Oolong leaves in a tea scoop

Tea 113: Intro to Oolong Tea

In the vast expense of the tea universe, where the varieties of taste and aroma vary greatly, resides Oolong tea - an elixir that defies easy categorization. Is it black tea? Is it green tea? In fact, it is both, yet neither.

Oolong tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant just like other teas, but has a unique processing method that sets it apart from other teas like green tea or black tea. Oolong is also known as semi-oxidized tea. The oxidation levels vary from 8% all the way to 80%. This gives oolong tea a wide range of flavor profiles.

Origin of Oolong

During the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912) in China, the first oolong tea was invented in the Wu Yi mountains. The processed tea leaves were long, twisted, and black, giving them the nickname “Wu Long” which means “Black Dragon”. Western traders shortened the name “Wu Long” to “Oolong”, resulting in the common name we know today. The Wu Yi mountains were known for lush biological diversity and mineral-rich soil, which gave the tea a complex flavor profile. These black oolong teas were deeper in flavor than many of the green-colored oolongs developed later. When the greener, less oxidized oolongs grew in popularity, the world became familiar with more floral and sweet varieties like Ti Kwan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy).

Most Oolongs come from China and Taiwan, though today Vietnam is also exporting some, and you'll also find certain variants are being grown in India. Because of the unique processing methods and care given to producing Oolongs, production tends to be lower and the expertise required to make quality Oolong tea is higher. Many Oolong producers are small family farms whose expertise has been passed down over many generations.

Processing Oolong

Oolong undergoes similar processing steps as other teas, but some have an additional step known as bruising or shaking. After the leaf is picked and withered to remove moisture content - some oolongs are carefully bruised in baskets to help initiate oxidation. 

Oolong teas come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including long, twisted leaves, tightly rolled balls, or even more artistic and intricate forms. The tea leaves expand and unfurl during brewing, releasing their complex flavors and aromas.

What does Oolong taste like?

Oolongs with lower oxidation retain some of the green tea characteristics with a touch of fruity and floral undertones. Moderately oxidized Oolongs offer a balance between green and black teas, featuring a more pronounced flavor profile that can include notes of honey, nuts, and orchid. Darker, heavily oxidized Oolongs exhibit a rich, robust taste akin to black tea, with deeper flavors like roasted grains, caramel, and dark chocolate.

Health Benefits of Oolong

Oolong tea has many of the same benefits of its green and black tea cousins. The greener the tea, the more antioxidants that are contained - which can reduce chronic diseases such as heart disease or certain cancers.

Darker Oolongs can promote heart health by reducing LDL cholesterol levels, promoting healthy blood pressure and improving blood sugar regulation.

The combination of caffeine and catechins also help boost metabolism and fat oxidation and have a role in weight management.

How to Brew Oolong?

Typically Oolong tea is brewed below boiling water, around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the rolled oolong teas are so tightly packed, that only a few nuggets are needed per cup, as the leaves unfurl many times their original size. Some advanced tea drinkers will weigh the tea with a gram scale. 

It is common for some Oolong teas to get briefly washed to “awaken” the leaves. Most Oolongs can be steeped multiple times, and some drinkers even prefer the variation of subsequent steeping.

Caffeine in Oolong Tea

Oolongs do contain caffeine, though the exact amount varies depending on where the tea is grown. In general, though, Oolong teas contain lower amounts of caffeine.

How Does Steeping Affect Caffeine?

Temperature of the Water

The temperature of the water used to brew oolong has a huge impact on caffeine content. Boiling water at 212 degrees F. will extract more than double the amount of caffeine as water at 80 degrees F. This gives you a lot of control over the overall caffeine content in your tea.

Steeping time

The longer you steep any tea, the more caffeine it will contain. Oolong tea that is brewed for 1 minute will have much less caffeine than oolong tea brewed for 5 minutes. We usually recommend a 3 minute brew for the best flavor and a medium level of caffeine. The exact content will vary depending on the type of oolong used.

Multiple brews

Oolong tea leaves can be brewed multiple times. The first cup of tea will have the most caffeine, and the next brews will have less. By the third cup you will usually have less than half the caffeine of the first cup. Some people give their oolong a ‘rinse’ by brewing one cup for just a few seconds, dumping it, and brewing a second cup for longer. This will lower the caffeine slightly as well as making the flavor smoother.

The best part about the variable caffeine content in oolong is that you can choose the best option for your individual needs. If you are sensitive to caffeine, you can choose roasted or aged spring oolongs and adjust your steeping choices. Alternately, if you want a bigger kick of caffeine, you can try unroasted summer or fall varieties and use hot water with a longer steep time. The most important thing is to be well informed so that you have control over your caffeine intake. Take a look at the many oolong varieties out there and start experimenting!

Oolong Tea for Beginners?

Oolong tea is often misunderstood and therefore flies under the radar. But Oolong tea has probably the most diverse flavors and profiles of any tea category. Because of this, sampling the different varieties will help determine if you fall closer to the green or darker side of the Oolong spectrum. 

Oolong tea is like a well crafted potion. It energizes the mind while promoting a sense of tranquility. It unlocks hidden chambers of the mind and ignites the fires of curiosity. 

To help you on your oolong journey we've compiled a list of our four favorite oolong teas. Check them out, we're sure you'll love them as much as we do! Each was selected to provide a great introduction to a style of oolong.