Oolong tea (also sometimes called Wu Long tea meaning “black dragon”) is a variety of Camellia sinensis that has been partially fermented to give it a colour between green and black tea. It is commonly served in Chinese restaurants or sold as “weight loss tea” due to its high caffeine content which encourages fat metabolism. Each cup has around 10-15% of the caffeine in cup of coffee. Oolong tea can be processed in two main ways, either as long curly leaves or rolled into tight balls similar to gunpowder tea, sometimes called dragon pearl tea. The Chinese often call these partially fermented teas as “red tea” although it should not be confused with Rooibos, the African “Red Bush” tea that is a completely different plant.
History of Oolong Tea
There are three accepted theories of where oolong tea originates.
According to the “tribute tea” theory during the 10th century the best teas were pressed into blocks and offered to the emperor as tributes. The emperors set up a tea garden in Beiyuan that was famous for its production of “dragon-phoenix tea cake” made of the two types of tea produced here, Dragon (Long) and Phoenix (Fong). When the tea cake fell out of fashion and loose tea was preferred, the Beiyuan gardens begun to produce a dark glossy tea which they named Black Dragon (Wu Long).
The “Wuyi” theory says that oolong tea originated from the Wuyi mountain in Fujian province in the 16th century. The earliest literary records of oolong tea both come from this place and time: the Wuyi Chage (Wuyi Tea Song) by Yi Chaoqun and the Chashuo (Tea Tale) by Wang Chaotang who both mention the unique baking process used in their province to produce an unusual reddish coloured tea.
The final “Anxi” theory says that it was first discovered by a man called Sulong whose name became corrupted to Wulong by local dialects. Another version of this tale attributes the discovery of oolong tea to a hunter who forgot his tea was in his bag while chasing after a deer. When he realized, the tea had already been bruised allowing for fermentation to occur and noticed it had become very fragrant. Various sources say his name was “WuLiang” which became corrupted to oolong or that he was called “Dragon” and had very dark skin and so nicknamed Black Dragon or Wu Long. The tea kept his name in honour of his accidental discovery.
Oolong Tea Health Benefits
Since oolong tea is somewhere between black and green tea it is unsurprising to see it has health benefits somewhere between those two varieties. It is estimated to have some of the anti-oxidant properties of green tea which help to combat many signs of aging and prevent age related diseases. It is known to reduce stress, boost the immune system, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels and speed up the metabolism leading to fat burning and increased endurance to exercise while blocking fat absorption from food in our diet. These fat burning properties has led to oolong tea having a reputation as slimming tea. There is a lot of controversy on this subject with many vendors making near miraculous claims. Tea can help with weight loss through a number of the factors mentioned above, and oolong tea maybe more than others due to its similarity to green tea but with a higher caffeine content that will increase some of the metabolic effects but it will only help if used consistently over time and as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Types of Oolong Tea
As with all types of tea there are many varieties from all over China. There are two that are especially worthy of note:
Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe Tea) is a famous Chinese tea from the Wuyi cliffs in Fujian province. Legend says that the mother of a Ming dynasty emperor was cured of illness by a certain tea and the emperor sent great red robes to clothe the four bushes from which the tea was picked. These four bushes are said to survive today and be highly venerated with its cuttings being retained by the Chinese government or auctioned for millions of dollars per kg. Recent interest in tea has caused some of these original plants to be cloned and sold commercially for more reasonable prices, sometimes called Xiao Hong Pao (Small Red Robe) or just Hong Pao (Red Robe) tea.
Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess Tea) is another famous oolong tea from Anxi in the Fujian province but also grown in Taiwan with some success. This is fermented for relatively little time compared to other oolong varieties and so maintains the delicate, flowery aroma of a green tea but without the astringency. Many myths and legends are associated with this tea, including one that the Buddhist monks used to train monkeys to pick the tea, hence one of its nicknames “Monkey Picked Tea”.
Dongfang Meiren (Eastern Beauty Tea) is an oolong tea from Taiwan that easily recognised by its white or golden tips on dark purple or brown leaves. It has a pleasant fruity aroma and makes a bright reddish-orange tea with sweet flavour and little bitterness.
Pouchong (Wrapped Tea) is the most common oolong variety from Taiwan. Its name comes from the traditional practice of wrapping the tea in paper while it dries. It has a rich mild taste and a floral or melon fragrance. Most scented oolong teas are of this variety with rose pouchong being a particular favourite.
Generally around 2.25g per 170ml of water should be used and prepared with water at 180 to 190°F (82 to 88°C) for three to five minutes. In China and Taiwan a tea ceremony called gongfucha is performed using oolong tea where the tea is steeped multiple times for intervals of 20 seconds to 1 minute in a clay tea pot.