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While new tea drinkers are used to hearing about green tea and black tea, there are a few other types of teas that are easy to miss. One of those may be oolong tea, a semi-oxidized tea gaining popularity in the US but is not as well known as other styles.
The taste of oolong tea can range from mild to strong depending on how it was processed after harvest, but here at TeaMinded we will do our best to educate you on what each type of oolong tea tastes like.
Oolong’s wide range of flavor profiles may be confusing for someone just starting out in their tea journey, but for those looking for a nice middle ground between the mellow flavor of green tea and the bitterness and astringency of black tea, oolong tea may be your best bet.
What Does Oolong Tea Taste Like?
Oolong processed in different ways will emphasize different flavors. Some tea masters will only let leaves meant for oolong briefly oxidize, while others will oxidize and let ferment for longer.
When the tea leaves are only lightly oxidized, the green-colored leaves will produce a mild cup similar to green tea but with more of a fresh vegetal taste.
There may be a slightly sweet aftertaste as well, with very little astringency. One of the most interesting lighter oxidized teas is Taiwanese “milk oolong” or jin xuan, a creamy tea with a wonderful flowery aroma.
If a long oxidation period or heavy roasting are used when processing dark oolong, the taste will reflect the strong properties of black tea. Astringent, toasty, and sometimes bitter with a heavy fragrance of fruit and honey, heavily oxidized oolong can take additions such as milk or lemon whereas its lightly oxidized relatives would be overwhelmed.
In between light and dark oolong tea there is a middle ground, since all Camellia Sinensis leaves oxidized between 8% and 85% are considered to be in the oolong family. These medium oolongs can include additional roasting to add a light layer of toasted flavor while keeping the smoothness and low astringency of green tea.
What is a Good Oolong Tea?
With all the different versions of oolong tea leaves, your favorite tasting oolong may be darker or lighter, but there are some things to look out for when shopping.
When choosing an oolong tea, first look at the leaves. Colors will range from green to almost black. For the most part, the greener the leaves, the lighter the taste will be. Medium flavored oolongs may have a smattering of different colors but will tend toward the dark side. Heavily roasted oolong tea will have an almost burnt look and can taste as strong as coffee.
Smell the tea leaves. Be sure there is a good amount of fragrance, with no hint of mold or mildew in the scent.
Oolong tea leaves, especially many from Taiwan, often come with stems attached. While this may seem like a dubious way of increasing weight in a package of tea, the stems are left there on purpose.
It is believed that leaving the stems included increases the aroma of the final tea, and studies have shown a large amount of L-Theanine resides in the stems of certain tea plants.
The best oolong teas will come in loose-leaf form. Oolong tea bags are generally made from broken leaves, tea fannings, and even dust from tea leaves. Even though oolong tea bags will be made from the same leaves as their loose-leaf counterparts, the quality will be lower and should be avoided.
Oolong Tea Leaf Differences
The flavor of loose-leaf oolong tea is enhanced by different ways of handling the leaves. Many times the leaves are crushed (but not broken), breaking up the cell walls to allow for more flavor production.
After that they are either rolled into small balls or twisted into coil-like strands. By preventing the entire surface area from being fully exposed, this will create another way of only partially oxidizing the oolong tea leaves.
Lighter oolong teas are generally made by wrapping the leaves into small balls or pearls before the oxidation process. With the majority of the leaf and stem protected, the overall oxidation will be lower, and the taste of these oolong teas will be light and fresh.
Twisted oolong tea leaves, on the other hand, are normally reserved for the high-oxidation process. More surface area is exposed, creating a situation where the higher levels of oxidation and fermentation can reach more areas of the leaf. These dark colored leaves will not look or taste exactly the same as black tea, but can get very close.
With the classification of oolong tea spanning such a large range of oxidation, the flavors available in the oolong family can be anywhere from mild and fragrant to rich and strong. Judging by the color of the leaf it is possible to tell in what flavor range the tea will be, so make sure to check the leaves before buying.
Scott is the founder of TeaMinded. He enjoys tasting and discovering teas from across the globe, with green teas and ceremonial matcha from Japan being among his favorites. He’s grateful to be immersed in the tea community, always learning and sharing along the journey.