Oolong Tea-Taking the Middle Ground

Where green tea receives just a slight amount of oxidation, and black tea is at
the other end of  the spectrum being fully oxidized, oolong tea falls between the
two and is semi-oxidized.
Oolong teas are time consuming
and complicated to manufacture,
with a greater number of steps in-
volved in the processing.
There are two classic types of manufacture for
oolong teas:  Min Nan or “balled oolong,” requiring
ten steps, and Min Bei or “tieguanyin” which requires
a full 18 step process.

We’re going to look at Min Nan or “balled oolong,”
and the ten processing steps it takes to make a
finished tea.

Oolong is produced after the spring green tea
season has finished, and unlike green tea leaf which

is picked in the early morning and rushed to the factory, the leaves used to make oolong tea are
picked mid-day.  Once the leaf for 
oolong tea  has been plucked, the process must continue
around the clock with no breaks, until the entire batch of tea is completely finished.

The 10 Step Process for Min Nan Oolong

The first step in processing Min Nan or “balled oolong,” starts after the pluck, as the leaf is
spread out and withered in the sun or on ventilating screens for several hours.
Withering generates internal heat within the leaves and is the beginning
of the oxidation process.  When the leaf has done its work and wilted
the desired amount, it is brought inside the tea factory and allowed
to cool down.

The leaf must now be manipulated and rolled for the next seven to nine
hours.  The manipulation and rolling is not continuous, but rather only a
few minutes once every two hours.   Called shajing, meaning “to kill the
flowering” which is literally what it does, this rolling action is the most
critical in the long process.

Shajing gently ruptures the cell walls, triggering the chemical substances in the leaves
(chlorophyll, polyphenols, carbohydrates, and
enzymes) to disperse – an important step in
the final development of the finished tea leaf.

Because so much of the flavor and character
of oolong tea is determined during this rolling
step, it’s critical that the tea masters contin-
ually evaluate their work during this long
partial-oxidation process.

If the overnight work looks good and has
gone well, near daybreak, heat is applied to
the oolong leaf to stop any further oxidation.
This step is labor intense, with the leaf plac-
ed by hand in tea-firing woks, about two
pounds at a time.

Shaping the leaves is done either by hand or
machine by gently twisting and squeezing
the leaves, drawing the juices and oils to the
surface.  The leaf is then ready to be re-dried or
baked in bamboo baskets over coal fires.

And, finally the last step is baking.  Over the next eight hours the leaf is
baked four separate times, for five to ten minutes each, over decreasing-
ly hot charcoal embers, to achieve a medium firing.  After baking, the leaf
is allowed to cool.

Even though

oolong teas are more labor intense and complicated to
produce, they also allow a wider range of opportunity for interpretation
by tea makers-that’s why oolong tea comes in so many different styles,
shapes, and colors.