Oolong tea is not merely tasty, but its flavonoids also mobilize your inner energy. As various ancient Chinese legends have described, the name oolong means “Black Dragon” or “Black Snake.” One of these stories describes how a tea plantation owner had such a fright after glimpsing a black snake that he wouldn’t go near his already picked tea leaves for several days. When he finally and carefully ventured back to collect the leaves, moisture and the sun had done their work — oxidation had taken place. Frugal as he was, he did not want to waste the fermented leaves, so he took them home and brewed a pot of tea. To his astonishment, he was rewarded with a marvelously fragrant beverage.
The biological origin of oolong tea
Thea sinensis and Thea assamica are the two types of plants from which tea is derived. The latter, commonly known as “Assam tea,” mostly grown in India, is a beverage with completely different flavors from those of Chinese tea.
To make the desirable oolong tea, it is necessary for the leaves to wilt in the sun after they are picked. Then, they are stored in a room, routinely shaken, and lofted in bamboo sieves. This process breaks down the cell structure at the leaves’ edges, and the emerging oxygen reacts with the air. The resulting copper-colored leaves attest to the effect of fermentation, which is now visible, and the tea leaves have reached the desired degree of fermentation.
Heating the leaves in iron pans, the next step, stops the fermentation process. The range of flavors of the tea, which depends on quality, goes all the way from fruity-flowery to almost malt-like. Since oolong tea is half fermented, the palate recognizes it as a beverage tasting somewhere between a green and a black tea. The same leaves can be brewed several times, but each brewing leads to an increasingly weaker beverage.
The best quality oolong tea is grown and processed in Taiwan. The costliest is Dong Ding, named for the Dong Ding Mountain in the Taiwanese province of Nantou. Another well-known variety comes from Fujian Province in mainland China called Te Kwan Yin. A few years ago, India and Malaysia also started producing oolong teas.
In the past few years, the medical community and nutrition experts have hailed the health benefits of green tea, particularly oolong. Scientific research has borne out the effects of oolong tea’s abilities to minimize specific health problems and prevent certain illnesses. It is particularly beneficial for the circulatory system and effective against stomach upsets. Lao Cha is recognized as being particularly effective against the latter ailment.
Taiwan’s oolong tea — a specialty
The Island of Taiwan, with an area of 36,000 square kilometers, is located approximately 200 kilometers south of the Chinese mainland. Taiwan’s annual export volume of 20,000 tons of oolong tea plays a major role in the economy. Taiwan got its first tea plants from Fujian Province in the middle of the 17th century. Nantou, the island’s chief tea growing region, has optimum conditions for successful tea crops, for it has the right combination of good soil, fog, and sunshine. These climatic conditions are needed to produce prime teas. The broad, high valleys make tea growing possible up to an elevation of 2,400 meters. The town of Loku is in the prime tea growing region. Loku also contains the oldest tea museum.
Depending on the degree of fermentation, oolong is rated into four categories
Pouchong is fermented up to 12 percent, Zheng Cha is fermented up to 30 percent, So Cha Oolong is fermented up to 50 percent, and tightly rolled and Kao Shan Cha, also called Highland Tea, is grown at an elevation of 1,800 meters.
Zhu-Gu, a particularly choice oolong, is a so-called Lao Cha. Only the rare teas that are at least two years old qualify for the Lao Cha designation. Translated from older Chinese wording, it means “old, mature tea.” It is only produced in small quantities at an elevation of about 1,000 meters. Its production is considered an art and is a rarity in the tea trade. It is also not widely known. Just like fine wine, this type of tea becomes better with age if stored correctly. Every two years this tea must undergo a roasting process. Since this tea loses its caffeine through long storage and repeated roasting, even people with stomach problems can drink it. That is one reason for the use of this tea in traditional Chinese medicine treatments.
Bai Shan Yuan oolong tea — another rarity
Called the “Champagne of Teas” and grown at an elevation of 1,000 meters in an area of Taiwan’s most centrally located mountains, this small tea plantation enjoys optimal growing conditions. It has good soil and the right mix of fog and sunshine. Almost like a miracle, the September 19, 1999 earthquake spared this plot of ground, while all around, the mountains slid into the valleys below. As the Chinese saying goes: “The heavens won’t let happen what is not supposed to happen.”
According to traditional Chinese tea ceremony etiquette, people are supposed to sit upright, empty their minds, and move slowly when preparing and serving tea. In addition, it is considered beneficial to prepare and consume the tea in pleasant surroundings. Let’s hope this pleasant custom continues on to benefit future generations.