If you’ve been drinking high-quality teas for long, then you probably appreciate that leaf selection is critically important to tea manufacturers. For instance, the best black teas and green teas are usually made from plant material located at the tip end of a leafy shoot. It is from the tips where the famous “two-leaves-and-a-bud” are harvested and also where the highest concentrations of caffeine, polyphenols, and antioxidants are found in the tea plant Camellia sinensis.
It is not widely appreciated, however, that makers of oolong tea have a preference for a different leaf type. The best oolong teas are made from a leaf shoot that has a small, dormant leaf bud at the tip and an adjacent pair of elongate, mature leaves.
This particular leaf-bud combination, known as banji leaf in the tea industry, is favored by oolong producers for at least two reasons. First, the sturdy little bud and the tough partner leaves can endure the elaborate physical manipulation required to make oolong tea.
Second, because banji leaf is resilient, tea makers have a lot of flexibility with respect to the character of the final product. As I describe below, a skilled oolong maker can craft teas that range in flavor from grassy to fruity while having a mouthfeel that falls in the complex space between brisk and milky. A signature feature of oolongs is the incredible range of flavor and texture profiles that can be conjured out of banji leaf.
Where to find the best oolong tea brands
In this post, I briefly describe the process of manufacturing oolong tea and expand on the unique features of this tea. I then review and recommend a selection of oolongs that I think you will appreciate sampling.
I surveyed the best oolong tea brands that have excellent value in the following categories:
If you’re pressed for time, jump ahead to the tea reviews listed in the table of contents.
What Is Oolong Tea?
Oolong refers as much to a method of tea processing as to a profile of tea flavor and mouthfeel. Though the details will vary according to the goals of a tea maker, oolong teas are generally made by following an elaborate series of procedures that can be modified to achieve a desired style of oolong.
The steps in making oolong tea
- Harvest of banji leaf. Though not all oolongs are made from banjo, proper seasonal timing of harvest is key to plucking leaf in the correct stage of development.
- Wither. Outdoor exposure to sunlight hastens withering and softens leaf.
- Tumble or toss. Withered leaf must be bruised so that plant cells rupture and leaf phytonutrients mix together. The trick here is to avoid expelling the tea juices onto the leaf surface.
- Oxidation. Plant polyphenols react with enzymes and water. The duration of oxidation is hugely important to oolong flavor and mouthfeel.
- Heating. Exposure to heat in either a pan or an oven stops oxidation and “fixes” flavor. Oolongs are only partially oxidized and never fully oxidized like black tea.
- Rolling. Now partially oxidized leaf must be pressure-rolled by hand or by machine so that flavor compounds are expressed onto the leaf surface.
- Compression. The rolled leaf is next packed into a fabric bag that is twisted and compressed by machine. The leaf is eventually shaped into either a compressed spiral twist or balled up into a pea-sized pellet.
- Drying. Tea leaf is evaporated under heat so that textures and shapes are maintained. Drying also enhances long term storage.
- 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, oolongs are among the most challenging of teas to manufacture. And to add a unique signature character to an oolong, the tea maker can alter each of the processing steps in subtle ways.
Finally, if you include diversity in tea plant cultivars used by different tea farms, or consider the major differences between tea-growing regions (e.g., China oolong vs Taiwan oolong), there is an incredible depth and breadth of oolongs to sample.
Oolong tea versus green tea and black tea
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 Camellia sinensis naturally contain caffeine. The function of caffeine is to defend the plant from attack by insect herbivores.
However, 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 insects are the most prevalent and, therefore, where the highest levels of caffeine are produced.
However, banji leaf used for oolong is not like the tips. Banji is tougher and lacks altogether a tender leaf bud that might attract insects. 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 have, on average, about 85 mg of caffeine each.
That’s pretty a significant difference if you’re caffeine-sensitive or if you just 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 oolong may include:
- A range of flavors for all tastes: tea makers change the flavor profiles by adjusting oxidation levels.
- 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 the best oolong tea: Our recommendations
To compile these reviews I studied dozens of tea brands and hundreds of online comments of tea drinkers. The process of aggregating reviews 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:
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 with our recommended oolong tea brands!
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 agrochemicals 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 that is packed in simple, 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 emerges from a brief oven 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 the Prince of Peace brand oolong tea is the way to go.
Organic Oolong by Prince of Peace Tea Co.
Why you should buy: Inexpensive, medium grade bagged tea. Very popular.
Leaf: Bagged, broken leaf
Origin: Wuyi district, Fujian, China
Cultivation: USDA Certified Organic
Packing: Box of 100 individually wrapped bags with option for several boxes
Brewing tips: Very forgiving; experiment with water temp and duration of steep.
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 the demand for an excellent value in bulk-shipped teas, and I have been quite pleased with their other specialty 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, 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!
Quilan China Oolong from Davidson’s Tea Co.
Why you should buy: Great value and quality in a daily oolong
Leaf: Loose, whole leaf, lightly roasted
Origin: China, possibly Wuyi Mountains
Cultivation: USDA certified organic
Packing: 1 US pound packet
Brewing tips: Extending duration of infusion will bring out nuttiness (in the tea, that is).
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 of goodwill 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 often balanced 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 to extract the floral-fruity slice of the TGY profile. In other words, the harvested leaf is processed somewhat like green tea with an emphasis on preserving vegetal qualities that may be lost under longer durations of oxidation.
The 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, 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 use exactly 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, reviewers also report that each batch of tea is good for many infusions. Now that’s real savings!
High Mountain Tie Guan Yin Oolong by Oriarm
Why you should buy: Authentic Tie Guan Yin profile; many infusions possible per session, makes for a very economical tea.
Leaf: Whole leaf, rolled, lightly oxidized and gently roasted
Origin: Anxi district, Fujian, China
Packing: From 3.5 oz (100g) to 2.2 lbs (1000g).
Brewing tips: Use short steeps, 20 sec initially and then add 10 sec. each time.
There are two kinds of milk oolong teas: those that have a milk-based additive or “natural flavoring,” and those that do not. Genuine milk oolong has nothing added except for the magic of the tea maker who coaxes out of the leaf a smooth and silky yet full and lingering mouthfeel that is similar to 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 teas 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 mellow and only hint of milk essence.
Where to find the best milk oolong
The trouble, however, is that the market is overwhelmed with milk-enhanced 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 both 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 report that Republic’s milk oolong is their go-to tea for travel and the office where there’s no time to fuss with loose leaf tea.
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.
Milk Oolong Tea by Republic of Tea
Why you should buy: No milk additives, silky smooth texture, convenient bags
Leaf: Bagged, broken leaf
Origin: Fujian, China
Packing: 36 bags per tin or 250 bags per packet
Brewing tips: Tolerates longer steeps with water below boiling.