Tea Category Confusion

by Lydia Kung

We are now familiar with “green” Oolongs: lightly oxidized, ball-shaped teas that are lightly floral. Recently I was offered an Oolong Green along with an Oolong Black.

The Oolong Green (shown above) seemed a great buy, especially for a restaurant standard, with a retail price that would have been about $9/LB.

The Oolong Black (see below) would have been farther along at the higher end of the price spectrum, with a retail price of approximately $75-80/LB. As the photo shows, it’s a very pretty tea, but I could not tell from the leaf appearance what made it an Oolong.

I was curious about why the term “oolong” appeared in the tea names. It turns out that the Oolong Black comes from small leafed plants in Fujian that were introduced to Yunnan. In Fujian, the particular varietal is used for producing Oolong; transplanted in Yunnan, definitely Black tea territory, the leaves were made into a Black tea, a pretty one at that. So in this instance, “oolong” is merely an allusion to the varietal with the processing being entirely that of Black teas. This gives an interesting little twist to “expression of origin,” and perhaps it is not surprising that the taste is similar to a Fujian classic, Golden Monkey Black.

As for the Oolong Green, the dry leaf certainly looked promising, yet the cup held little flavor. From what I was able to learn from the factory, which normally processes oolong teas, a decision was made to opt for a simpler manufacturing method (i.e., green tea), and the oolong-like appearance results from the factory’s standard processing steps.

I expect that the raw material in this instance was inexpensive, coming from summer pluckings, just before the more important and better quality autumn period for Oolongs. Oolong processing is complex compared to green tea processing, and the simpler, less fussy route makes sense in this (seasonal) context.

Most diners at Chinese restaurants who find a pot of this Oolong Green would not be able to distinguish much: it could easily pass as a green tea or a light oolong, or some generic “Chinese tea” since the flavor is so light. I doubt that many Chinese restaurants here would go for this tea; our restaurant Oolong standard is a Shui Hsien, giving a deeper (amber), more aromatic brew, even at the lowly retail price of $7/LB.

I have repeated the notion that teas ought to be conceptualized along a continuum of oxidation. There are teas that sit on the boundaries (“green” Oolongs) between two categories or don’t fit comfortably within one category (e.g., oxidized GongMei White).

With a bit more information and viewed in this context, the Oolong Black is simply a Black tea, albeit one with an interesting footnote. The Oolong Green is a straight Green after all, manufactured without oxidation, although its shape mimics some very expensive, rolled Green teas. These two teas remind us of the fact that in theory, one plant may be used to produce several types of finished teas. The correlation between one varietal and a finished tea may be traditional, but may not be rigid and not always predetermined. The “Big White” or Da Bai cultivar that yields so much White tea is also made into Green teas, and the hybrid that goes into our Gold Kuan Yin (Oolong) is also made into a Black tea.

The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (Chinese: 中秋節. ) falls on September 15th this year. (Mooncake above is shown with organic Ti Kuan Yin.) Mooncakes have risen dramatically in price: a tin of four in the standard flavor (white lotus w/double salted egg yolks) is now $48 in the local markets here. A high calorie treat that tastes better (in small bites) than it sounds, the sweetness of these cakes demands good tea.

Shown here is an example of tea gifting, now highly evolved in presentation. Gifts of teas are important throughout the year in China as part of transactions of favors requested and bestowed but especially now to accompany mooncakes. The tea inside happens to be a nice Jasmine, but nothing extraordinary. I was more taken by the presentation box and the ceramic canisters.