All tea comes from the same plant - Camellia sinensis. Green tea, wu-long tea, black tea, and white tea are all the same – except for how they have been processed. The biggest difference in the various types of tea is the level of oxidation. Wu-long tea is a semi-oxidized (or semi-fermented) tea, while green tea and white are un-oxidized and black tea is fully oxidized.
Oxidation is a chemical process that all vegetable matter undergoes after picking. It causes the leaves to turn brown. Wu-long tea, as a semi-oxidized tea, still has some of its original green color, but black tea gets its color from allowing the leaves to fully oxidize.
Wu-long or Oolong?
Wu-long tea has various spellings, depending on the system of Romanization used to convert the Chinese name to western spelling. For years wu-long tea was spelled “oolong tea,” but since China adopted the Pinyin system of Romanization it is more common to see the name “wu-long tea.”
No matter which way you spell it, wu-long tea is a special treat. As a semi-oxidized tea, wu-long tea has plenty of variation. The oxidation levels vary from about 30% to 70% so there is a wide range of taste and color in wu-long tea.
Lightly oxidized wu-long tea has a light sweet flavor, while wu-long tea which is more heavily oxidized approaches the robustness of black tea while still retaining its distinct sweetness.
Wu-long tea originated in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644AD). Legend has it that the first wu-long tea was produced at Mount Wu Yi in Fujian province.
Wu-long tea is inextricably entwined with the gong-fu method of brewing tea. Small tea pots are used to make wu-long tea, and the leaves are steeped several times.
Taiwan Wu-long Tea
Wu-long tea production began in Taiwan in the 19th century. Growing conditions proved ideal. Taiwan is a sub-tropical country with high mountain ranges, a perfect combination for producing high-quality wu-long tea.
Since the 1980s a robust tea culture has developed in Taiwan, and first quality wu-long tea is produced mainly for local consumption. The prices can be extraordinary – 600 grams of the top wu-long tea fetched USD $26,500 in a 2005 tea auction.
These high prices have attracted the attention of Chinese wu-long tea producers. Unscrupulous tea vendors market Chinese wu-long as Taiwan wu-long tea in order to get a higher price for their tea. Misbranded wu-long tea sold in the United States or Europe gives Taiwan wu-long tea a bad reputation, so the Taiwanese government is actively seeking to curb this illegal practice.