Wu long is one if the six categories of teas and is one of the most popular for reasons I will explain in a moment.
Chinese Wulongs are broken into three categories. Yan Cha (Cliff tea, also known as Ming Nan), Tie Guan Yin (Also known as Min Bei) and Feng Huang (Pheonix). I will go a little more into detail later about each tea but first I want to talk about wu long as a whole.
Wu long, translating to black dragon, is a highly aromatic tea. The characteristics of wu longs are bold, in your face, ad usually not that subtle. This makes it very popular since you dont need to refined of a palette to identify the features of an wulong and very good for someone new to tea. Interestingly enough the characteristics of wulong lies mostly in their aroma and not actual flavor. Don’t know the difference? Next time you sip a wulong hold it in your mouth and plug your nose. You will see that much of what you were tasting will disappear. When you unplug your nose they will return. This is because what you’re picking up is actually aroma which is perceived in the nose. The same experiment done while drinking red teas will offer a completely different result. Red teas generally have not much aroma. (Keemun is known for having a good aroma for a red tea, but when compared to other teas it isn’t that strong). So when you plug your nose drinking red tea you will see that not much has changed.
All teas are categorized by their making style and the wulong making process is characterized by a shaking step. The picked leaves are first laid out to wither, and remove some of their moisture, then they are subject to a repetition of shakes and rests. The tea maker will traditionally use a large tray, though these days a long barrel is common, and shake up the leaves. Shaking up the leaves activates enzymes found within and starts a metabolism process. After the leaves are shaken they are left to sit for about an hour. In this time the metabolism process continues and moisture is allowed to leave the leaf. This is why turning this step the stem is left on, it acts as a pathway for the water leaving. The leaves are then shaken again and then left to rest. This is done about 3-5 times and produces the wonderful aromas wu long is known for. (The numbers expressed here are averages, each batch of tea is different and may need less or more work to bring out the flavors). Once the leaves are ready, they are exposed to the kill green step, which kills the remaining enzymes and preserves the tea in the state it is in. At this point you officially have wulong. At this point you have what is called mao cha, which is a tea that while drinkable has not gone through a refinement stage. The refinement stage differs on the location and creates the three different types of tea.
As a side note wulong picking is also a little unique. The main difference between wulong and the picking of other teas is that wulong uses no buds. The buds can not stand up to the shaking process of wulong and are instead omitted from the picking. Instead wulong farmers wait a little bit longer in the season until the bud opens up into a new leaf. Once this leaf has opened up and folded backwards, it is ready to be picked.
Three Types of Chinese Wulong
Tie Guan Yin: Tie Guan Yin is from An Xi and was very popular in the late 80’s which unfortunately led to over cultivation. Traditionally this tea has a light roast to it but due to Taiwanese influence on the mainland China tea industry the unroasted version is extremely popular. Tie Guan Yin is rolled into a half ball shape, traditionally by foot. You can see this foot rolling process in a video by Tea Drunk. http://tea-drunk.com/pages/an-xi-foot-rolled-tie-guan-yin. The teas are then baked dry. A good light tie guan yin has a vegetal flavor, while a traditional has a brown rice flavor due to the roast. In both teas though there is an after taste of what I have only heard it called “the Tie Guan Yin flavor” this is a metallic-floral finish and a sour like sensation in the back. I don’t mean a sour flavor, but instead that mouth tightening feeling you get from sourness. Tie Guan Yin is also known for having a long after taste. I was once working at a tea shop where a couple took a sample of Tie Guan Yin, left, then came back a few minutes later saying they had gotten down the block and could still taste it. These last two apsects are key for a high quality Tie Guan Yin and are lacking in the majority of Tie Guan Yins on the market.
Feng Huang: Feng Huangs, often falsely called Dan Congs, are from the Guandong region of China. After being rolled and baked dry these teas are roasted, usually twice. The roast is medium and gives it a nice body. This tea is picked the youngest of all the three wulongs and is known to have a bitterness to it. While in the west it is common to keep the steeping times short will keep this bitterness at bay, it is the drinking style in the feng huang region to over brew the tea bring forth not only the bitterness but also a stronger floral flavor. (coming soon)
Yan Cha: Known as Cliff Tea, Yan Cha comes from Wu Yi Shan in the Fujian provence. After the kill green step, rolling and baking, this tea is baked over charcoals. It is left to stew over the charcoals from between 8-12 hours giving it a lot of body and texture. The mantra for Yan Cha is rock bone, floral aroma which is supposed to describe its ideal flavor. The best Yan Chas come from an area in Wu Yi Shan known as Zheng Yan. Right outside of that is an area known Ban Yan (Half cliff) that while secondary to true cliff is still very desired.