Oolong tea was invented in the 18th century in Fujian province. Initially Oolong tea was attributed to the loyal family/emperor. Because of its unique flavor and loosened restrictions with the drink, Oolong tea became popular and was transported to other provinces and countries.
Fujian province is located on the southern coast of China. With enough water and sunshine, Fujian is an ideal place for tea growing. Including green tea, black tea, Oolong tea, and white tea, Fujian province makes a 32.5 billion dollar profit every year from the tea industry. Local citizens in Fujian prefer oolong tea over green or black tea. Some people call it “Kongfu tea.” Kongfu meaning time not the martial arts Kongfu. They believe appreciating Oolong is an art, and it takes time to learn to enjoy it.
Basically the Oolong-making process is similar to that of green tea. Normally one bud and 3-4 leaves are plucked in the early spring. The leaves plucked between noon and 4 pm are the best because the sun has evaporated more water, and the instant withering helps preserve its taste.
The Oolong tea processing consists of five key steps, including withering and fermentation, squeezing, stir fixation, rolling and drying. It’s a set of methods; the former steps will influence the latter ones.
The plucked leaves are withered in the sun in order to activate enzymes. As the water evaporates, the tealeaves become more pliable. The fermentation of black tea is conducted after withering; however, that of Oolong happens with withering simultaneously. Therefore, Oolong tea is half fermented, and it preserves the green tea’s fresh flavor and black tea’s mellow after-taste.
To initiate the enzymatic oxidation, withered leaves are placed in a squeezing machine. Traditional squeezing machine is a cylinder with a handle at one side. When rotated, the machine mixes the leaves and accelerates oxidation. As oxidizing goes on, the leaves become harder, and the color turn yellow.
Then the tealeaves are spread over the floor to “cool down”. During this process, the leaves turn soft again and their edges become red. Meanwhile, experienced worker explain that leaves are “working out” in squeezing, and it helps release their amour in stir fixation.
Almost all kinds of tea get through fixation during processing, including green tea, white and black tea, because it determines the tea’s flavor and armor. Only skilled workers can conduct this process. They are required to be sensitive and careful, because one small mistake will ruin then entire wok of tea, and the previous effort will be in vain.
First, the wok needs to be preheated to a high temperature. Once the leaves are added to the wok, they need to be continuously be stirred by hand. After years of working, all stirring workers have callus on their hands because of the high heat. The high heat in the wok can neutralize enzymatic activities, and conserve the color. Moreover, heat can remove the unwanted scent (they call it the grass scent) of the leaves, and improve the mellow taste. At last, the leaves are soft and are easier to roll.
Now that the leaves are ready to roll they are packed into small wrinkled strips for store delivery or carryout. In different places, people employ different drying methods. Most commonly, the Oolong tea is dried under the sun. Sunshine drying doesn’t tremendously increase the temperature, which causes chemical reactions. During this process, the tealeaves are spontaneously fermented and produced the distinct flavor of the tea.
The tea industry is both modern and traditional. The small workshops coexist with the big factories. For novice drinkers, there is no difference between hand and machine-made tea. However, some consumers still prefer the handmade ones. Keep in mind; it’s not only the tea itself, but also how you drink it that matters.