Is There an Oolong Guide?


Owes its flavors to oxidation levels between green & black tea.

Is There an Oolong Guide?

Postby Thirsty Daruma » Jun 26th, '08, 16:55

Yesterday I walked into the most magical tea store. This was a brick and mortar location designed from the ground up to be a tea aficionado's paradise. The shelves were lined with like, three dozen different oolongs, each with those Oolong names "Da da da da" four syllables, and mostly meaningless to poor me, the Oolong beginner.

I had such a hard time figuring my way around that I just ended up confused. I've lurked around Wikipedia a bit, but the information there doesn't cover the breadth of the Oolongs I saw.

So, has anybody written a definitive guide for this sort of thing? Otherwise I guess I'll just have to start hacking away at it by tasting some mysterious oolongs. :D
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Postby tenuki » Jun 26th, '08, 17:13

Well, I'll try to give you a general guide in the hopes that the tea masters around here will correct me, thus accidently giving out information they would not otherwise bother sharing with beginners. I'm tricky that way.

Generally oolongs are classified by the following data. A lot of oolongs have names of course, but usually these refer to either the region or the type of processing, etc. I'm trying to give structure to something that doesn't seem like it has any at first so that you can start understanding oolong classifications better. This isn't a 'guide' per se, just a 'framework for learning':

  • Region they are grown
  • Type of processing
  • Varietal of tea plant
  • Degree of oxidation
  • Degree of roasting
  • Harvest season and year


Here are some examples:

Dong Ding - refers to a mountain in Taiwan, but now is produced all over asia so now is more of a indication of the varietal and processing.

Gao Shan - means high mountain, usually Formosa, which means Taiwanese.

Li Shan, Ali Shan, etc - refers to a specific mountain area in Taiwan

Wu Yi / Yancha - Again, a region I believe.

Anyway, my point was, the names for these things generally fit into one or more of the classifications I list above. So you'll want to start asking about all of them when tasting tea. Within a 'named' oolong there is usually variance as well. You can get a Baozhong 'style' processed tea with a Wu Yi tea plant variatal grown in Formosa. Really to identify a tea you often needs that entire list above. If you keep track of that list for all the oolongs you sample you will start to see patterns emerge of what you like, etc. Maybe you like anything roasted, or purhaps you like heavily oxidized tea from a certain varietal, etc.

My recommendation would be to go into that shop, find somebody knowledgeable and ask to taste a couple samples and discuss.

This forum can also be a great resource, as can www.wikicha.com ( a side project of some of the tea geeks here ) but I can't stress tapping a real live person enough.

I saw this quote today and laughed for a good minute:

"If television's a babysitter, the Internet's a drunk librarian who won't shut up." --Cat and Girl comics

Welcome to oolongs, don't be intimidated, be excited!
Last edited by tenuki on Jul 2nd, '08, 20:24, edited 2 times in total.
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Postby Victoria » Jun 26th, '08, 17:17

I don't know if what you want in your mind exists. But there are pleanty of vendor sites to to look at, where you can learn names and descriptions.

Names of oolongs can get very confusing as vendors like to rename things and try to make them seem exclusive. And with suppliers are playing this trick too, it can get pretty crazy.

I have to ask, was there no one at the store who could help?

TeaCuppa is one of many good vendors to study. They have a large amount of oolongs and they show alternate names.
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Postby scruffmcgruff » Jun 26th, '08, 17:29

Yes, use wikicha! Also, check out Teaspring's website for pronunciations. They're hard to hear sometimes, but you can at least get a vague idea of how to pronounce some tea names before going to your local B&M store for more help.
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Postby ABx » Jun 27th, '08, 02:15

The problem with names is that vendors can use anything. Many of the stores that cater to enthsiasts will use proper Chinese/Taiwanese names (often time the mountain followed by a traditional name or one given by the farmer, perhaps with something descriptive following), some places can try to translate the traditional name or even just make something up completely.

The confusion mainly stems from the fact that we don't know the geography of Asia very well. Even if the mountains were American ones, most would still have to do some discovering to get a grasp on the differences between products.

Each area is known for producing different types of tea, many times because of the dominant strain of tea plant used in the area as well as growing conditions. Many of the farms have also been handed down through the generations and so the family's processing secrets continue to be used for that farm. Certain favorites may be imitated in other areas, so you may see tea names that reference the style as Tenuki noted.

Not every tea name contains the mountain/region, though. The Wuyi "rock teas" (teas from Wuyi mountain that grow on the rocky cliffs), for example, often just use the name given to the tea, which is just a name and isn't much of an indicator. The same goes for some of the other Chinese oolongs.

I would say that if you want to be methodical, the best thing would just be to try a sampling of teas from different areas. Once you get an idea of what kind you like the most you can start narrowing things down and figuring out the names.

Really, though, when I started out (and I'm sure many others) I just dove in and went by sight (and description when shopping online). I would think that a store like the one you describe would probably be willing to brew up some samples. You might just pick a few that look very different and ask if you can taste them and/or get some samples. Perhaps ask for a recommendation or two for tasting or samples.

You might even just tell them that you don't know where to start - they might be willing to explain things to you and give you a sampling. It can be good business as you would be more willing to go back.

Other than that I agree with the others that going to vendor websites is a good way to go. TaoOfTea.com has more information on their teas than any other I've found, although I haven't been particularly impressed with many of their teas.

One website to keep in mind is Babelcarp. It a Chinese tea term translator/dictionary that can help when you need to know what something is.
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