An Overview of Oolong Tea

The following information, presented in a Question-and-Answer format, can be a helpful guide in navigating the complex world of oolong tea.

* Note: Many Chinese names are presented in this post. To be complete, my translation includes the Chinese PinYin pronounciation, followed by the Chinese characters, and a literal translation (if any necessary).

Q: What is oolong tea?

Tea is made from the fresh leaf of Camellia Sinensis. Oolong tea is a partially oxidized tea produced via the basic processes of harvesting, withering, oxidation, de-enzyming, shaping, and drying. Also known as "wulong tea," it is sometimes called QingCha (青茶), which often translates to "blue tea" (though "blue-green" is probably more accurate). 

Q: What is oxidation?

During the tea making process, innumerable physical and chemical changes are happening inside the tea leaves. Oxidation is one of the most important processes. It refers to the amount of catechin that has been reduced from its natural state, and is expressed by:

Oxidation level = (Total Catechin in Fresh Leaf - Total Catechin in Dried Tea Leaf) X 100%

                                                 Total Catechin in Fresh Leaf

The global norm is to categorize tea by its oxidation level. Green tea is non-oxidized, black tea is fully oxidized, while oolong tea is partially oxidized (with a broad range from 10 ~ 80%).

Sometimes the term "fermentation" is used interchangeably with "oxidation." However, with the exception of Pu-erh tea (aka dark teas), tea does not undergo fermentation involving micro-organisms in the ordinary sense of the word.

Q: What are the major groups of oolong tea?

Based on production region, oolong tea is generally divided into 4 groups:

     (i) MinBei oolong (閩北烏龍, Northern Fujian province)

     (ii) MinNan oolong (閩南烏龍, Southern Fujian province)

     (iii) GuangDong oolong (廣東烏龍, GuangDong province), and

     (iv) Taiwan oolong (台灣烏龍, Taiwan)

Q: What are MinBei (Northern Fujian) oolong teas? What varieties of tea plants are used?

MinBei oolong teas are produced in 5 counties and 5 cities in the northern part of Fujian province in China.

Included in this group are the famous (i) WuYi Rock teas (武夷岩茶) and (ii) MinBei ShuiXian (閩北水仙, "Northern Fujian Water Lily").

The major varieties used in making Wuyi Rock teas are:

  • DaHongPao (大紅袍, aka "Big Red Robe")
  • RouGui (肉桂, "Cinnamon")
  • ShuiXian (水仙, "Water lily")
  • HuangGuanYin (黃觀音, "Yellow Goddess of Mercy")
  • JingGuanYin (金觀音, "Golden Goddess of Mercy")
  • DanGui (丹桂)
  • TieLuoHan (鐵羅漢, "Iron RuoHan")
  • ShuiJinGui (水金龜, "Water Golden Turtle")
  • BaiJiGuan (白雞冠, "White Rooster Crown")
  • BanTianYao (半天妖, "Half Day Goblin")

MinBei ShuiXian are oolong teas made from the variety ShuiXian and produced in Jian'ou city of Nanping prefecture and its surrounding prefectures and cities.

Q: What are Wuyi Rock teas? Are they subdivided into smaller groups?

Wuyi Rock teas are made fresh leaves grown in the 2800 square meters of Wuyi Mountain City and produced using traditional tea-making craftsmanship.

In the past, Wuyi Rock teas were grouped into 3 sub-groups: ZhengYan Cha (正岩茶, "Authentic Rock tea"), BanYan Cha (半岩茶, "Half Rock tea,") and Zhou Cha(洲茶). ZhengYan Cha was produced from the central Wuyi Mountain area and of premium quality. BanYan Cha was harvested from surrounding areas of Wuyi Mountain, while Zhou Cha was harvested from areas around the Nine-bend river.

Since August 1, 2002, the national standards were revised and now includes only 2 sub-groups: MingYan (名岩, "Famous Rock") and DanYan (丹岩). MingYan rock teas are harvested from the 70 square meters of the designated Wuyi Mountain scenic area, while those outside this region are classified as DanYan.

Q: What are the MinNan (Southern Fujian) oolong teas? What are the tea leaf varieties used?

MinNan oolong teas are produced in the southern region of Fujian province in China - in the cities ZhangZhou (漳洲), QuanZhou (泉州), and XiaMen (廈門).  

The major varieties used in MinNan oolong include:

(i) from Anxi County (安溪縣) - TieGuanYin (鐵觀音, "Iron Goddess of Mercy"), HuangJinGui (黃金桂, "Golden Osmanthus"), BenShan (本山, ""Base Mountain), MaoXie (毛蟹, "Hairy Crab"), and SeZhong(色種, "Color Varieties," which basically includes all the other varieties).

(ii) from PingHe County (平和縣): BaiYaQiLan (白芽奇蘭, "White Bud Exotic Orchid")

(iii) from ChaoAn County (詔安縣): BaXian Cha (八仙茶, "Eight Fairies' tea")

(iv) from YongChun County (永春縣): FuShou Cha (佛手茶, "Buddha Hand tea"), and

(v) MinNan ShuiXian (閩南水仙, "Southern Fujian Water Lily")

Q: What are GuangDong (Cantonese) oolong teas? What are the representative varieties (of tea leaves)?

Cantonese oolong teas are those produced in China's GuangDong Province.

Representative varieties include:

(i) FengHuang DanCong (鳳凰單叢, "Phoenix Single Bush"),

(ii) LingTou DanCong (嶺頭單叢, "Ridgehead Single Bush"),

(iii) XingNing DaYe QiLan Cha (興寧大葉奇蘭茶, "XingNing Region Big Leaf Exotic Orchid tea"),

(iv) DaBu XiYan Oolong tea (大埔西岩烏龍茶, "DaBu Region West Rock oolong tea"), etc.

Q: What are Taiwan oolong teas? What are their classifications? What are the representative types?

Taiwan oolong teas are produced in the many tea-production regions of Taiwan.

Representative types, by oxidation levels, include: 

  • Light Oxidation: BaoZhong (包種)oolong and High Mountain (高山) teas
  • Medium Oxidation: TungTing (凍頂, aka "Dong Ding") oolong, TieGuanYin (  鐵觀音,"Iron Goddess") teas
  • Heavy Oxidation: Oriental Beauty (aka BaiHao oolong (白毫, "White Bud"), Champagne oolong (香檳), WuShe Cha (五色茶, "Five-colored tea") , PengFeng Cha (膨風茶, "Braggers' tea)

The major varieties used include QingXin oolong(青心烏龍), QingXin DaMao (青心大冇), and SiJiChun (四季春, "Four Seasons Spring"). The cultivars JinXuan (金萱, "Golden Lily," aka "Milky Oolong') and CuiYu (翠玉, "Jade") are popular cultivars developed by Taiwan's tea research agency.

You may need to review this information to establish a solid framework for your reference. Good luck!