What is Oolong Tea? What Makes it So Special?

Updated on: December 1, 2023
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What is Oolong Tea - Types of Oolong Tea

What is Oolong Tea? What makes it so special? This article will cover this tea's popularity, health benefits, nutritional information, and the different types of Oolong Tea!

Traditional Oolong tea (also called Wu-lung) dates back to ancient China where the tea trees have been grown high in the mountains for centuries. Many legends surround tea and demonstrate its importance within the heart of Chinese culture.

Nowadays, Oolong tea is cultivated throughout Taiwan, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and China where each region gives its own twist on the tea’s taste due to its geographic conditions. 

So, let’s get steeping so you can learn more about it!

What is Oolong Tea?

The classification of oolong tea is a bit gray. It is neither black nor green tea but something in the middle.

During the processing of black tea, oxidation takes place which makes the tea appear black. Green tea does not go through much oxidation which accounts for its greenish hue. The oxidation of oolong is at a midway point between black and green teas.

The unusual shape of the oolong tea makes it stand out from other tea types. The tea maker rolls the tea leaves into very tight balls. The rolling process impacts the flavor of the tea as it breaks down the cellular structure of the tea plant.

Oolong tea leaves are harvested much later in the spring than white and green teas. Harvest of oolong tea usually takes place from late April to early May.

Oolong (which translates as the black dragon in Chinese) goes through the following processes:

  • Withering Process:  When the tea leaves are first picked, they are extremely fragile. The freshly picked leaves are laid out in the sunshine to dry. During the sunlight drying process, the leaves become soft and flexible which makes them ideal for a rolling process. 

  • Cooling: After spending an excessive amount of time in the sun the tea leaves undergo cooling which causes them to shrink so they are even easier to roll. 

  • Rolling: A tea roller will roll the tea leaves by hand to gently break the tea's cell walls, exposing them to oxygen. Upon exposure to oxygen, oxidation starts to occur. The amount of oxidation will determine many things about the oolong tea such as flavor, aroma, and color. 

  • Oxidization: The oxidation process for oolong tea hovers from 8 to 80% (1). If the tea oxidizes for a long time then the color is deep and dark. The tea flavor is also extraordinarily rich. In Taiwan, oolong teas are far less oxidized than the teas from China (10 to 40%) which makes them greener. They also have a much lighter flavor than oolongs from China. 

  • Basket Tossed: The tea leaves are basket tossed to further break down the cells in the leaves. 

  • Roasting: After the tea leaves have undergone oxidation then heat is applied. This stops the oxidation process. The tea leaves are roasted to different levels to create unique flavors. 

  • Final Rolling: The rolling process is finalized. At this time, the tea will not only have its shape but also its flavor. The leaves are rolled and formed into crispy shapes. 

  • Drying: Before storing, the oolong tea undergoes complete drying to ensure that no moisture remains in the tea which could lead to rot and spoilage. 

  • Hand Sorting: Following drying, the tea leaves are sorted by color, shape, and size. They are all placed together and then sold based on their flavor profile. 

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History of Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is believed to have made its debut during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) but gained popularity later during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

The modern style of tea came from the Wu Yi Mountains of China. Initially, the tea was referred to as Rock Tea (Yan Cha) which was a direct reference to its cultivation region. It quickly became a favored traditional Chinese tea. 

The Wu Yi Shan is well-known for its rocky soil and even today the tea is still referenced due to the area. The Camellia sinensis plant grows well in that area. 

Fujian’s northern Wu Yi Shan was well-known for tea production which first started during the Tang Dynasty and peaked in the Song Dynasty.

During the golden age of tea production, the tea was fashioned into compressed cakes, known as Pu’er. Even today, the origins of the method to compress tea into cakes remain a mystery. 

Different Types of Oolong Teas

During the Ming Dynasty, the prohibition of Wu Yi Shan’s compressed tea cakes took place. The prohibition was an effort to control corruption that had become widespread in the tea world. During that period, Fujian tea-making suffered greatly. 

The tea factories were raided by soldiers and government officials to confiscate tea manufacturing equipment. Sadly, the prohibition shut down tea manufacturing for over 150 years.

Despite the prohibition on tea cakes, a new process for making tea was developed - loose-leaf tea. 

The tea became called Min Bei Wulong Cha (Northern Fujian Black Dragon Tea) which was shortened to simply ‘oolong’.   Many believe that the tea was called Black Dragon due to the way the leaves are twisted. The shape resembles that of the legendary beast.

Nowadays, oolongs are either fashioned into twists or rolled into tight balls. Without a doubt, making oolong by hand takes a great deal of skill and is as unique as the regions where the tea is grown. 

Fujian tea makers used charcoal roasting techniques to push the oxidation of their tea and create the unique roasted flavor of oolong tea. The first mention of tea was made by a monk who lived in the Wu Yi Shan during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. He called the tea “Yan Cha" (rock tea).

Flavor and Caffeine of Oolong Tea

The oxidation of oolong tea varies dramatically which means that the taste is very different and ranges from a full-bodied to light floral that is both sweet and toasty. The color of Oolong tea also varies significantly from green to brown to a lovely golden hue. 

Many things impact the flavor and color of oolong tea such as the region where it was grown, the time of harvest, the oxidation process, hand processing, and more. 

The popularity of oolong throughout Asia is unwavering with many competitions taking place. Judges weigh the shape and appearance of both the dry and wet oolong tea leaves. They evaluate the color, taste, and aroma of the tea after brewing. 

Drink Oolong Tea Daily
Different Oxidation Levels of Oolong Tea

The tea competitions set the platform for worldwide distributors to pick the best artisan teas. Tea producers feel passionate about the competition and view them as a way to demonstrate their dedication to tea cultivation and production. For hundreds of years, the making of oolong has been favored as a work of art by producers. 

Many things can impact this tea’s caffeine content such as processing and how you brew the cup.  Usually, the caffeine content falls between that of green tea and black tea. The light to medium oxidation process that oolong tea goes through gives it a lower caffeine level which makes it closer to green tea than black tea. 

The more oxidized the oolong tea is, the greater the caffeine levels. Many things can impact the caffeine content from where the tea shrubs are cultivated to the entire tea processing steps. 

Processing of Oolong Tea

Most consider oolong tea production complicated. It takes a great deal of skill and experience in the cultivation and processing of tea to ensure a wide range of colors, flavors, and fragrances. 

The flavor of the tea is always a direct reflection of how much oxidation the leaves go through. Other factors that set oolong tea apart from other tea types include the harvest time. As mentioned, oolong tea is harvested late in the spring months compared to other tea types.

The tea leaves are picked when the leaves are open. Buds are not used in Chinese oolong teas but on occasion, buds are used in Taiwanese oolong teas. 

After harvesting the tea leaves, it can take a month for processing to occur. It will not go to market until July in most cases. 

By waiting to harvest, the leaves are allowed to grow bigger and stronger. They are loaded more with aromatic oils that impact the smell and taste of the tea. The controlled oxidation process and moisture removal help further promote the tea’s unique flavor. 

After picking and sun exposure, the tea is further exposed to high heat which pushes the enzymatic oxidation process.  The process is never about drying the tea leaves but instead removing a certain percentage of moisture. Different processes are used. 

Tea Plants

A tea master has the experience and skills needed to dry and tell the different stages of production to ensure that the proper percentage of moisture is obtained. They use their senses such as touch and smell to determine that everything is progressing properly. 

The teas have a remarkably diverse and complex flavor that is different depending on the tea master’s skills and where the tea was cultivated.

Premium oolong tea never tastes bitter. Many variations are sweet and smooth with a rich flavor and pleasing aftertaste. 

Many different oolong tea processes have subtle differences:

  • Anxi and Taiwan teas are always lightly oxidized and rolled into balls. They have a light taste with a subtle aftertaste. 

  • Dan Cong and Wu Yi are more oxidized for a stronger flavor and aroma with a light aftertaste. The leaves are rolled lengthwise.

Top 10 Types of Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is usually divided into two types: dark oolong and green oolong (jade oolong). A green oolong tea type has a lower oxidation level and has many similarities to green tea. Dark oolong teas are heavily oxidized and are similar to black teas. 

Oolong tea varieties are remarkably diverse. Many characteristics of the tea depend on the region where it was grown, harvested, and processed. Below we will explore the types of oolong tea. 

1. Phoenix Tea (Dan Cong)

Phoenix oolong tea is grown in Guangdong Province located in southern China. It is one of the number one selling teas worldwide. The tea has wonderful natural flavors that lend to a full-bodied, fragrant tea. 

2. Wuyi Oolong Tea (Da Hong Pao)

Wuyi Oolong Tea is a delightfully dark oolong tea. It has a deep, smokey flavor

The tea has a high oxidation level and many mineral components. This tea is a premium delicacy that carries a high price tag. In fact, it is one of the most expensive teas in the world. 

3. Iron Goddess of Mercy (Tie Guan Yin) 

Iron Goddess of Mercy (Tie Guan Yin) oolong tea is cultivated in Fujian Province, China. The processing method to make this tea is considered laborious which is why the name contains the term ‘iron.’ The tea undergoes 60 hours of slow roasting to bring forth a light and floral taste that many compare it to an orchard. 

4. High Mountain Oolong Tea (Gaoshan) 

The High Mountain Oolong Tea (Gaoshan) grows in the mountain regions of central Taiwan. It undergoes only light oxidization so it is remarkably similar to green tea. The taste is crisp with a strong floral undertone. 

5. Milk Oolong Tea (Jin Xuan Tea)

Milk oolong tea is sweet and creamy. The tea shrubs are grown at a low altitude and harvested in the spring. The flavor of the tea is creamy and sweet with a buttery undertone. It has an incredibly unique taste. By the way, to be clear, milk oolong does not contain any milk!  

6. Formosa Bai Hao (Oriental Beauty)

This form of oolong tea is heavily oxidized. Many people mistake it for a black tea variety. It is one of the longest processed of all of the oolongs. The tea has a very deep, rich taste with a reddish hue. The taste is sweet with spicy and floral undertones.

7. Si Ji Chun (Four Seasons)

A Taiwanese tea variety, it is cultivated in the Nantou area’s mountainous region. The tea is handpicked and then processed using traditional methods. It is wonderfully rich with almost sweet fruity undertones. The golden tea smells very floral like a combination of jasmine and honey. 

8. Baozhong (also called Pouchong) 

A lightly oxidized tea, Baozhong has a floral and vegetal flavor. Many consider Baozhong as a green oolong tea with a grassy taste that is similar to that found in green tea. 

The exports of oolong tea from Taiwan started in 1865 but tea production slowed by 1973. Mr. Wu Fu Lou discovered a tea processing method from Anxi, Fujian, China. The method involved cultivating the cultivar Qingxin which was infused with floral science. They would rub blooming flowers with the dried oolong tea leaves to scent the tea. 

Eventually, Baozhong tea would be wrapped in a square of rice paper that was then stamped with the company’s unique seal. Baozhong tea is translated as “wrapped tea.”  Nowadays, Baozhong oolong tea is grown in the Pinglin district in New Taipei, Taiwan. 

9. Dong Ding Oolong (also called Frozen Summit Oolong) 

A lightly oxidized tea from Taiwan, it is grown at an altitude of over 3,300 ft (1,000 meters). The taste of the tea is extraordinarily strong with a sweet aftertaste. 

10. Tie Guan Yin (Monkey Picked)

The Tie Guan Yin oolong tea variety dates to the mid-18th century. It was grown in Anxi County of the Fujian Province. The legend about the tea states that monks trained monkeys to pick the best leaves from the wild tea trees throughout the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian Province. 

The tea picked by monkeys was then given to Emperor Qian Long in 1741. The Imperial Court enjoyed the oolong tea variety for years. Eventually, the general public gained access to the tea and it quickly inspired artists, poets, philosophers, and scholars. 

Nowadays, the term ‘monkey picked’ is still used but it refers to a high-quality Tie Guan Yin tea and is no longer picked by non-human primates.

Oolong Teas Versus Green Teas and Black Teas

Oxidized Teas

Not only does oolong tea taste amazing but it also provides many health benefits.  Although oolong tea is made from the same tea leaves used to make green and black teas, the oxidation method is different which is why it offers other health benefits.

When the tea leaves are exposed to air they start to ferment which is an oxidation process. The tea’s flavor, color, and nutritional content start to change during oxidation. 

  • Green tea is an unoxidized tea that gives an abundance of plant-based antioxidants. 

  • Black tea has undergone full oxidation which gives it a deep, robust flavor. The oxidations also form theaflavins which are a powerful form of antioxidants. 

Oolong tea is halfway between black and green tea. Depending on the oolong tea type, it has either low or elevated levels of oxidation. The darker the tea, the greater the oxidation process. Green oolong teas are very earthy and have undergone much less oxidation than darker oolong tea types.

Health Benefits of Oolong Tea

Oolong is considered a semi-oxidized tea which means it contains antioxidants that occur in both green and black teas. The powerful antioxidants protect cells from changes, aging, pollutants, and environmental damage which can all lead to malignancies and other chronic diseases.

Research has shown that oolong tea reduces the risk of cancer, lowers cholesterol, and acts as an antimicrobial (2). Here are a few other health benefits of Oolong tea:

It May Reduce the Risk of Diabetes

The polyphenols found in oolong tea may lower blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance according to studies (2). High blood sugar combined with insulin resistance is all serious risk factors for diabetes.

Heart Health 

Polyphenols activate an enzyme in the body that effectively breaks down dangerous triglycerides that can cause a thickening of the artery walls which puts an individual in danger of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Lowering cholesterol may reduce the risk of developing heart disease (2). 

Weight Loss Assistance

Research has shown that oolong tea may reduce body fat and boosts metabolism (3). Many people are turning to tea as a weight loss tool due to its ability to contribute to the body’s fat-burning capabilities. Studies have shown that daily consumption of oolong tea may prevent obesity and improve the body’s lipid metabolism which decreases body fat. 

Cognitive Support

Oolong tea is loaded with L-theanine which is an amino acid that improves brain activity, assists with sleep quality, and reduces both stress and anxiety (4).

The protective properties found in oolong tea could assist in preventing neurodegenerative diseases. Many studies are being carried out to determine if oolong tea could assist in slowing cognitive decline in dementia or Alzheimer’s disease (4).

High Quality Oolong Tea

Nutritional Benefits

Oolong tea offers many health benefits due to the tea’s high concentration of polyphenols. In addition, this tea is rich in minerals and vitamins. Oolong contains fluoride which can prevent cavities, gum disease, tooth loss, and forms of oral cancer (5).

Tea is also an excellent source of: 

  • Potassium
  • Niacin
  • Manganese
  • Sodium 

A single cup of oolong tea which contains about 2 grams of tea leaves combined with eight ounces of water has the following:

  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Calories: 2.4
  • Fat: 0 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams
  • Carbohydrates 0.36 grams

Oolong tea does contain caffeine so drinking it in excessive amounts may cause jitters, increased heart rate, irritability, headache, and insomnia. You should avoid consuming more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day. One cup of oolong tea contains about 40 milligrams of caffeine.

How to Prepare Oolong Tea

Tea master drinking tea

You’ll find a wide assortment of oolong tea anywhere that sells teas. You can pick between pre-packaged tea bags or preferably loose-leaf tea. 

Of course, if you have a teapot and strainer go for loose-leaf teas!

To make the perfect cup of oolong tea, you’ll want to boil water until it reaches 190 degrees Fahrenheit (88 degrees Celsius).  Brewing the tea too hot or too cold can destroy the flavor profile and also reduce the tea’s nutrients.

For the best and most active antioxidant content, you should soak the tea for at least three minutes. You can then serve the oolong tea iced or brewed hot.

  1. Prepare two tablespoons of loose-leaf oolong tea or a single oolong tea bag.

  2. Heat the water so it does not quite boil, 190 degrees Fahrenheit (88 degrees Celsius). Ideally, you should use a thermometer to check the water’s temperature or use a kettle with a built-in thermometer.

  3. Steep the tea for three minutes. 

  4. Drink the tea within the first 10 minutes to genuinely enjoy the antioxidants. 

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Frequently Asked Questions About Oolong Tea

How much oolong tea should I drink?

Always consume oolong tea in moderation because it does contain caffeine. Most tea consumers enjoy one to four cups of oolong tea per day. Avoid drinking oolong tea too close to bedtime or it could interfere with your sleep. 

Always remember, if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have a chronic health condition that can be impacted by caffeine consumption then you should always consult with your physician before enjoying a cup of oolong tea. 

What is the best way to drink oolong tea?

Most people drink oolong tea as a hot beverage using either loose tea leaves or a tea bag. You can also enjoy oolong as an iced tea beverage but you should first steep the tea in hot water to ensure you gain all of the antioxidants and then serve it chilled over ice. 

What are the side effects of oolong tea?

Oolong tea does contain caffeine so drinking too much can lead to side effects, especially in individuals who are caffeine sensitive. 

Side effects of caffeine overconsumption can include:

  • Jitters
  • Heart palpitations
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Nervousness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain 

What does oolong tea do for hair and skin?

Oolong tea is loaded with ample antioxidants which can give your skin a radiant glow. Many people use tea made from oolong tea to rinse their hair. It is believed to make your hair feel thick and lustrous. 

Is oolong anti-inflammatory?

Yes, oolong tea is a powerful anti-inflammatory according to research

What causes variations in oolong tea?

The variations in oolong tea are a result of the roasting and oxidation, the latter being the exposure to oxygen that accelerates the fermentation process of the tea. Oolong teas do not have high oxidation. The oxidation levels impact the tea’s coloration and flavor. A low oxidation level creates a light tea that is similar to a green tea and high oxidation creates a dark tea. 

How many times can you steep oolong tea?

Quality oolong tea can easily be steeped five to eight times. Taiwanese oolongs are easily brewed at least five times. 

Which is healthier: green tea or oolong tea?

All teas are brimming with antioxidants and good for the drinker. They provide many health benefits. Oolong tea is very robust in antioxidants and also has greater antimutagenic effects than green tea. The polyphenols found in oolong tea can even lower blood sugar levels and assist in preventing obesity (3). 

Is oolong tea good for the kidneys?

Tea is a wonderful way to maintain your kidney health. Oolong, white, green, and black tea are all great choices. However, remember that all tea types do contain caffeine. 

Does oolong tea go well with milk?

Personally, I don't recommend adding milk to your oolong tea because of its incredibly complex and sometimes delicate flavors. Adding milk to your tea is best done with strong bodied teas such as black teas.

What is Oolong Tea - Types of Oolong Tea

Bottom Line

Oolong tea is a great addition to your daily beverage menu. It is a wonderful tea that falls between green tea and black tea with its unique health benefits and taste. The different types of Oolong tea are highly sought after. You’ll find the tea in both loose form and tea bags. Always invest in quality tea to truly enjoy each cup. 

Now that you’re done learning about oolong tea, it’s time for a cup of tea. Hopefully oolong tea!

Felipe is a tea expert with an engineering background! He loves to drink and learn all about tea and coffee. His love for tea was discovered while living in Japan and his favorites are Sencha & Pu'er!

This article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not meant to replace professional medical advice, treatment or diagnosis. Do not consume any type of coffee, tea or herbal infusion if you are allergic to it. The information in this article is not intended to treat serious medical conditions. Please seek professional medical advice before using home remedies.

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