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History of Tea : Oolong Tea

Oolong (wulong)*

Some time around the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644) a new style of partially oxidized tea sprung from the Wu Yi Mountains. Oolong tea (Oolong - a Chinese word meaning "black dragon" ) is partly oxidized(10% to 80% fermentation) and is a cross between black and green tea in color and taste. The elegant tea is sometimes known as the "champagne of teas".

Even prior to when it bore the oolong style, Fujianís northern Wu Yi Shan region had already seen a golden age of tea production starting in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and peaking in Song (960-1279). The compressed cakes of tea made in Wu Yi Shan during the late song dynasty were ornate treasures of their day, produced with a skilled method that has yet to be recovered from history.

In 1392, the newly established Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) instated a sudden prohibition on Wu Yi Shan's most famous product: compressed cakes of tea. An attempt to break the long standing corruption and excess the tea trade perpetuated, the Ming Dynasty's ban on compressed tea inadvertently imposed a dark age on Fujian tea making. With their factories raided and equipment confiscated, tea production was effectively shut down for 150 years. Ironically, from this dark age, all of the regionís most famous innovations were born. In the tumult of adjusting tea producing infrastructure to produce loose leaf tea, Fujian's tea makers (likely Buddhist monks operating in their temples) invented charcoal roasting techniques to dry their tea. The slow charcoal roasting coupled with the accidental oxidization of their tea defined the characteristic flavor of Wu Yi Shan's oolongs that continue to be produced today. Exactly when the process began no one knows for sure, though the the first mention of this tea comes from a poem written by a monk living in Wu Yi Shan during the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties. He refers to this tea as "Yan Cha" (lit. "Rock Tea") a name still commonly associated with the Wu Yi Oolong style today.

Wu Yiís technique for making partially oxidized and charcoal dried tea spread south into the now famous producing areas of Anxi and Chaozhou and across the strait to Taiwan.

British tea merchant John Dodd introduced pouchong tea from mainland China in 1860, which soon came into cultivation throughout the hills of northern * Taiwan. As tea became increasingly popular in the West, booming exports from northern Taiwan became one of the island's biggest sources of foreign currency. It was first imported to England in 1869 by the same John Dodd. Today, the highest grade Oolongs (*Formosa Oolongs) are grown in Taiwan. It is fermented to achieve a delicious fruity taste that makes milk, lemon, and sugar unthinkable.

Pouchong tea

The oxidizing step is reduced to about one-quarter of the full length. Oolongs (which are more popular), ferment longer, about half as long as a black tea. Predictably, the flavor of a semi-fermented tea is somewhere in between black tea and green tea. Particularly good oolongs are supposed to have a peachy flavor and aroma. One of the best of these, *Formosa Oolong, is produced on the island of Taiwan. The word *Formosa comes from the name given to Taiwan by 16th-century Portuguese explorers - Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island).

Ti Kwan Yin "Monkey Picked" tea

It earns its place in the beverage hall of fame for its legendary origins: Originally, the tea was grown at such heights in Fujin, China, that monkeys were trained to pick the leaves.

The first Monkey tea allegedly came from Mount Ying-T'ang near Wenchow in Chekiang Province. It is a lonely place haunted by wild beasts, but in the hidden valleys there were numerous monasteries with monks or tenants engaged in farming and fruit growing. According to the legend, a very young novice from Heavenly Wisdom Monastery was looking after some pear trees covered with ripening fruit. Suddenly a large tribe of monkeys came swarming from the forest and set about gobbling up the pears. By the time a few monks came running over in response to the little novice's piercing cries for help, the trees had been stripped and the branches broken. They returned to the monastery with heads held low, expecting a severe scolding from the abbot. Instead, the old man said resignedly, "Heaven commands us to show compassion to all living creatures, and so does the teaching of the Buddha. Things come and go. Moreover, monkeys, like all sentient beings, have a spiritual nature. They have taken our pears. Well, so be it."

Henceforward those holy men allowed the mischievous animals to come and go freely, and the latter, gradually losing their inborn fear of humans, came to regard the monks as friends. The winter that year was unusually cold - heavy falls of snow lay upon trees and mountains and hundreds of pitiful beasts starved to death. After some weeks a horde of ravenous monkeys invaded the monastery grounds and, in an agitated state, ran about half-pleading, half menacing, as though to say, "Please give us food, or else we shall just have to break in and take it." So the abbot ordered that bags of food be taken out and distributed to the monkeys whereupon the animals, responding in loud cries, seized the bags and ran back into the forest.

With the arrival of spring came the time for harvesting tea leaves. While this arduous labor was being performed, monkeys came swarming down from the peak dragging along the old food bags which now bulged with freshly picked young tea leaves. It was as though one's friends were to come back with baskets of peaches to make return for a gift of pears! The tea, having been picked in places inaccessible to the monks, was found to be of unrivaled quality. In view of these circumstances, fine tea from that locality became known as Monkey tea.

Today, monkeys don't bring us these cliff-grown leaves (people do now, plucking the leaves only a few days a year), but one can still understand why people went to such trouble to get the them. Ti Kwan Yin is described as "richly fermented, dark roasted, and incredibly flavorful. Other characteristics of the tea include subtle taste, a strong flowery fragrance, and nutty and caramel undertones.


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Last updated : 23-Feb-09