Unless you are a tea connoisseur with many years’ experience, chances are you’ve never heard of oolong, or you know it as “the tea with the funny name”. Those who’ve experienced it, however, know that this tea offers a unique appeal that marks it as a respectable tea in its own right. In our latest Steep History article, we take a few minutes to examine oolong’s remarkable qualities and just how it came to be what it is today.
A Chinese Legacy
Like most ancient teas, oolong tea history begins in ancient China – specifically in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Originating in the Beiyun region of Phoenix Mountain in the Fujian province, it was originally called Beiyun Tea, and was known for its excellent quality and unique flavor. What set this tea apart from others was its unique preparation; unlike green tea, whose leaves are harvested before oxidizing, or black tea, whose leaves are fully oxidized, oolong tea is made from partially-oxidized leaves. The result is a flavor both fresh and earthy, truly unique in the tea world.
Also like most Chinese teas, oolong’s origin has a rather romanticized legend behind it. The story goes that a man was out collecting tea leaves when he spotted a deer in the distance. He immediately ran off to hunt the deer and abandoned the leaves instead of processing them, as was the custom. When he returned for the tea the next day, he found the edges of the leaves had oxidized, and was surprised by the pleasant aroma they gave off. He decided to process the tea, and an entirely new tea tradition was born.
What’s In a Name?
The English “Oolong” name is derived from its Chinese name, 烏龍 (wulong), which means Black Dragon. The origin (and meaning) of its name is highly debated, with multiple theories abounding. Many believe that it was named simply for appearance, as the long, dark curly leaves were reminiscent of a dragon’s tail. This is called the Tribute Theory (more on that later). The Wuyi theory holds that oolong first came from the Wuyi Mountains region, and was named for them; some poetry of the time supports
this theory. Finally, the Anxi Theory claims that the Anxi oolong tea plant was first discovered by a man named Wulong or something similar (Sulong or Wuliang).
The Royal Treatment
When first invented, tea was a rare and expensive commodity, and as such could only be afforded by the highest class. Naturally, such a precious commodity was also presented to the Chinese Emperor. Tribute teas were frequently presented to the royal family as gifts. Prior to oolong’s invention, tea was prepared and shipped in large cakes of tea that had been packed together; around the time oolong appeared, however, loose-leaf became the preferred method, which helped its rise in popularity.
It was in the 1800s that oolong made its world debut, when the British Ambassador sent oolong home to present to the Queen. Though not as popular as the much-loved black tea, oolong gained an international foothold, and since then has been appreciated by tea-lovers around the globe.
Whether you love it for the taste, the history, or simply the fun of saying its name out loud, chances are there’s something you’ll love about oolong tea. Have you tried oolong yourself? Do you have a favorite variety? Let us know in the comments below!