If you’re new to the wide world of Wu Longs, it’s easy to get confused. Wu Long (also known as Oolong,) is one of the six main categories of tea. Teas in this style can be fruity, floral, earthy, or mineral. In China, this category of tea is often roasted, which is one of the elements that gives such a wide variety of flavors. Some of the common traits among all Wu Longs are that they are showy, aromatic, and often made from single cultivars.
There are three sub-categories of Wu Long in Chinese tea, and here we’ll dive into what differentiates them:
|Min Bei Wu Long||Yan Cha (Cliff Tea)|
|Chao Zhou Wu Long||Dan Cong (Phoenix Oolong)|
|Min Nan Wu Long||Tie Guan Yin|
All three sub-categories come from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis plant, but tend to use different cultivars and picking grades, are processed very differently in different regions. The three sub-categories are mostly comparable in processing steps but have notable variations. Their similarities are what makes them all Wu Longs, but different kinds. While each category is picked at different stages and processed differently, they all consist of only leaves.
Let’s dive into each and their characteristics to help you build a framework for recognizing different teas!
|Yan Cha||Tie Guan Yin||Dan Cong|
|Picking Grade||Medium - Large||Medium - Large||Small - Medium|
|Dry Tea Shape||String||Half Ball||String|
|Standard Serving Size||8||8||7|
History of all Wu Longs
You can’t talk about Wu Long without talking about the She people. Their mythical beginnings are traced back to a brave dragon-turned-dog-turned-dog-headed human ancestor who had four children with a princess, beginning the She tribe. Pan Hu, the dog-head ancestor, died by tripping on a vine that his brother, Black Dragon, aka Wu Long, had transformed into.
Afterward, filled with regret, Wu Long transformed again into a tea tree to provide for his brother's offspring until the end of time. This ancestry lore is essential for tea lovers, not only because it depicts the beginning of Wu Long (a tea tree, not a tea category), but also because the She people supposedly originated from Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain), marking Feng Huang as the birthplace of Wu Long. This is where Feng Huang Wu Long (Phoenix Wu Long/Dan Cong) is harvested and produced still today.
Later, due to war and other reasons, the She people migrated many times north to Fu Jian, Zhe Jiang, and An Hui Provinces, spreading Wu Long and tea culture along the way. This is just one of the many origin stories about tea.
What is Yan Cha?
Wu Yi Yan Cha, meaning Yan Cha from Wu Yi Shan, represents the pinnacle of Min Bei (northern Fujian) Wu Long. The mantra for this sub-category is “rock bone and floral fragrance.” This style is one of the hottest in China right now, and the most prestigious region for harvesting is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site for both cultural and environmental categories.
Wu Yi Shan is China’s most mature tea region, it has infrastructure for tourism, and very visitor-friendly with a variety of accommodation and guided experiences.
This name comes from the region's rocky terroir, and steep cliffs called the Danxia Landform. It is also often called “rock tea” or “cliff tea” when translated into English. It is a medium fermented and heavily roasted tea. The land gives it its unique, mineral-rich flavor and complex, multi-layered taste. Like all historically famous teas in China, the specifics of the locations are meticulously detailed. Zheng Yan, which translates to True Cliff, refers to the core part of the Wu Yi Shan and is where the most prized teas are from.
- Bold, aroma and taste
- “Molten stone” mineral mouthfeel
- Dark roasted
Picking and Processing
Yan Cha consists of roughly 3-4 leaves with stems that are Zhong - Da Kai Mian (Medium - large opening). This picking grade of more mature leaves makes it easier to yield strong aroma, gives sweeter undertones and a lighter body, and when fermented becomes less tannic.
The picked teas are then spread out under the sun to wilt until they are soft to the touch. After the teas are sufficiently wilted, they remain on bamboo trays for a few hours before being shaken or tumbled to regulate how the water inside the leaves travels out, thus managing enzyme activity in the leaves. This process is repeated every hour, 5-8 times throughout the evening and night until morning.
Once the teas are acceptably fermented in the early morning, they are then wok-fried to kill the enzymes in the leaves to stop the fermentation. Fresh out of the wok when the leaves are still hot and soft, they are rolled vigorously to break the surface membranes to bring out more consistent flavors in the tea. After rolling the leaves, they are evenly spread out and baked multiple times to dry. This process gives us mao cha or rough tea.
The most tedious step in all Chinese tea making is the stem-picking step, which in Yan Cha's case, takes place for several months following the rough tea making. It is a step where undesired yellow leaves (leaves that are too mature) and stems are removed. To make it a finished Yan Cha, the "cleaned" tea gets roasted on very dim charcoal ash for 8–12 hours, 2-3 times, depending on the varietal. Locals call this step stewing.
The traditional method of making Yan Cha is very dependent on the weather at the time of making. In general, it is tough to make good tea on rainy days. Feeding charcoal heat to tea resting in a tumbling machine is a standard modern-day remedy to counter undesirable weather
A Few Of The Most Popular Yan Chas
What is Dan Cong?
On the other hand, the pinnacle of Dan Cong Wu Long (Oolong) is produced in the Phoenix Mountains of Feng Huang Shan, Guangdong Province. It is made from a single varietal of tea plant, and the leaves are picked and processed by hand. Dan Cong is known for its unique, fragrant aromas and ability to evolve in taste with each infusion, unparalleled by any other kind of tea. They are heavily fermented and medium roasted teas, often produced in small batches, and are highly sought after by tea connoisseurs.
- Floral aroma
- Showy personalities
Picking and Processing
The first difference in processing between Yan Cha and Dan Cong is that Dan Cong uses more tender, juicier leaves that are made of Xiao - Zhong Kai Mian (small-medium opening of the leaf). This makes for an abundance of different compounds and forces us to make changes in the process while we listen to what the tea needs. The basic processing is the same, but with Dan Cong, makers will allow for longer rest periods and disturb the tea as little as possible at the start. This gentle start is most important in Dan Cong because the more tender leaves have higher chances for congestion with their increased amount of water. Instead of starting with a shake, here we start with a subtle flip. Then the tea is left to rest for even longer, about two hours.
While the process is very similar, the more tender leaf selection gives Dan Cong a deeper fermentation.
A Few of the Most Popular Dan Cong
What is Tie Guan Yin?
Tightly rolled, surprisingly expansive, and brightly floral with a refreshing aftertaste that lingers forever, Tie Guan Yin was undisputedly the most popular loose leaf tea from China in the 1990s and 2000s. Tie Guan Yin style of Wu Long is believed to have originated in the early 1700s. Like all China's top teas, endorsements from influential historical figures are essential to a tea's rise to fame. In the case of Tie Guan Yin, its chief patron is rumored to be Emperor Qian Long.
Tie Guan Yin is the varietal name that made this style famous, but nowadays, all Min Nan Wu Longs are usually just called Tie Guan Yin, regardless of whether the tea is made with the actual Tie Guan Yin varietal or not.
- Tightly rolled
- Bright and floral
- Long lingering finish
Picking and Processing:
Like all Wu Longs, Tie Guan Yin uses only leaves, not buds. The picking standard for Tie Guan Yin is Zhong to Da Kai Mian, medium to large opening of leaves (mature). Usually, three or four leaves are picked together with the stems. The leaves are then sun wilted until soft and moved inside to continue wilting. The wilted leaves are shaken 3 to 5 times with 1.5 to 2 hours between rounds. Once the final shaking completes, the leaves are left to continue fermenting until they are mediumly fermented, and then wok (or tumble) fried in the morning to destroy the enzymes. The enzymes stop the fermentation and seize the tea at an optimal level of aroma and texture. Tie Guan Yin is rolled into a half-ball shape. The modern-day making of Tie Guan Yin also sometimes involves a step before the rolling, where a maker beats the tea to get rid of the red edges, resulting in a less bitter tea with a more transparent liquid. The rolled tea is then baked dry. Once the tea is medium roasted (usually twice) and the stems removed, it is a finished Traditional Tie Guan Yin. Roasted Tie Guan Yin has a metallic toasted rice taste and golden liquor. The fining process is very tedious and time-consuming. Traditional Tie Guan Yin is medium roasted, today there are a lot of un-roasted versions on the market. This newer style often calls for prolonged fermentation under controlled cool temperatures, and letting the tea rest for two hours at a time.
Tie Guan Yin has it’s own deeper level of sub-categories:
|Subject to Weather||Traditional||Traditional Tie Guan Yin Mao Cha||Traditional Te Guan Yin|
|Controlled Environment||Light||Zheng Chao||Roasted Tie Guan Yin|
|Controlled Environment||Medium Light||Xiao Zheng||n/a|
|Controlled Environment||Medium||Xiao Qing||n/a|
|Controlled Environment||Medium Heavy||Xiao Suan||n/a|
|Controlled Environment||Heavy||Tuo Suan||n/a|
One additional confusing aspect of Wu Longs is the many different names. Wu Long is the most authentic and updated version of the spelling of the category and the one we use here at Tea Drunk. This is how it is written in the official romanization system for Standard Mandarin Chinese. But, this standardized phonetic system has not always been in place, and over the years, around the world, the spelling of Oolong has also grown in popularity. Many words that were translated before the standardization fall into this confusion of having multiple popular common names. But, at the end of the day, both of these spellings refer to the same thing: Wu Long and Oolong.
We hope this deep dive into the world of Wu Longs helps you better understand and appreciate your tea!