Imagine spending a million dollars on tea. Unbelievable, right? Oolong tea can cost you from a few dollars to more than a million dollars per kilo depending upon the variety of the tea. Da Hong Pao, a special type of rock tea, and Tieguanyin are the famous expensive varieties of oolong tea. Different varieties of tea are cultivated in different climate conditions i.e., humidity, temperature, and mineral content of the soil. The plants cultivated at high altitude mountains are more expensive. Besides the cultivation conditions, the timing of cultivation, geographical regions of different varieties, and the skills for processing the tea correspond to higher prices. For instance, the oolong tea from Fujian and Formosa grows in a unique range of subtropical temperatures and heavy fogs which give the tea its specific aroma and taste.
Processing of the tea equally contributes to its quality. One wrong step in processing would lead to the blackened rotten leaves and foul smell due to the fermentation. So, the tea needs to be partially fermented and the level of oxidation is controlled. Though getting all the steps in the processes correct would give you a splendid flavor of the tea with its unique characteristics than the fermented black tea and unfermented green tea.
The art of making oolong tea
The processing method for manufacturing a quality oolong tea involves seven major steps and finally the packaging. China and Taiwan are the major producers of oolong tea and their processing methods are known to be the best in the world. The steps include cultivation, harvesting, withering, fermentation, fixation, rolling, and roasting.
As discussed before, the tea plant is cultivated in different geographical areas and climates. The variation in cultivation conditions and the subsequent processing results in a wide range of flavors of the tea. The level of oxidation for the oolong tea ranges from 8-85% whereas green tea is unoxidized and black tea is completely oxidized (100% oxidation).
High mountain teas are harvested about 3-4 times annually. Although lower altitude plants are harvested throughout the year. Soon after the harvesting, the leaves of the oolong tea start fermenting to develop a malty taste. After a certain level of oxidation, the leaves are heated to fix the flavor. Heating ceases the further oxidation reactions. Not only the timing of the fermentation is managed, but also other processes like withering time and atmosphere during withering, temperature and humidity during the fermentation, duration of rolling, and method of roasting determine the flavor and quality of the tea. Thus, a set of skills is required in the production of oolong tea.
Varieties of oolong tea
Oolong tea varieties with complex flavors such as Tie Guan Yin oolong tea and Charcoal roasted oolong tea are classified in the group of ‘dark oolong teas’ which are strongly oxidized and heavily roasted. This kind of processing adds a nutty, bold flavor. To tweak the flavor, the degree of oxidation is further increased to produce a fruity and creamy aroma. Then there are some lightly roasted and slightly fermented varieties with floral scents e.g., Dong Ding Oolong and Concubine oolong. One of the special processing techniques used in making concubine oolong is to allow the leaves of tea to be bitten by a leafhopper which causes the plant to build up a fruity taste.
High mountain oolong tea and Baozhong oolong tea are very lightly oxidized and unroasted. Therefore, their flavor is closer to green tea, though distinct from the traditional green teas due to the lightly fermented leaves. Hong Shui oolong tea is among the strongly oxidized but unroasted oolong teas. Its flavor is closer to the black tea while preserving the complex woodsy taste resembling that of dried fruits.
How to select the best quality oolong?
To get the best quality of oolong, you better look for the spring harvest. It is the best quality oolong. Plus, the spring harvest is a higher quantity harvest so it would correspond to a relatively lower price. The tea harvested in winter has the minimum harvest and good quality which makes it rare and expensive. Fall harvest also produces fine tea but not as good as the spring harvest. Hand-harvested oolong is known to be of better quality, but it involves manual labor and thereby is sold at higher prices. Luckily, there are several options to pick from, different ranges of prices, different varieties, and flavors. Different oxidation levels and roasting give the tea varieties a distinct color and texture. It can be floral green or dark and intense colored. Some more oxidized varieties of oolong can be steeped several times and thus used for multiple infusions. It is better to choose the one from renowned manufacturers if you do not want to compromise on the quality of the oolong tea.
All the hard work and high price, but what’s so special about it?
Despite the high price and extensive processing of the tea, the product is quite popular among tea enthusiasts because of its rich flavors. The consumers of oolong tea are all over the world. It is less commonly consumed than green tea and black tea, however, those who love traditional teas and want to try different variations of the tea find it very refreshing and unique. In addition to the characteristic flavors, there are numerous health benefits of oolong tea. These health benefits include enhanced metabolism and immune system, source of energy in form of low-caffeine beverage, antioxidant properties, and protection against free radicals which may cause cancers. People who have weight loss goals also drink oolong tea regularly as it helps to burn fats.
Is it worth it?
The market for oolong tea is huge which suggests it is worth it. China and Kenya are the leading countries for the export of oolong tea. Organic oolong tea is trending nowadays and is readily available in the markets. Raising awareness about oolong tea and the associated health benefits played a key role in increasing its market size. The regional market in China constitutes one-third of the global consumption of oolong tea. Japan, India, North America, Latin America, and the Middle East also have a large market segment of oolong tea.