oolong tea


Fergus Ray-Murray


There are hundreds of different varieties of tea made from the  tea bush, Camellia sinensis, but almost all of them* fall into three main categories. These are black teas, which are fully oxidised before drying by a careful withering process; green teas, which are dried quickly while unoxidised; and Oolongs, which are somewhere in the middle and combine the best qualities of both.

A good Oolong is both refreshing and delicious; the Oolong spectrum has a range of aromas and tastes quite distinct from anything you get with green or black tea - from the delicate, nearly-green Pouchong through rich and subtle mid-range Oolongs like Ti Kuan Yin and on to teas which border on black.

It's hard to get reliable figures on caffeine content, but it's probably not far wrong to say that the average cup of Oolong, correctly brewed, has around half as much caffeine as a cup of black tea, and about half again as much as a cup of green tea. The difference comes mainly from the brewing temperature, not the makeup of the tea itself.

Although they combine features of black and green teas, their flavour has little in common with either. Unless over-brewed, most Oolongs show almost no trace of bitterness, and generally have a stronger aroma than almost any green or black tea. 

Like other tea, Oolong is rich in antioxidants called polyphenols. These help prevent cancer, keep the heart healthy and aid general well-being.

In spite of all this, until recently it has been terribly difficult to find Oolong tea almost anywhere in Britain outside of Chinatown, the occasional oriental grocers, and a small number of specialist tea houses. This is now slowly changing.

tea of peace

*I say 'almost all' teas fall into those categories.
White tea more-or-less fits the description of green tea, but it is made only from very young, hairy tea leaves, which are steamed carefully to dry them. Pu-erh is typically 'post-fermented', which involves a much longer process of open-air ageing. 'Post-fermented' teas like this are in fact the only teas which are fermented in a literal sense, although you will sometimes see black tea described loosely as 'fully fermented' and Oolong 'partially fermented.

the name of the tea

Oolong (also spelt Wulong, or Wu Long) is literally 'black dragon' tea, but they say the name originally had nothing to do with dragons; rather, it was named after its discoverer Wu Liang.

Wu Liang was out picking tea one day. After collecting a good load his eye was caught by a river deer. He stopped to slay the beast and when he got home he got distracted by the preparation of it, quite forgetting to dry out his precious tea.

By the time he remembered about it a day or so later, the tea had started to change colour - he was worried that it might have gone bad, but he didn't want to let good tea go to waste so he finished preparing it anyway.

When he got through with firing the tea he made himself a cup and found that he had stumbled on a taste sensation! His surprising new tea was mellow and aromatic, unlike anything he had tasted before.

Once he made the tea for his neighbours they all want to know how to make it, and he was happy to share the technique; before long Wu-Liang's tea was known throughout the province. Through Chinese Whispers it eventually came to be known as Wu-Long cha, or Black Dragon tea.

where to find oolong

Most Chinese markets will sell some kind of Oolong tea; in Britain, this is almost always Fujian Sea Dyke Brand - a cheap, dark, toasty-flavoured Oolong which I am fond of, but which is not the most subtle of teas.

Some health food shops also sell Oolong, and considering its health benefits, more should - if your local health food store doesn't stock it yet, perhaps you could convince them.

Usually the only shops with a decent selection of Oolongs are specialist tea shops. Tchai-Ovna in Glasgow, Pekoe Tea in Edinburgh and Camellia's Tea House in London all have very decent selections.

For online tea orders, besides the excellent Pekoe Tea you might also like to consult these reviews of various online vendors.

some other kinds of tea

(not a comprehensive list, these are just teas I've written on)

see also:

tea according to other people

tea and health

Tea has occasionally got a bad rap for health in the past, thanks to its caffeine content, but this seems to have been largely misguided; on the weight of evidence available, tea does more good than harm to anyone without an especially good reason to avoid caffeine.

Tea contains significant levels of manganese and potassium, but its antioxidant flavonoids (a kind of polyphenol) are the main components thought to promote good health. There is strong - but still not conclusive -  evidence that tea may help to fight certain kinds of cancer, and reduce some other signs of ageing through its antioxidant action.

There is very strong evidence that tea can help protect against heart disease, probably thanks to the same antioxidant chemicals, although other mechanisms may also be important.

There is also evidence that tea, in particular green and Oolong tea, can aid slimming; several studies have backed this up, although the strength and indeed the existence of the effect is still disputed.

Tea also seems to be good for your teeth, probably partly thanks to its antibacterial properties, and at least one study has suggested that it can reduce flatulence.

See also:

Tea Fog
Visit to a Darjeeling tea factory

the oolong tea song

Oolong tea, Oolong tea
Won't you please come back to me?
I lost your box six weeks ago,
And now I don't know where to go
For Oooo-oolong tea

Oolong tea, no other tea
Does quite what you do for me.
I miss your subtle peachiness;
Green tea's great but you're the best,
My Oooo-oolong tea

Oolong tea, Oolong tea
Your little leaves I long to see
But I can't find you anywhere
I keep trying shops and you're not there
Oh-oooo Oolong
Tea ye, Oolong
Oolong tea.


(based on a true story)

This web page has hardly anything to do with the hero of Konami's classic 80s fighting game, Yie Ar Kung-Fu.

Oolong fights!

Neither does it have much to do with the little shape-shifter guy out of the Dragonball cartoons.
Also of little relevance is the dearly departed darling of the internet, Oolong the pancake-wearing bunny.
If you've come looking for one of those Oolongs, you might as well leave now.

brewing oolong

In general Oolong tea should be made with water which is just shy of boiling, around 90 centigrade. The traditional Chinese method of making it is known as gongfu cha (工夫茶), where gongfu (the same as 'kung fu', just spelt differently) means roughly 'a lot of work' and 'cha' is 'tea'. 

In outline, this involves filling a very small teapot (traditionally made from unglazed yixing clay) about a third of the way to the top with dry leaves. The pot is first filled with hot water and immediately emptied, to 'wake' the tea and rinse off any impurities. It is then re-filled and left to steep for a very short time before being poured out into tiny cups for serving. It can then be refilled with hot water repeatedly; the flavour of each brew is subtly different from the last, and many people even prefer the second brew to the first.

Gongfu cha is sometimes described as 'the Chinese tea ceremony', and although it is nothing like as formalised as its famous Japanese counterpart, there is more to it than I have space for here; I encourage you to read further about gongfu cha on Everything2.

It is quite possible to brew Oolong much more lazily, without using a special teapot, almost as you would brew ordinary loose black tea - around a teaspoonful per cup, and a couple of minutes or so of infusing time - even using boiling water will not ruin it the way it does green tea, though it will make it worse.

Pot Perspective

ti kuan yin

A rather fine, fragrant variety of Oolong; one of my favourite kinds of tea, and the most popular Oolong in most of China.

According to legend, an iron (Ti) statue of the goddess of mercy Kuan Yin stood in a run-down temple in the Fujian province of China. A local farmer would pass the temple every day, and one day he took it upon himself to start cleaning it up out of respect for its resident goddess.

After he had been doing this for a while, Kuan Yin appeared to him in a dream and told him to look in a cave behind the temple to find a precious treasure he must share with others. When he looked as he was told, what he found was a sprout of a tea bush; so he looked after the bush, took cuttings from it and shared them with his tea-growing neighbours.

That special plant was the ancestor of all Ti Kuan Yin, and its progeny produce some of the world's finest Oolong to this day.

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'Is Oolong another name for Wu Long?'
'Is it true that it can help you lose weight?'
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