To properly describe oolong tea requires a brief lesson in the growth and processing of teas. All true teas are grown from the camellia sinesnsis plant, of which two main varieties are used in tea manufacture: camellia sinensis var. sinensis, Chinese tea (sinensis itself is Latin for ‘from china’), and camellia sinensis var. assamica, Assam tea, so named for the region in India in which it is grown. From either of these teas, any of the four main categories of tea may be made, depending on processing: white, green, oolong, and black. This fact is easy to overlook, given the vast distinction in flavor, color, and character that tea brewed from each style exhibits, and indeed it was not until 1841 and Robert Fortune’s espionage mission (a topic I will cover in more detail at another time) that the western world learned that black and green teas came from the same plant. The difference is entirely due to processing, and this processing is also responsible for the differences between individual teas within a style.
In its most general form, tea processing proceeds as follows: the leaf is plucked from the plant, then withered or wilted to remove moisture. The leaves are then ‘disrupted’ by physical processes to release enzymes inside the leaves which begin to act on the tea; the precise nature and extent of this disruption depend on the style desired, and range from very gentle to extremely violent. After this, the most important phase (at least, to the distinction of the style) begins: oxidation. The leaves are allowed to sit in a climate-controlled room, and the action of the released enzymes works on the leaves to darken them. In the process, many compounds are produced and broken down, dramatically changing every aspect of the tea that will later be made from the leaf. White teas are not permitted to oxidize at all, and green teas only very lightly so, retaining a light color and a typically more delicate flavor. Black teas are allowed to fully oxidize, promoting robust flavors, dark color, and a heavier body. Oolong teas are in the middle, ranging from 5% to as much as 80% oxidation, and this wide variation makes oolong teas a particularly diverse category. After the desired oxidation has been reached, the leaves are heated to stop oxidation (called fixation or kill-green), then shaped, dried, and if desired, aged or fermented before sale.
As I mentioned, the wide range of oxidation within the catagory of oolong tea gives great variety to its brews, with many unique flavors and, particularly, aromas—oolong teas are often prized for their scent. This tea, from Harney & Sons, is named Formosa, which is an archaic term for Taiwan. Thus, a Formosa Oolong tea can technically be any oolong tea grown in that nation, and this particular tea is not otherwise identified or labeled, so there is little information I can add to its origin. More so than any other tea variety, I have found a tremendous range of variables for brewing oolong tea: up to two teaspoons of leaf per cup, down to one; times range from seconds to as long as nine minutes spent brewing, and temperature from 190 degrees Fahrenheit all the way to a full boil. This, more than anything, has convinced me that the ‘proper’ way to brew a tea boils down (if you’ll pardon the expresson) to one’s own preference for the specific tea in question. Being, however, a neophyte in the preparation of this sort of tea, I followed the instructions on Harney & Sons’ website: temperature just below boiling, time 4-5 minutes, ratio at about the standard 1 teaspoon/cup of water (or 2 g/200 mL, for you metric folks!).
After being poured, the tea has a medium-dark honey tone, perhaps a few shades darker than the orange blossom honey my family favors. It has a lovely aroma, with faint floral undertones supporting a very rich, almost caramel scent—definitely an appealing prelude. The first sip is light and smooth, a delicate flavor with a touch of peach and very little briskness. It’s a refreshing sort of tea, and it’s amazingly easy to drink—I have had as many as five cups in a single sitting without thinking. There is little change in taste after finishing—the aftertaste is much the same as the tea itself, and again has only a hint of dryness on the palate. Additional infusions change both aroma and flavor, letting the more subtle floral notes through as the heavier caramel recedes…it’s good for at least four brews, although adding 30 seconds to a minute for each additional infusion helps if you prefer to keep the brew roughly equal in strength.
While this is not a tea that I have history with, it’s serving well for the present—it’s been the most popular tea I’ve tried among my family, as its delicate flavor and low caffeine content make it easy to drink regardless of the time of day. I’ve no doubt it will serve well as a drink of choice for our evening gatherings for some time.
To our families, and all they mean to us.