Ever wondered what makes Oolong tea so special and distinctive? Find out how this tea is prepared below, from picking right through to sipping.
The Oolong Process
#1: Harvesting (Caiqing)
Oolong tea leaves are picked 3 to 4 times a year in spring, summer (once or twice) and autumn. They are picked when buds at the top of the bush matures to half the size of a fully grown leaf. Quality varies with the season. Spring and autumn tea are higher quality than summer tea. Tender leaves picked earlier in the season may be used to make higher grade tea.
A popular picking technique is to face the hands upwards, hold the stem between the index and middle fingers, then break the stem gently using the thumb.
#2: Withering (Weidiao)
Freshly picked leaves are left to cool either indoors or outdoors to remove moisture. The leaves may be moved between indoors and outdoors, as too much sun can cause over-heating. As moisture evaporates, fresh leaves soften and lose their natural springiness and lustre.
Initially the leaves are spread out thinly on a bamboo mat to prevent too much heat from accumulating inside the leaves. The process also involves stirring, which distributes moisture evenly across the leaves and speeds up the oxidation process.
#3.Bruising (Zhuoqing or Yaoqing)
Perhaps the most critical part of the process, bruising follows withering to remove moisture and grassiness. During these two stages is where the most oxidation occurs. The general principle is heavy bruising goes with light withering, and light bruising with heavy withering.
Tea-makers shake withered leaves in bamboo baskets and hand-press them. The friction bruises edges, exposes tea juices to air and speeds up oxidation.The leaves are then spread out to slow down oxidation and other chemical changes. Moisture travels from stems to leaves, causing them to regain their suppleness. This shaking-resting process is then repeated several times, and the process ends when leaf edges start to redden and aroma substances form.
#4: Fixation (Shaqing)
Once the right aroma has started to form, bruised leaves are pan-fried at high heat to kill the enzymes and stop the oxidation process. This process only a short time as if it lasts too long, the leaves will lose too much moisture.
#5:Rolling and Shaping (Rounian or Zhuoxin)
Once the leaves have been fixated, tea-makers apply pressure to roll them into the desired shape. Depending on the varieties, oolong tea can be either long and curly (Wuyi Rock tea), semi-rounded (Taiwan Dong Ding tea) or fully-rounded (Anxi Tieguanyin tea).
The pressure from rolling causes leaves to give off juices, which interact and form new compounds. Some of these are absorbed back into the leaf while some are left on the outside of the leaf, making the tea quicker to brew.
There are two parts to this process.
In the initial fast-baking process, high heat is applied for a short period of time to remove moisture, stabilize the chemical profile and freeze external shape.
After Maohong, low heat is applied for an extended period of time, to improve the colour and aroma of the tea liquor. The tea-maker decides how much "fire" goes into the tea.
The type of fuel used for the firing impacts the quality of the tea - charcoal is the best, followed by wood, electricity, gas, oil and coal.
#7: Sorting, Cooling and Packaging
During these final stages, leaves are sorted to remove sub standard leaves and twigs. The tea may be re-heated later, then cooled and packaged. Some teas are made "on the spot" in the mountain, and are then carried down the mountain for storage in tea-houses.
#8: Tea is ready to be sipped!
Oolong tea is a great tea to be enjoyed Gong Fu style - that is using short consecutive steepings. Start with 190F/ 88C water, and give the leaves an initial rinse (no more than 5 seconds) before discarding the water. Then steep the leaves for 10-20 seconds and pour. Repeat 4-5 times, adding 5-10 seconds to each steep.