Oolong tea – History and Teasers

In my previous post, I described my first tea tasting session with Andrew Perryman of Tea & Glory in Camden. In this post, I will share some interesting tidbits that Andrew shared about the history and the production process of Oolong tea.

A little bit of History

In around 1658 when the British started importing tea through the Dutch Trading Companies some of the first teas that they brought across was the Tie Guan Yin. So, the British, to begin with, received some of the best tea in China! At one point it was estimated that there was, almost 4,500 tonnes of Tie Guan Yin being shipped from the Anxi region to Britain. Over time though, the British came to forsake the Oolong tea preferring the black tea that is drunk in such large quantities today.

Processing Oolong tea – think bamboo tumble dryers!

Oolong tea goes through quite an extensive process before it reaches the pot. There are several stages to the process:

Step 1 – Reduce the water content of the tea in the outdoor air. 

In the first step, you take the leaf, the original bud and two to three other leaves and then air dry the tea to start softening the leaf. The aim of this is to begin to be able to manipulate the leaf.  When you take a leaf from the branch, it contains a lot of moisture and is rigid and would just break if you tried to manipulate it at this stage.  So, what happens is a situation where you actually reduce the water content of the tea in the outdoor air.

Step 2 – Continue to bring down the water content of the leaf to make it a little bit easier to manipulate 

In the second step, what they do is to bring the tea inside and place it into big bamboo baskets – the tea starts oxidising as it has been taken away from the plant. However, you want that to happen because it is reducing the water content. At this stage, you get terrific fragrances that start coming out of the leaf.

Step 3 – Giant Bamboo Rollers

In the third step, you put the tea through giant bamboo drums with rollers inside. The tumbling action actually bruises the edges of the leaf to start releasing the flavour. It is a very gentle way of extracting some of the characteristics from the leaf. It is this that creates a tea so different from the black teas. At this stage, the drink has an exquisite flavour. 

Bamboo is used partly because it is plentiful in the Anxi region and also because it is the most efficient way of undertaking the process.

Step 4 – Pan Frying Tea

When the tea masters have the taste of oxidisation that they want in the tea, they stop the oxidisation process by pan frying the leaf.  The tea is heated, and that necessarily prevents it turning into black tea.

Step 5 – Manipulating the Tea

What happens next is the most interesting part.  The leaf is now easy to manipulate, quite bendy and what you do is use different types of machinery and wrap the tea up into different sized bags. In some places, they still do this part of the process by hand and foot. In other places, machines are used. The tea master will go by the smell of the tea how many times they need to roll it. This process of turning it, emptying it out and filling it again rewrapped may occur up to 8 times. It is a labour intensive process. However, that is what gives the tea its quality. When the tea is ready, there will be one last pan firing, and at the end of that process, they know that the tea is right. Nice, small rolled leaves are produced and the flavour is captured in the leaf.


Infusing the tea

When you place the tea in the water initially, it is rolled and then with the infusions, it unfurls to a full leaf. Five grams is, therefore, a lot of tea. You have to wait until the end of the infusion process to see the difference between these leaves and your tea bag!

Oolong Leaves unfurled

Traditional Ways to serve Oolong tea

The traditional way to serve Tien Guan Yin is the Gong Fu service. This uses a little teapot and a lot of leaves to get a more intense flavour from the tea. You use doll size teacups, and you are constantly going around filling the cup. With the smaller teapot, you can have more infusions and for a shorter time. As the leaf expands you get different flavours coming out.

Oolong Tea Leaves from ball rolled to unfurled


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