Oolong is a traditional Chinese tea somewhere between green (no oxidation) and black (fully oxidised) teas in oxidation. Therefore, it is known as semi-oxidised or partially oxidised. The camellia sinensis plant is where not only Oolong tea comes from, but where green, black and white tea comes from too.
Oolong tea, so named after its creator, is Chinese in origin with unique and distinctive characteristics produced mainly in Fujian and Guangdong, as well as Taiwan. Being a slightly oxidised tea, Oolong has a taste more akin to green tea than to black tea: it lacks the rosy, sweet aroma of black tea, but it likewise does not have the stridently grassy notes that typify green tea. It is commonly brewed to be strong, with the bitterness, leaving a sweet aftertaste. There are several sub-varieties of Oolong, with those produced in the Wuyi Mountains of northern Fujian and in the central mountains of Taiwan being among the most famous. Individual types of Oolong tea can range from, almost like a green tea to almost like a black tea, depending on the degree of oxidation during processing.
There is a separate legend about the origins of Oolong. During the Qing dynasty a tea farmer in Fujian was picking tea one day when he saw a deer. Deciding to hunt the deer instead of processing the picked tea, it was not until the next day that he got around to finishing the tea. However by that time the edges of the leaves had partially oxidised, and gave off a surprising good aroma. So deciding to finish the processing as usual, he was surprised to find that the resulting tea had a completely new strong, sweet flavour, that didn’t have any of bitterness that was usually produced. This guy’s nickname was Oolong, and so the new tea was named after him.
Oolong tea truly began life in Fujian province, with a history there stretching back more than 1,000 years to a traditional form of tea called Beiyuan tea. Beiyuan tea was the earliest known tribute tea (a tea given in tribute to the emperor or royal family) produced in Fujian, because of its fine quality and unique flavour, and one of the most well known teas produced during the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279). The Beiyuan area is located around the Phoenix mountain in Fujian, and had been a tea producing area since the earlier Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). This tea was a compressed type of tea, with the leaves compressed into cakes. In the tribute, custom, tea regions were selected by the Emperor to produce tea to be offered as a gift to the royal court, which was a great honour and good for business.
In time, government officials, monks and scholars began visiting and emigrating to the Fujian area and were surprised with the strong “earth-stone” taste of the teas from the Wuyi Mountain region, so different from the un-fermented Green Tea which was the only tea that existed in China to that point. These teas came to be known as Wuyi or Cliff Tea. Hearing of this wonderful new tea, the Emperor sent a sample of an un-fermented compressed Green Tea cake to Wuyi and asked for tribute tea. What he received was Dragon Phoenix Compressed Tea which was made from a mould which imprinted the tea cake with the design of a dragon and a phoenix. This tea became very famous as a result. The fame of Wuyi teas spread far and wide and continued to be designated as a tribute tea throughout the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644 – 1911).
In 1725, tea producers in the Anxi region of Fujian adapted the methods of making traditional Wuyi Tea when these went out of fashion with the royalty and improved the technology to develop a new tea which was a partially oxidised loose leaf tea instead – Oolong. In 1796, Oolong Tea was introduced to the Northern Fujian region and to Taiwan, where today, each region is well known for their distinctive Oolong Teas.
In the early 1800’s a Fujian tea merchant took some seeds to Taiwan to see how well the plants would grow there. It proved to be very successful and so in the following years tea production in Taiwan became very widespread. However, for the first half of the century, most of the tea was sent back to Fujian to be processed there. This changed in 1868 when a British man named John Dodd decided this was hugely inefficient, and so hired some Fujian tea masters to set up tea processing in Taipei. This worked out very well, and in the following year Dodd shipped 127 tonnes of what was then called Formosa tea to the United States, where it was a great success. From that time on, Oolong tea has been the most widely exported types of tea from Taiwan.
In the early 19th century, the British ambassador to China dedicated some Oolong tea to the Queen of England. The queen was very taken with the unique taste and aroma, as well as its distinctive appearance – quite different to any teas seen before in England – and gave it the name “Oriental Beauty”.
The lifestyles of modern Japanese people have changed substantially. To alleviate feelings of “dissatisfaction caused by having only green tea” in ordinary households, Oolong tea started to gain significant attention as a tea suitable to go with oily foods and as a tea that could be consumed in large quantities. In 1979, ITO EN launched a product by adapting Chinese Oolong tea to Japanese tastes. This triggered a boom in Oolong tea in Japan. Subsequently, to meet the needs of a fast-paced modern lifestyle, ITO EN developed a ready-to-drink tea beverage product, something that had been previously unthinkable. In 1981, the Company launched its canned Oolong tea, and this was followed by canned green tea and canned black tea in 1985.