Oolong tea power: how a special leaf provides unique flavors and benefits

Oolong tea offers some of the most complex flavors and textures of any true tea. Here I describe what oolong tea is and where you can find some great buys.
A setting of oolong tea, reading to serve
A setting of oolong tea, ready to serve.

If you’ve been drinking quality teas for very long then you already know that leaf selection is critically important to tea makers. For instance, the highest quality black and green teas are usually made from tender leaf buds and leaves located at the tip end of a leaf shoot.

It is not widely appreciated, however, that in oolong tea there is a preference for a different leaf type. Here tea makers use a leaf shoot that has a tiny, underdeveloped leaf bud at the tip and an adjacent pair of elongate leaves.

This leaf-bud combination, called banji leaf in the tea industry, is favored by oolong makers for at least two important reasons. First, the sturdy little banji bud and relatively tough partner leaves can endure the arduous processing methods that turn raw leaf into glorious oolong tea.

Second, tea makers can elicit from banji leaf an extremely wide range of flavors and textures. For example, some oolongs are grassy while others are fruity and still others are milky in texture.

It is really incredible what kind of magical flavor combinations a skilled tea maker can pull out of banji leaf.

In this post I briefly describe the process of manufacturing oolong tea. I then review and recommend several excellent oolongs that are highly regarded by tea drinkers. Dedicated tea enthusiasts have found these oolongs to be excellent values as a Budget oolong, an Daily oolong, a Tie Guan Yin oolong, and a Milky oolong.

If you’re pressed for time, jump ahead to the tea reviews listed in the table of contents.

What Is Oolong Tea?

Oolong refers to a method of tea processing as much as a profile of tea flavor and mouthfeel. Though the finer details will vary according to the goals of a tea maker, oolong teas are generally made in the following the steps:

  1. Harvest of banji leaf. Seasonal timing of harvest is critical to plucking leaf in the correct stage of development.
  2. Wither. Outdoor exposure to sunlight hastens withering and softens leaf.
  3. Tumble or toss. Withered leaf must be bruised so that plant cells rupture and leaf phytonutrients mix together.
  4. Oxidation. Plant polyphenols react with enzymes and oxygen. Duration of oxidation is a hugely important to oolong flavor: shorter oxidation favors a grassy note while longer brings out floral aromas or milky textures. Oolongs are never fully oxidized.
  5. Heating. Exposure to heat in either a pan or an oven stops oxidation and “fixes” flavor.
  6. Rolling. Now leaf must be pressure-rolled by hand or machine so that flavor compounds are expressed onto leaf surface.
  7. Compression. Leaf is packed into a fabric bag that is twisted and compressed by machine. This step may be repeated several times; leaf emerges with a spiral twist or is rolled up into a small pellet.
  8. Drying. Leaf is evaporated under heat so that textures and shapes are maintained. Drying also improves longterm storage.
  9. Roasting. This optional step adds depth and body to oolong flavor and mouthfeel. Hot charcoal embers are used in traditional methods of roasting.

That’s a lot of steps to making oolong tea. Compared to the simple procedures involved in making white teas, for example, oolongs are among the most challenging of teas to manufacture.

But the rewards to getting it right are tremendous!

Oolong tea versus green and black teas

One remarkable feature of oolong teas is that they are similar to green teas and black teas, but not quite the same. For example, tumbled tea leaf that is allowed a short period of oxidation—perhaps less than an hour total—are similar to green teas that have a fresh, grassy flavor.

In contrast, tumbled leaf that oxidizes for longer durations tends towards a black tea with full body and nutty or earthy notes.

Between those two extremes of tea types lies a region of oolong flavor-space that reveals fruity, floral, orchid tastes that really excite the tea drinker’s palate.

Does oolong tea have caffeine?

All teas made from the Camellia sinensis tea plant naturally contain caffeine. The function of this fascinating molecule is to defend the plant from insect attack.

Methods of tea manufacture can have a dramatic impact on the amount of caffeine that is available in your morning cuppa. For instance, green teas and black teas are usually made with young, tender foliage that grows from the tip of a shoot. It is in the tips where the highest levels of caffeine are produced.

However, banji leaf used for oolong is not like the tips. Banji is slightly tougher and lacks altogether a tender bud. Therefore banji needs less caffeine for self-defense against insect attackers.

You, as the tea drinker, will consume less caffeine per cup of oolong than you will in green or black teas. Perhaps as low as 25 mg of caffeine per serving of oolong compared to matcha tea and some black teas which each have on average about 85 mg.

That’s pretty a significant difference if you’re caffeine sensitive or if you want to sleep after your evening tea.

Summary: Benefits of Oolong Tea

That’s a lot to take in. And there are different reasons for drinking oolong tea, depending on your preferences. The benefits of drinking this oolong include:

  • A range of flavors for all tastes: tea makers adjust oxidation levels to change flavor.
  • Reduce caffeine intake: oolong has less caffeine than most teas and all coffees.
  • Good for many infusions: rolled leaf unravels gradually with each infusion, revealing new flavors each time.
  • Less bitterness than black tea: flavors are more floral and fruity than astringent and bitter.

Where to buy oolong tea: Our recommendations

To compile these reviews I studied dozens of tea brands and the tens and sometimes hundreds of online comments of tea drinkers. The process is challenging to say the least, but in the end I came up with several brands that I think you should consider trying.

In order to make the cut, a tea brand had to satisfy all the following criteria:

  • Strong reviews because there’s no point to drinking bad tea.
  • Recent reviews are weighted more heavily than old reviews.
  • No high-end teas even though they are very tempting.
  • Bulk options preferred because this is where the savings are found.
  • 100% natural and no additives. The only added ingredient is the maker’s magic.

If you’re new to oolong teas, it’s probably a good idea to try several different styles. This way you can experience the range that oolong has to offer. I am sure that you’ll find at least one style that suits you.

Let’s get started!

Best Bargain Oolong: Prince of Peace Organic Oolong

I am not a tea snob. I appreciate that there are times when a no-frills, no-fuss, easy-to-use bagged tea is the best choice considering your budgetary constraints and personal tastes.

But come on. Most of what passes for tea in those bags is not much better than the dirt that grew the tea. And there’s no telling what agro-chemicals have been applied to that dirt!

The solution to the bagged-tea dilemma is to go with an established brand. In addition, look for a brand that has made some effort to verify that farming practices do not include pesticides or herbicides. Go with a certified organically grown tea.

The Prince of Peace Company (or just POP) has been making people happy for years with their budget-friendly offerings, including a gentle oolong tea in your basic unbleached tea bags.

Reviewers applaud the consistent quality standards maintained by the company over many years of operation. They also appreciate that USDA organic certification has been applied to POP’s oolong.

Tea reviewers describe this oolong as light and floral but with body that probably emerges from a brief factory roast given to the leaf. Tea drinkers who are caffeine sensitive also report that POP’s oolong has low levels of this stimulant, which is consistent with the company’s claim of 30 mg per 8 oz cup, on average.

I like having in my cupboard a ready-to-use bagged tea for when I’m short on time. For my money, I think that Prince of Peace brand oolong tea is the way to go.

Best Daily Oolong: Davidson’s Quilan Organic Oolong

In the preceding section I recommended a best bargain oolong tea and here I’m reviewing a best daily oolong. What’s the difference?

In a word: quality. Or to be technical, a good daily is more better than bargain tea.

I stress, again, that not all bagged tea is poor, it’s just that it could be better than it usually is. The Prince of Peace brand that I discussed above is the tea-bag exception, not the rule.

In addition to being above average, a good daily oolong should also be multi-use. For example, another use of oolong tea is for kombucha ferments or chai spicey tea mix. That is why I have settled upon a daily tea that is not just more better and affordable, but also useful for a variety of tea needs.

Davidson’s Tea Co. sources teas from around the world and has the skinny on what’s hot and what’s not. They know how to meet demand for an excellent value in bulk-shipped teas, and I have been quite pleased with their other speciality teas.

Davidson’s distributes from China a certified organic, lightly roasted oolong tea that reviewers describe as smooth and with a nuttiness that balances a delicate floral note. Quilan (or Qilan) means “rare orchid” in Chinese and accounts for the floral profile of this oolong.

Reviewers also say that Davidson’s oolong supports a robust SCOBY and yet doesn’t overpower the brew. However, in order to hit the fermentation sweet spot, you may have to experiment with the quantity of infused tea. The option of a 1 US pound packets gives you just that flexibility to experiment.

Add to these benefits a very agreeable price point and you have yourself a great daily oolong!

Best Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea: High Mountain Grown Oolong by Oriarm Tea

One of China’s most famous teas is Tie Guan Yin oolong, or Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong. In China, Tie Guan Yin, or simply TGY, is often exchanged among friends as a symbol good will and hope for the future.

In my experience, TGY was the first gratifyingly mind-blowing oolong tea that I had yet tasted. More still, TGY was to become a gate-way tea that seduced me down the path of ever more compelling and challenging teas.

How is Tie Guan Yin made?

The English spelling is sometimes different—tea kwan yin is a common misspelling—but most tea aficionados know what you’re talking about: a splendidly floral tea with top notes of fruit, zest, and sour candy. All of which is balanced, in some cases, with a light roasting that lifts the body and holds the flavors a bit longer on the palate.

Tea makers evoke the amazing TGY flavor profile in two ways. First, they often use a particular tea plant cultivar—the tie guan yin cultivar, of course—with its own special combination of polyphenols, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients.

Second, tea makers use short periods of oxidation (or “fermentation”) to extract the floral-fruity slice of the TGY profile. In other words, leaf is handled somewhat like green tea with an emphasis on preserving vegetal qualities that may be lost under long periods of duration oxidation.

Partially oxidized leaf is then exposed to machine-assisted, twisting-compression alternated with low-temperature bouts of heating. Several cycles of twisting and heating may be used to bring forth richness.

And finally, the tea maker may roast the leaf at low temperature to elicit even more tea body.

Where to buy the best Tie Guan Yin oolong

Each of these characters comes together in a TGY that I recommend here today. This oolong is distributed by the China-based Oriarm Tea Company which works with local farmers to find and process the best leaf.

Oriarm’s TGY is sourced solely from the famous Anxi tea district in Fujian Province. Here the altitude is up to 3200 feet (1000 meters, more or less), which to Oriarm is “high mountain.” Close enough, I suppose, and what matters in any case is the high spirit of the tea farmers!

This particular oolong has what the company describes as a “clean aroma,” which means that the tea is lightly oxidized and hence more towards the green-tea end of the flavor spectrum.

Tea reviewers don’t exactly use the same descriptive terminology as Oriarm, but, again, the spirit is the same. They rave about this TGY’s orchid-flower top notes and the lingering but gentle mineral finish.

Reviewers are also happy with what a great bargain this tea represents. The minimum purchase is about 3.5 ounces (100 grams), which seems like a lot of tea until you consider the very reasonable price point.

To make things even more attractive, also note that reviewers report that each batch of tea is good for many infusions. Now that’s real savings!

If there’s a downside to this TGY it’s that you may have to wait a bit longer than normal for tea to ship directly from China. But look on the bright side: you’ll appreciate the tea even more when it arrives!

Best Milk Oolong: Republic of Tea Milk Oolong

There are two kinds of milk oolong teas: those that have a milk-based additive or “natural flavoring,” and those that do not. A true milk oolong has nothing added except for the magic of the tea maker who coaxes out of the leaf a smooth, silky, mouthfeel that many associate with the sensation of drinking cow’s milk or cream.

So don’t worry if you’re lactose-intolerant, your tummy will be fine with a true milk oolong.

More than fine, actually. Just steer clear of those with additives, which should be indicated on the label. If not, use your nose. An oolong “enhanced” with milk product will usually have a very strong milky aroma while the aroma of an unadulterated oolong will be very mellow and only hint of milk essence.

Where to find the best milk oolong

The trouble, however, is that the market is over-whelmed with milk-enhanced milk oolongs. A tea drinker has to look pretty hard and do their research to find a true milk oolong these days.

But the tea hounds here at Leaf House Tea have sniffed one out for you!

The Republic of Tea brand has procured a tea from Fujian, China that does what a good milk oolong should. On the one hand, say reviewers, the tea has the smooth texture of cream while on the other it has fruity notes suggestive of pineapple and a floral loft that hints of orchid.

And not to worry about the lactose: Republic’s milk oolong is pure leaf. It contains no additives and has been certified gluten-free and Kosher.

Holding such a strong flavor profile is quite an achievement for any leaf, and especially so for a bagged tea. Reviewers love the convenience of the bag, and many volunteer that Republic’s milk oolong is their go-to tea for travel and the office.

The product is available in a small, attractive tin that is handy for transport and makes a great gift tea. Larger volumes of bags are available for those with a big appetite for a wonderful oolong tea.

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