Buyer’s Guide to Wuyi Oolongs

Navigating varietals, roasts, and more in China's most famous tea growing region

September 14, 2018

Wuyi oolong is one of the biggest and most iconic worlds within tea. With its impressive diversity of culitvars, microclimates and roast styles, it is no wonder that Wuyi oolong teas inspire passion and devotion among tea drinkers worldwide.

Tasting a fine Wuyi Oolong can be the gateway into a lifetime of tea drinking and invitation to explore the outer bounds of what we as humans are capable of experiencing through taste. If you are excited to experience firsthand the nuanced beauty of Wuyi Oolong, it can be hard to know: where to start?

It is exciting to see how many different expressions Wuyi oolong can take on, but when staring down a collection of twenty or more oolongs from the same region, how do you make sense of what you are seeing?

 

When you are exploring, it is critical to know what makes a tea Wuyi Oolong. No matter what cultivar or roast you choose to start with, you want to know you are getting the genuine article. The demand for Wuyi Oolong is so great and the supply so low that there are a plenty of teas from lowland plantations outside the region posing as true Wuyi tea.

So, what do you need to look out for to know you are getting real Wuyi tea?

True Wuyi Oolong comes from within the Wuyishan Ecological Preserve. The unique microclimates within this region are what define Wuyi tea. Ancient volcanic activity has created a unique rocky soil within Wuyishan that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Tea grown in clay-heavy lowland soil may have a strong aroma, but it lacks staying power or aftertaste. This has to do with both the nutrients it takes in and with the way that clay regulates drainage of water compared to rocky soil. The rocky soil of Wuyishan encourages deep roots, and the minerals yield sweeter tea.

The Li Family's tea plants grow on the shaded hillsides beneath bamboo and pine trees

Critically- the area within the Wuyishan Ecological Preserve is protected from development. No native trees or vegetation within the region can be cleared for new tea fields. In fact, in 2018, the local government ordered thousands of hectares of tea ripped out for being planted in a non-sustainable way against 2008 environmental guidelines. The Ecological Preserve status of the region means that there is a will and the law behind it to enforce environmentally sustainable and balanced farming. The goal is to restore native forest. The abundance of trees creates a habitat for birds, who keep insects under control for the tea that remains. The biodiversity helps encourage the production of more polyphenols in the plant, yielding more flavorful tea.

 

When you are shopping for Wuyi Oolongs, look for an origin statement. The term Wuyishan or Wuyi Oolong is often used as a general term to refer to the twisted style of the leaves, or to teas made in the general area. The tea should have an origin statement from within the Wuyishan Ecological Preserve, and have the farm, workshop or family that produces the tea mentioned by name to back up the origin claim.

 

There are a lot of tech specs thrown around out there, from picking date and elevation to oxidation level and roast temperature. Apart from origin, what else do you need to look out for when deciding which Wuyi oolong to buy?

Picking date

Wuyi Oolongs are not like green teas. Earlier isn’t necessarily better.

Many brokers reselling teas to American retailers think that Americans like to hear that everything is pre Qingming festival, and so that is how they market their teas. The truth is that each cultivar grows at slightly different times, and that the right picking date depends on the exact elevation and the amount of sunlight and water those specific plants get. A group of tea bushes that spends most of the day in the shade will be ready to pick at a different time than bushes that receive full sunlight for most of the day.

The important part is knowing that the tea was hand-picked by a farm or workshop small enough for the owners to be personally involved in choosing the best time for each plot. Larger leaves and some stem can be useful for different finishes, especially if a sweeter more floral flavor is desired. We recommend looking deeper into who is picking your Wuyi oolong, not when it is picked.

Li Xiangxi with her fresh picked tea leaves
Li Xiangxi with her fresh picked tea leaves

Aged Wuyi Oolong

Some Wuyi teas can age for many years, developing deep and rich flavors or cooling sensations and complexity that is difficult to find in fresh tea. However, not all teas are suitable to long-term aging.

The Li Family, our partners in Wuyishan, hold back their oolongs for about four months before release to give them time to breath after hand-firing. However, they recommend that lighter roast more aromatic teas such as Qilan be consumed within two years for peak flavor.

True aged Wuyi teas are aged intentionally, getting a deep firing when made, stored carefully in a moisture-free environment, and re-roasted every year for several years to ensure little to no moisture in the leaves.

If you are looking to buy a Wuyi oolong with more than three years of age on it, make sure it was aged at the farm or workshop where it could be re-roasted, not aged by a reseller. The workshop is able to prevent sour or over-oxidized notes from developing through craft and careful monitoring.

To learn more about the chemistry of how tea aging works for teas besides pu’er, read more about oxidation, hydrolysis and the maillard reaction in tea.

Full Roasted Aged Big Red Robe from the Li Family
Full Roasted Aged Big Red Robe from the Li Family
Full Roasted Aged Big Red Robe from the Li Family
Full Roasted Aged Big Red Robe from the Li Family
Full Roasted Aged Big Red Robe from the Li Family // 2010 harvest
Full Roasted Aged Big Red Robe from the Li Family // 2010 harvest

For an introduction to how aging can bring out beautiful complexity and depth in a tea, we recommend trying 10 Year Aged Full Roast Shui Xian for its foresty cooling notes or 2009 Full Roast Tie Luohan for its deep spice and fiery undertones.

Oxidation and Roast Level

The craft that goes into finishing oolong is arguably the most complex, demanding and time-consuming process in the world of tea. It takes a minimum of 20 hours from start to finish to make oolong by hand, and that is if it isn’t getting fired for a deeper roasted finish. From Anxi to Guangdong, from Laoshan to Wuyishan, every craftsman we’ve met insists on smell, taste, touch and sight as the only reliable indicators in production.

The weather can change daily, and each harvest (each leaf!) is slightly different. The finest teas are not finished to a specific percentage point of oxidation or roast by choosing a setting on a dial or entering data into a computer. These teas are finished when they taste and smell correct. Watch out for overly specific finishing specs, as this is a sign of fully-automated machine processing. Entirely machine processed teas can achieve technical mastery, but generally can’t hone in on bringing out the most in each specific batch due to all the variables in play.

The finest Wuyi oolongs are hand-fired using traditional chestnut charcoal and bamboo baskets. The firing process takes at least 16 hours, but usually needs to be repeated in full multiple times. Most Wuyi oolong producers skip this labor intensive step and simply put their tea through an electric oven several times. When you taste Wuyi oolong that has an intense roasted flavor but little else in terms of complexity, this is often a sign of over-roasting in an oven where the leaves can’t be turned and worked.

Want to learn more? Watch our partner Mr. Li introduce the hand-firing process at his workshop in the Wuyishan Ecological Preserve >>

 
Click to watch

To see how a deep, dark roast can make a tea even more rich and full of lingering aftertaste, we recommend trying either Dark Roast Shui Xian, or the even darker 2010 Full Roast Big Red Robe. Both teas gain a tingling sparkling textural sensation and an intense lingering aftertaste that builds up to be even stronger than they are without the deep had-firing.

 

Elevation

This is one of the most widely demanded tech specs in the world of tea. In general, it is a reasonable guideline. Higher elevation often means cooler temperatures and more clouds, which means less insects, and slower growing often sweeter tea.

Just be careful to look into each region’s possible spread of elevations, since even a flatland factory-produced tea from Yunnan is likely to be several hundred meter higher in elevation than the highest mountain peaks of Wuyishan.

Elevation is one piece to help build the picture of where a tea comes from, alongside interviews with the farmers, pictures of the fields, and specifics on which town and micro-climate the tea comes from. Look for the full picture from your vendors. If they don’t have enough information to make you confident that the tea is from within the Wuyi Ecological Preserve, hand picked by real people, and grown without pesticides, then skip it even if the elevation looks impressive.

Within Wuyishan, 200-300 meters tends to be flatlands, which are sunny and not as suitable to tea. Farther outside of Wuyishan, much of the agricultural space in this elevation is devoted to farming taro and tobacco. 500-600 meters is about as high as tea grows, as the mountaintops are too rocky and steep when they get much higher. The best tea is growing in the narrow high mountain valleys, protected from sun by peaks on either side, and kept cool by streams running through the valley. There may be a couple exceptions depending on the details of a particular microclimate, but that is a good basic guideline when considering elevation as part of understanding a Wuyi oolong.

 

Grade

The grade of a Wuyi tea should be set by the farms and workshop using agreed-upon standards within the community, not by the reseller. These standards are developed through a local consensus of flavor, texture and even leaf appearance and color. This consensus changes with the times and is developed through local tea competitions. Farmers from with the Wuyi Ecological preserve bring their best teas and judge each others work. Together they trade tips on how to improve, and get a sense of what the community as a whole values.

 

 

 

 

an Old Tree Wuyi Black tea competition in Wuyishan

 

The Li Family separates their teas in to classic, Reserve (yi ji) and Special Grade (te ji).

This is not a separation based on a particular picking date or elevation, but based on the finished quality of the ban cheng pin, which is the tea after it has been processed and dried as oolong but before it has been picked through and fired or roasted.

Old Tree Shui Xian ban cheng pin or maocha

This finished quality is influenced by weather, tree age, and of course the skill of the craftsman in processing. The more qualities of yun that a tea exhibits, the more likely it is to get separated out as reserve or special grade.

Yun is a prized quality of lingering tingling cooling in the back of the throat that our partner Li Xiangxi introduces in a lecture to her students. You can watch the class in the video below >>>

 
Click to watch

Of course, at the end of the day, grades are subjective.

Each family and workshop will grade their own teas, making the distinction most useful to navigate within a single collection, not compare value or quality between different families. The best way to compare is to taste for yourself. Read on to learn what to look for in some of Wuyishan’s most famous cultivars.

 

Cultivar

So much of the joy of exploring Wuyi Oolongs is seeing juts how many varietals there are, and experiencing the way that different cultivars bring out different sides to the natural terroir of the area. As you taste your way through the dozens of tea cultivated in Wuyishan, you’ll come to better understand not only the region, but your own palette and preferences. The purpose of this guide is to explore what makes these cultivars unique while also pointing out their shared flavor profiles. This way, as you find yourself drawn to one tea or another, you’ll have better leads on what to try next.

Wuyi teas can be sorted in an almost infinite number of ways, but for tasting and learning, the most useful way for us to think about all the cultivars is to group by flavor, texture, aroma, and yun.

The most flavor-forward Wuyi teas
tend to be big, warm and bold.

These often benefit from a deeper, darker roast to complement the intensity of these bold cultivars. If you find yourself drawn to teas that are rich, evocative and versatile enough to get the most out of in a gaiwan or a big mug, these teas are the first you’ll want to explore.

 

Big Red Robe

The classic Wuyi Oolong, “Big Red Robe” or Da Hong Pao is usually made with the Qidan cultivar, as the original Big Red Robe bushes are closely guarded precious cultural artifacts. Some vendors end up selling any and all roasted strip style oolong from northern Fujian as a “Big Red Robe,” and many middle men will beldn several cultivars together to create a more general (or “classic”) crowd pleasing flavor profile.

Single-cultivar Qidan Big Red Robe almost always has a medium or dark roast to complement its warm balanced flavor. This tea hits fruit, florals, spice, and savories in perfect balance, making it work for almost every mood. If there is one place to start with Wuyi Oolongs, this is it!

Try it yourself!

Big Red Robe >>
Dark Roast Big Red Robe>>
Full Roast Big Red Robe>>
Reserve Big Red Robe>>
2010 Full Roast Aged Big Red Robe >>

 

Bei Dou

If the deeper darker spiced side of Big Red Robe is what gets you excited about Wuyi Oolongs, Bei Dou is a great next adventure. It has the full satisfying caramel and roasted barley flavor of Big Red Robe, but with a richer more intense texture. This is Big Red Robe with a dark and mysterious past that keeps you coming back. The textural spiced side to this tea makes it a good bridge between flavor-dominant and texture dominant teas.

 

Ban Tian Yao

This cultivar is one of the most extreme examples of flavor-forward tea from Wuyishan. Each sip of Ban Tian Yao is full of intense hibiscus, roasted caramel, and cocoa. If you like rich flavorful black teas, shu pu’er, and big flavor that comes in swinging, this is the tea for you.

Unlike almost any other Wuyi Oolong, Ban Tian Yao’s flavor arc starts at the most extreme when you take the first sip and then slowly dissipates, stripping away layers as it unfolds on the palate, allowing you to see the subtleties only after not tasting the tea for ten seconds. Most oolongs build up – this one builds down.

 

The most aroma-forward teas tend to be
luscious, juicy, and full of long pervasive aftertaste.

These teas can be some of the hardest to make, requiring exacting craft to bring out the most florals and fruity notes without overworking the leaves. The best aroma-forward Wuyi teas have an aftertaste that builds up with every sip until it gives more to the flavor than the actual taste sensation. The aftertaste of these teas can last for hours, and is always deeply evocative. If you like tasting oolong for the thrill of how they change over each steeping, you’ll want to skip straight to these cultivars.

 

Qilan

The ultimate primer in aromatic oolong, Qilan is like daydreaming in an orchid-filled conservatory with sweet humidity rising in the morning sun. The best Qilan has a deep minerality and juicy texture to ground the aromatics.

Such a pure aroma-focused tea benefits from a lighter roast so as not to overwhelm the natural florals with deeper notes that roasting might bring out. This is one reason why the Li Family’s reserve Qilan features a light roast, in order to bring focus and give longevity to the beautiful aromatics inherent to the cultivar.

Try it yourself!

Qilan >>
Reserve (Light Roast) Qilan>>

 

Chun Lan

In a way, Chun Lan feels like a reserve level Qilan. It still has all those intense rich orchid notes, but a luscious juicy melon flavor backs up the florals and gives them something off which to play. Jasmine and geranium begin to mix with orchid in later steepings for a more nuanced and complex floral profile. If Qilan is like an orchid-filled conservatory, Chun Lan is like orchids in the wild, bringing in spiced notes, light cooling sensations, and deep complexity.

Jin Guanyin

This unique tea is made from grafting Huang Jin Gui onto Tieguanyin. If you first fell in love with oolong through Tieguanyin or Iron Goddess of Mercy, then Jin Guanyin will be a great introduction to Wuyi Oolong. You get all the orchid and jasmine notes that make Tieguanyin great, but because of the terroir and the craft, there are deep cooling notes to balance the aromatics, and sweet fruity cherry to fill in the flavor. Just like Big Red Robe is a really well-balanced tea with a flavor focus, Jin Guanyin balances texture, flavor and aftertaste with an aromatic focus, making it great for almost any occasion.

 

Fo Shou

Named after the Buddha’s Hand citrus fruit, Fo Shou is an intriguing example of an aroma and aftertaste focused tea that is not all about huge floral notes. If you love aftertaste and the thrill of seeing a tea evolve over many steepings but you want to get beyond florals, Fo Shou delivers. This tea is full of passionfruit, nutmeg, and pineapple. As the tea steeps out, the light lilac notes are quickly enveloped by a deep aloeswood incense spice.

classic Fo Shou Wuyi Oolong >>
Reserve Fo Shou Wuyi Oolong >>

 

Shui Jin Gui

True Shui Jin Gui tea is in short supply. This cultivar is one of the most sought after and famous varietals in Wuyishan for its intense complexity and distinctive fruity flavor and aroma. The trademark quality of Shui Jin Gui is how it manages to pack in equal intensity of fruit flavor and aroma, florals, and cooling spiced texture. This is a tea that manages to be subtle without being quiet through balance of extremes. If you want every flavor and aroma somehow perfectly composed in a single tea, this is the one.

classic Shui Jin Gui >>
Special Grade Shui Jin Gui >>

 

Yu Qilin

The Qilin (or Kirin) is a mythological creature that shares some features with the Unicorn, so this tea is often translated as Jade Unicorn. Yu Qilin is a tea fully devoted to aromatics and the experience of seeing an aftertaste build up to an overwhelming pitch as the aromas combine and accentuate each other through each steeping. What makes this tea special is that it does not strive towards a single aromatic like orchid, but rather makes for a thrilling tasting by combining nearly equal parts savory, fruity, floral and vegetal. Deep barley notes mingle with yuzu, cucumber and lilac, all in perfect harmony. While Shui Jin Gui delivers a balance of flavor and aroma, Yu Qilin achieves balance through a complete focus on the full spectrum of how tea can engage with our sense of smell.

 

Texture-focused teas tend to be
deep and spiced, full of aromatic wood, incense,
crisp minerality and sparkling undertones.

These are teas that are so commanding that they go beyond flavor and aroma. The core of what makes texture-focused teas so unique is how they actually feel more than how they taste, both on the tongue and in the back of the throat. To better understand this idea, think about hot sauce or mint gum. Of course these both have flavors, but the heat sensation and the cooling sensation respectively cannot be explained as flavor alone.

Teas can also exhibit these thrilling textures and physical sensations. If you like wine or scotch, or just the act of careful sipping, these might be the oolongs for you. They take some listening to get the most out of, but the result is deeply rewarding, expanding our whole concept of what tea can be and what it can do.

 

 

Tie Luohan

Tie Luohan or Iron Arhat is another of the famous and sought after teas of Wuyishan, prized for its truly iconic deep intense fiery flavor. Many people are first exposed to imitation Tie Luohan, which is over-roasted for a burnt flavor.

True Tie Luohan doesn’t need to be over-roasted. It flirts with the deepest most savory cocoa and caramel notes, but it is grounded through its thick mineral texture. The crisp and intense minerality of this tea gives it the backbone for all the deep satisfying savories and fruity flavors to come through. The textural intensity of Tie Luohan makes it perfect for aging, as even richer notes develop over many years.

Try it yourself!

Tie Luohan >>
Dark Roast Tie Luohan >>
2009 Full Roast Tie Luohan >>

 

Rou Gui

Rou Gui has become the iconic tea of Wuyishan. Rou Gui cultivar is named after cinnamon, as the leaves of the Rou Gui plant tend to have deep spiced cinnamon notes whether they are roasted or left green, grown in Wuyishan or Anxi. What makes this tea so famous is the way that it picks up the terroir of where it grows and how it responds to craft.

The finest Rou Gui has both the sensation of heat and cooling at the same time on the palate. The cooling camphor notes are brought into perfect balance with the warming cinnamon notes through careful slow hand-firing. This tea is an excellent primer to what makes Wuyishan special, but also a deep starting point for exploration, as even within the Li Family’s collection, there are several grades and microclimates of Rou Gui available, each with their own unique beauty.

Rou Gui Wuyi Oolong >>
Gold Medal Rou Gui >>
Ma Tou Rou Gui >>

 

Bai Rui Xiang

While Tie Luohan’s minerality makes it thick and crisp on the tongue, Bai Rui Xiang is a singular texture experience for its almost vaporous quality. This tea manages to be so deeply aromatic that its aroma becomes a texture experience, like flavor evaporating off the tongue. Most aroma-focused teas are floral or fruity, but Bai Rui Xiang tempers those notes with deep temple incense spice. This spice gives it depth, intensity and a dynamic tasting experience that goes off in several directions through multiple infusions. If you love aromatic teas but want something with a substantial and hefty grounding ‘body,’ this is the tea for you.

 

Bai Ji Guan

This beautiful and unique cultivar is not finished with a dark roast like any other Wuyi Oolong. Instead, the finished tea is still green at its heart, more like a Dancong from Fenghuang than anything else. The lack of a deep roast makes this one of the most refined and transparent windows into the nature of the Wuyi terroir. Without the caramel notes of most other Wuyi oolongs, Bai Ji Guan is free to be a pure portrait of texture, full of intense, crisp minerality accentuated by crunchy snap pea vegetal undertones. After each sip, the textural elements begin to dissipate leaving a beautiful elderflower aromatic aftertaste lingering on the palate. This tea is all about contrast and restraint. If you love Dancong, or want to experience the minerality of Wuyi teas without deep roasted notes layered on top, Bai Ji Guan delivers unlike any other tea.

 

Yun-focused teas are the most sought-after
and elusive Wuyi oolongs.

Yun is the concept of lingering in every sense. For a tea to be described as yun-forward, it needs to have a texture, taste and aroma that combine together in an almost vaporous way and sit on the palate and – more importantly – in the back of the throat.

Teas with yun are cooling from deep in the chest, mouth-watering, and have a tingling, almost electrical sensation that builds up on the tongue. They stick with you for hours, not just as an aftertaste but as a full after-sensation. This quality defines some of the finest (and most expensive) Wuyi teas and generally only comes out through a combination of perfect growing conditions, specific micro-climates (such as Ma Tou), and slow careful hand-firing during the finishing process. When everything comes together just right, Wuyi teas encompass this concept of yun.

If you have explored Wuyi teas thoroughly and are ready to see how texture, taste and aroma all come together and intersect to go beyond themselves, then it is time to explore yun.

a Shui Xian flower

Shui Xian

This cultivar is one of the oldest and most traditional teas of Wuyishan. The Li Family tends to several “Lao Cong” (old tree) Shui Xian trees around one hundred years old. Shui Xian is unmistakable and iconic – the first sip feels like entering a pine forest after a summer rain. First, it unfolds as a cedar and pine flavor, followed by a sandalwood incense aroma and aftertaste, and finally an electric cooling and tingling sensation in the back of the throat that builds up over many steepings. This sensation is even more pronounced in Old Tree Shui Xian – a powerful tea that spans flavor, texture, aroma and yun. If you like your tea to evoke a specific place more than a specific flavor, Shui Xian does so like no other.

Shui Xian >>
Dark Roast Shui Xian>>
Ten yr. Aged Full Roast Shui Xian >>
Old Tree Shui Xian >>

 

Sparrows Tongue

While Shui Xian shows how yun can come through in a tea that is already deeply foresty and cooling, Sparrows Tongue (or Que She) is a wonderful tea of contrast. Early infusions are full of candied pomelo, lemongrass and violet florals, but slowly and surely electric tingling and cooling begins to build up in the back of the throat. This yun sensation bolsters the flavor texture and aroma, heightening their potency. This is a great tea for anyone that loves the juicy luscious complexity of Fo Shou, Shui Jin Gui or Yu Qilin but wants that extra thrill that yun brings to the tasting.

 

 

Finally, within the category of yun teas, it is worth noting that under special circumstances, several other cultivars commonly exhibit yun. The best example is Ma Tou Rou Gui. While fine Rou Gui does push the tension of cooling and spiced sensations to the edge, Rou Gui grown in the Ma Tou microclimate takes those sensations to the back of the throat with a lingering juicy and eventually almost numbing sensation, making it one of the most sought after teas in Wuyishan. Special Grade Shui Jin Gui also brings the thrilling yun dynamic into play against the exotic fruit and floral of the Shui Jin Gui varietal, grounding it with incense spice.

 

Of course, no tea can fit strictly
within a single category.

This guide is meant as a jumping off point into Wuyi oolongs. The best place to start is to try three Wuyi Oolongs back to back, ideally with friends, and see what you like about each. If you can isolate what thrills you in the teas you love, it will be easier to find other teas that you’ll be excited about.

The most important thing is to find a family or workshop whose teas you trust, and approach them all with an open mind, ready to see what makes each one special and worth making.

Remember, true hand-picked hand finished Wuyi Oolong is one of the most labor intensive teas in the world to produce, so every tea that a family decides to finish is being made for a specific reason; it is being made because they believe in it.

 

Still stumped on where to start?

Drop us a line, and we’d be happy to make recommendations just for you!

 

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