Most people are unaware of the vast range of teas known by the names oolong, wulong, or blue tea. They are similarly not aware that oolong teas are the most laborious to create, the most diverse in flavor, and the premier choice of true tea aficionados. Oolong teas require dozens of processing steps (unlike green or black teas) and reflect the depth of skill of the tea master.
Oolong teas vary greatly in the degree of oxidation, from as little as 10% to as much as 90%. They can therefore resemble a green tea at the lowest oxidation levels, and be more like a black tea at the highest levels of oxidation. But most oolongs have a special quality all of their own, including a lingering mouth feel, and a remarkable range of floral, vegetal, fruity, and even nutty or earthy flavors.
"In matters of taste there can be no argument" goes the saying, and I find myself liking Oolongs from Taiwan consistently more than Oolongs from China, with a few notable exceptions.
The internet is full of sources of oolong teas, but most provide only mediocre fare. In fact, just this week I purchased a few teas from a website that looked very professional and shipped teas directly from Taiwan, and the teas were basically undrinkable.
There are two ways to make oolong tea:
1. In a tea cup with a tea filter (don't ever use a tea ball or closed spoon as there won't be room for the tea to expand). You place in the cup about 1 teaspoon of tea, brew the tea about 3 minutes with water at about 200 degrees.
2. Using the gung fu method, where you brew the tea in a Gaiwan cup multiple times. Each infusion is quite short (20 seconds to a minute), and you get to experience the flavor of the tea unfolding.
I prefer the gung fu method with the best teas, but I've also found that some teas (even top quality ones) work better using tea cup brewing.
One website that stands head and shoulders above all of the rest in the quality of the Oolong teas it offers is that of the tea master Stephane Erler, a Frenchman who lives in Taiwan and has established relationships with many great tea masters.
You can visit his website by clicking here. He has wonderfully detailed reviews of each tea on his website, complete with photos, and more. Some of the reviews are written in French, but you can easily get them translated using Google's translate function.
To purchase his teas you email your order to him (you can also write to him and ask his advice). Amazingly, I have consistently received orders from him within a week of placing an order!
Normally, I provide links for each tea, but since all of Mr.Erler's teas are exceptionally fine, year after year, and since links can refer to teas no longer available, I'm just going to name them by origin. Some of his great teas:
He offers lovely, light and fragrant teas from Alishan that are gently yet deeply uplifting and incredibly smooth.
His Lishan teas are also outstanding, with a bit more complexity and very high.
The highest region of Lishan is called Da Yu Ling, and it sells out quickly, but it is a breathtakingly pure tea that I actually prefer brewing by the cup (as opposed to in a gaiwan).
The Lushan tea from him is delightfully complex, with a hint of spiciness and a wonderful range of flavors.
The winter-harvested Dong Pian is a bit more earthy, nothing like a heavier oolong, but just a bit more grounded while being fragrant, enlivening, and altogether delightful.
I could go on and on, but I simply say with confidence, you will love his teas.
I also went with a close friend to Chinatown in San Francisco to three of the top tea stores. While I ended up being very unimpressed with most of the tea offerings from all three, the top-of-the-line teas from one of them proved to be incredibly outstanding.
The Red Blossom Tea Company fortunately has a web presence too, so you can order either of these teas (as long as they are available) online:
Their Da Yu Ling is a very pure and lovely high mountain tea from Taiwan, with lovely flavor notes and presence.
However, their Formosa Tie Guan Yin is truly incredible and perhaps the best oolong I have ever had. Not only does the flavor evolve beautifully over several infusions (using a Gaiwan) from floral to fruity, but the presence of the tea, and the consciousness it inspires, is unparalleled by any other tea I've tried.
The 2010 harvest recently sold out, but a new harvest will be available in June of 2011, and I can't wait to try it. This is a tea worth waiting for.
Joshua Chamberlain is a tea aficionado who provides some wonderful teas to those visiting his website.
In particular, his Da Yu Ling is actually the best Da Yu Ling that I've ever found. When this year's harvest came in and was posted on his website (at the bottom of the page at following link), called Da Yu Ling Winter 2011, I was eager to try it. The tea wildly surpassed my expectations, and is one of the best teas I've ever had the pleasure to try.
By now, you are probably realizing that I prefer greener oolongs to the darker ones, and I do, with the exception of the remarkable Dan Cong Oolongs from David Lee Hoffman's new tea company: The Phoenix Collection.
By clicking on the above link, you can download David's latest price list of outstanding oolong, green, black, and puer teas.
In particular, even though I was initially reserved about them because of their degree of oxidation (they are darker teas), his Phoenix Mountain Oolongs captured my heart --and taste buds -- with their amazing unfolding variety of flavors and tastes, and I highly recommend them.
Finally, when I want to have a cup of deeply satisfying green oolong, I find myself reaching for Imperial Tea Court's wonderful High Mountain Green Oolong (called on their website Superior Four Season Green Oolong).
Each season, a new batch of this tea arrives, and each batch is consistently excellent. It's deep flavor evokes images of forests and clear flowing water, and is a always delight to drink.