By Eric Brand
Shawn wrote a great blog on green tea the other day, so I want to follow it up with a little blog about oolong tea. I am generally fan of all types of tea, but oolong is probably my favorite for day-to-day consumption. Oolong tea is one of the regional specialties of Taiwan, and I developed a fondness for oolongs during the five years or so that I lived in Taiwan while studying Chinese medicine.
Tea is basically divided into categories based on its degree of oxidation (sometimes referred to as “fermentation”). In Chinese, we talk about tea being more “sheng” (raw) or more “shou” (lit. cooked or mature). Green tea and white tea are more “raw,” which is to say that they are less oxidized than black tea. In English, we call fully oxidized tea “black tea,” because the leaves are a dark color. In Chinese “black tea” is called “red tea” because it turns the water red. China doesn’t produce very much black tea, but it does have a few famous varieties.
We can basically divide tea into green or black based on its degree of oxidation, but actually there are many subtypes of tea that are not traditionally described as green or black. All the tea we drink is the same species of plant, just like all apples are the same species or all dogs are the same species. However, just like apples and dogs, tea has different varieties, which are often referred to as strains or cultivars. Different cultivars are grown in different regions and each region and cultivar has a particular processing style. For example, there is a tea variety called Tie Guan Yin (Iron Kuanyin) that is popular in Taiwan and Fujian. Tie Guan Yin is a specific cultivar of tea- we don’t call it green tea or black tea, we just call it Tie Guan Yin. The customary way of preparing Tie Guan Yin in Fujian province in Southern China involves less oxidation, whereas Tie Guan Yin grown in Taiwan is typically oxidized significantly. If all you know is green vs. black, you’d think of the Fujian style as being more green and the Taiwan style as being more black, but ultimately we don’t use “green” or “black” to refer to Tie Guan Yin at all.
Like Tie Guan Yin, oolong (literally “black dragon,” wu long) tea is a category of tea that basically revolves around a specific strain. The oolong strain is customarily grown in certain regions, and tends to produce better tea when it is grown at a high elevation. Oolong grows well in Taiwan, and the good stuff is often called “Gao Shan Wu Long,” high mountain oolong. The oolong from the area known as Dong Ding in Taiwan is particularly famous, and can be divided into many different grades. It is harvested and bruised during its curing process, and is usually oxidized to a somewhat intermediate state.
In terms of Chinese medicine, oolong is easy on the belly because it is not too raw. Green tea is considered to be cooler and harder on the stomach, so it is recommended that people with weak digestion drink oolong tea or black tea. The Chinese literature on tea is particularly well-developed, with historical sources like the “Cha Jing” (Tea Classic) and modern texts like the “Cha Ye Ci Dian” (Encylopedia of Tea) that dwarf all but the hugest materia medicas for Chinese medicine.
Oolong is traditionally served in very small little pots. It has many grades and qualities, and the best quality stuff is often served in well-crafted little “Yixing” teapots that are made from clay from a particular region in China. Like the study of tea itself, the study of the teapots and clay alone is an entire discipline, and many adulterants and inauthentic sources of Yixing clay exist. The style of drinking tea with the little teacups and little teapots is known as “gong fu cha,” literally the Kung Fu of Tea. Gong Fu (Kung Fu) basically means to do something consciously, to do it with skill and attention. Chinese tea drinking is far looser in terms of its ritual formalities than a formal Japanese tea ceremony, but nonetheless there are a very basic principles and customs around it.
Most of the time, Chinese people just throw a pinch of tea leaves loose into a cup and add water. However, when making tea in the gong fu style, there are usually a few more tools. A small teapot is filled about a third of the way with dried leaves, and it is accompanied by a stand that collects the spilled water (spilling water is par for the course). Little teacups are used and tools for scooping the dried tea and removing the spent leaves are used. The water is boiled and it is poured inside and around the outer surface of the teapot to warm it. The first steeping is short and it is typically discarded. The same leaves are then steeped many times, typically starting with short steeps that get progressively longer as the tea weakens. Good tea will last for many steeping rounds, while mediocre tea loses its flavor quickly.
Every time I travel to Asia, I bring back some nice tea. Mostly we just drink this tea around the office and give it as gifts to our friends and customers, but one of these days we’ll probably start offering some unique teas for sale to our customers. I often go to the tea wholesale markets in China and Taiwan, and in the future we are planning to offer a nice variety of premium teas for the tea connoisseurs and aficionados out there in the Chinese medicine community. Blue Poppy will never be a tea company, but because we have the right Chinese connections, importing setup, and trained taste buds, we’ll be able to bring back some specialty teas that offer unparalleled value, variety, and quality. Expanding into unique little areas where we can highlight unusual expertise and quality is something that we enjoy here at Blue Poppy, so be sure to stay abreast of the latest offerings that we make as we branch out into some of this exciting new territory.
The photo above is a picture of me and my friend and former classmate Carrie at Maokong Tea Park outside of Taipei. This is one of my favorite spots near Taipei. Maokong is a mountainous area that has over 50 little teahouses, each growing and curing their own tea (principally Bao Zhong and Tie Guan Yin). It has beautiful views of Taipei and huge Taoist and Buddhist temples on the adjacent mountainside, and was located just up the hill from the university that I attended for Chinese study over a decade ago.
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