From Fujian to Formosa to your teapot!
Chances are if you have had the pleasure of enjoying an Oolong tea you were amazed by one or even several things about this extraordinary tea. One may have been the delectable flavour or its superb aroma. Many Oolongs come twisted, rolled, or in pellet form and unfurl and bloom when they are steeped. Some folks may have wondered about its interesting name. Many other teas are named after colours while the Oolong tea is, well, “Oolong" (more on Oolong's name and its connection to colour a bit further down!).
Such an incredible tea certainly has an incredible story to tell, and today we will explore how Oolong came to be and how it grew to success in Taiwan!
The story of Oolong tea goes back to China during the Tang dynasty. This golden age in Chinese history was also a golden age for tea culture, too. There are several different tellings about Oolong’s beginnings.
One describes how a special Dragon (Long) and Phoenix (Feng) tea blend was developed in Fujian province as a tribute tea for the emperor. Over time the name was changed to Black “(Oo/Wu) Dragon (Long) in reference to the black, twisty, and wiry tea leaves. Ah! So Oolong's name does have a leaf colour reference after all!
Another theory is that the name comes from the Wuyi mountains in China. An additional theory comes from Anxi, which claims that Oolong was invented by accident by a tea farmer named “Oolong” or some variation thereof. The story goes that he got distracted and left his green tea to oxidize a bit too long and Oolong was the result!
No matter the origin tale what can be certain is China’s southeastern province of Fujian, which is home to both Wuyi and Anxi, is the place of origin for Oolong. Fujian is semitropical, rich in flora and fauna, hosts a unique climate with vaulting and otherworldly mountains wrapped in mist and treated to regular rainfall. All of these contribute to really great tea, which Fujian has been renowned for to the present era.
While Oolong tea grew in popularity, serving as a tribute tea even for the late Qing dynasty emperors, so too was it introduced to Formosa, the antiquated name for Taiwan, by the late 1700s.
Initially, tea plants were cultivated on the island but would be harvested and sent to Fujian to be processed and turned into tea. Though Taiwan and Fujian province are in close proximity, people living in Taiwan thought the practice was a bit too Byzantine and so decided to just grow, process, and produce their own Oolong tea. This was especially precipitated by how popular Oolong had been becoming among the wider Taiwanese populace.
Taiwan, like Fujian, has a semi-tropical climate and weather patterns, rolling mountains, and rich biodiversity with a unique landscape throughout the island. The monsoons and rainy seasons and dynamic weather patterns all impart different areas of the island with indelible flavours, aromas, textures, and colour palettes. These in tandem led to Taiwan’s development of several one of a kind Oolong teas that put it on the map in regards to tea excellence.
In fact, because of Taiwan’s diverse weather patterns from the north to the south of the island, teas produced in the north during spring for example will have a widely different flavour and aroma pattern from their counterparts grown at the same time in the south. Making teas from across the island their own unique tea styles.
Taiwan produces exquisite takes on classical Chinese Oolongs like Tie Guanyin or Iron Guan Yin, but it also produces the floral Bao Zhong and the illustrious Alishan high mountain Oolong.
Alishan is special because it is produced in the Taiwanese mountains that vault up to 2000 meters above sea level. Tea plants are grown at higher altitudes and supplied with constant rain and cloud coverage like in Taiwan enjoy a higher quality of development and growth. Due to this extra delightful growth period in the mountains, Alishan tea demonstrates some truly remarkable flavours, aromas, and textures. Fruity, floral, and even some toasty flavours Taiwan’s Alishan has often been nicknamed the “champagne of teas”.
Another famous Taiwanese Oolong is the "Oriental Beauty" or Dongfang Meiren tea. This tea was named by Queen Elizabeth II and sports a flavour akin to Earl Grey but a bit earthier, thanks in part to some insect egg sacs that "season" the leaves before harvesting!
Taiwan's Iron Guan Yin is yet another spectacular and superb Oolong tea. The legend of this tea's name goes back to a story of a tea farmer supposedly encountering the Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin. Taiwan's Iron Guan Yin is not only roasted but also possesses a delectable flavour akin to roasted nuts.
In addition to the excellent Oolong produced in Taiwan, tea culture is also vibrant and lively, too. With precedents in Fujian’s rich tea traditions, Taiwan has preserved the Gongfu or Chinese tea ceremony tradition where tea’s like Oolong take a starring role. Taiwanese tea shops may sport the traditional Yixing clay teapot. These pots are reddish-brown and are keen to enrich and enliven the flavours and aromas of teas, Oolong being no exception!
For a more modern take on Taiwan’s tea culture, look no further than bubble tea. Taiwan is the place of origin for bubble tea, also known as boba tea, and Oolong may be one of these leaf types used in many a tasty and trendy bubble tea treat!
White, green, and...black dragon?
Oolong tea's mythical sounding name is more than a picturesque way to describe leaves but also reflects Taiwan’s legendary and otherworldly catalogue of exquisite Oolong teas. But of course, the best way to truly discover Taiwanese Oolong is to get out there and sample some firsthand! Happy brewing, and may the black dragon tea always bring you good luck and good fortune!