More info on our blog. Shop.
- Shui Jin Gui (“Golden Marine Turtle”, 水金龟, 水金龜) – In Chinese, a Si Da Ming Cong. A member of Si Da Ming Cong, the four famous Wuyi Oolong tea bushes (Da Hong Pao, Bai Ji Guan, Shui Jin Gui, and Tieluohan). Produced at the foot of Dugezhai Peak of Niulan Pit in Wuyi Mountain. The tea tree has dense leaves and branches that cross each other, looking a bit like a gold tortoise. The liquid has an orange color and is clear and bright with a fragrance of plum blossom and a sweet taste with no bitterness.
- Shui Xian (“Narcissus Oolong”, “Water Fairy”, “Water Immortal”) – Related to the Phoenix Mountain oolongs which are quite famous for their unparalleled fragrance. The picking is the branch’s first 3 or 4 leaves that are then wilted, bruised, and hand-rolled into a shape like a frog’s leg. They are murky dark green and give off an exquisite lacquered fragrance that goes well with the honey-orange colored liquid’s sweetness. Partially oxidized (40-60%). The narcissus floral aroma is natural, not enhanced by any flower petals being added.
- Tieluohan / Tie Luo Han (“Iron Monk Arhat”, 铁罗汉, 鉄羅漢) – One of the best oolong teas. A member of Si Da Ming Cong, the four famous Wuyi Oolong tea bushes (Da Hong Pao, Bai Ji Guan, Shui Jin Gui, and Tieluohan). The tea was supposedly first created by an Arhat (one who has attained nirvana, a sort of inner perfection) in Ghost Cave (also called Fengke Pit) of Huiyuan Rock in Wuyi Mountain. The tea tree of Tieluohan grows in a long and narrow belt along a brook. Three or four pieces of new shoots are picked every Spring. Then they go through a process of drying, cooling, and manipulating. The leaves of the tea are weighty, close-textured twists with deep black-brown color. The liquid flavor is extremely rich and mellow yet refreshing with a lasting aftertaste along and a floral fragrance that remains after brewing 9 infusions. The “charm of rock” is revealed by an enduring mellow aftertaste.
- Xiao Hong Pao (“Small Red Robe”) – A close cousin of Da Hong Pao. The taste and fragrance have similar long-lasting floral undertones that make a bold, honey-roasted finish, partly due to it being a heavily roasted tea.
We’ll explore the oolongs from the southern areas of Fujian province next time on this blog.