Understanding Oolong Tea: A Simple Guide

Jill Caren

Oolong is a semi-oxidized tea that comes a variety of types. Learn all you need to know about this unique blend.

Categories Tea

If you’re not a fan of green or black tea, I have something for you: oolong tea. If you don’t know anything about it, this oolong tea guide for beginners is perfect for you.

What is Oolong Tea?

Oolong tea is a semi-oxidized true tea made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. It is something between unoxidized green tea and almost fully oxidized black tea.

As you may already know, there are six different types of tea: green, black, white, oolong, pu-erh, and yellow. They all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis.

This is almost exclusively Chinese tea. The vast majority of oolongs come from China and Taiwan. I say oolongs because there are so many different types with unique flavor profiles.

On one end, there are sweet and flowery greener oolongs, while on the other end, there are bold and roasty oolongs that are closer to black tea.

Their flavors are influenced by where the tea is grown: climate, soil, processing methods, and so on.

Despite the fact that oolong tea accounts for just around 2% of all tea produced and consumed globally, it is a highly desirable beverage among tea enthusiasts worldwide.

The leaves of this tea are one of its most notable characteristics. The shape of oolong tea makes it easy to identify. Oolongs are typically twisted or rolled into balls.


The term “oolong” comes into the English language from the Chinese word “wulong”. Wu means black and Long means dragon, hence Black Dragon tea.

There are several theories as to how the Chinese name came to be.

One legend tells of a tea farmer named Wu Liang (later simplified to Wulong) who accidentally created oolong tea. According to legend, he became distracted after a long day of plucking tea leaves, and when he returned to his withered tea leaves, they had already started to oxidize.

Another theory suggests that this tea is a direct ancestor of Dragon-Phoenix Tea Cake tribute tea. When loose tea became popular, the word oolong tea supplanted the earlier term. It was named Black Dragon tea because it was black, long, and curly.

A different story is that the Chinese gave the term “wulong” to the large black tea leaves that were deeply oxidized and twisted into forms that resembled the mystical Chinese dragon.

Whatever theory or story is true, one thing is certain: oolong tea originated in China, and while it is now produced in many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand, and New Zealand, it is extremely difficult to compete with the quality of Chinese and Taiwanese oolongs.

The Process of Making Oolong Tea

Making oolong tea is a form of art, and those who master it are considered “Tea Masters.” The main stages of production are:

  • Withering (initial moisture removal from the leaves)
  • Bruising (leaves bruise and oxidize)
  • Fixing ( stopping the oxidation)
  • Rolling (twisted or rolled into a ball shape)
  • Drying (humidity levels near zero)
  • Sorting


The first step upon plucking is always withering (sun drying) to eliminate moisture from the leaves. The leaves are first spread in indirect sunlight. This enables water to evaporate from the tea leaves, increasing the sweetness of the tea.

When the tea leaves have lost enough water, they are brought indoors for additional withering and cooling.


The tea master puts a large quantity of tea leaves on a large, round bamboo tray and begins shaking and tossing the tea leaves into the air, catching them again. At this stage, the tea leaves are shaken every hour so that the edges of the leaves bruise and oxidize.

Additionally, tossing helps to release the juices and enzymes that give specific characteristics to the tea.

At this stage, the tea leaves will lose about 20% of their moisture content. The main goal behind this phase in the production of oolong tea is to only damage the leaf cells on the edges of the leaf, which turn reddish-brown as they begin to absorb oxygen.

The length of time tea leaves are left to oxidize determines the type of tea they become.

They are classified into two types based on their level of oxidation: green oolongs (10-30% oxidation) with a lighter body and fragrant floral notes, and dark oolongs (40-80% oxidation) with more complex fruity and woody flavors.

Fixing (pan-roasting)

After the desired level of oxidation is achieved, enzymes are deactivated by applying heat. This process is known as “fixing.” It is accomplished by pan-roasting the leaves.

Rolling the tea leaves

After fixing is finished, the next step in making oolong tea is rolling the tea leaves. At this point, the partially dried leaves are twisted or rolled into a ball shape. Despite the typical oolong tea shape, rolling is also done to break the cells of the leaf and produce flavor.


After shaping, the tea leaves are dried. This phase is necessary in order to keep the humidity levels near zero and avoid spoiling the tea while storing it.

Furthermore, the stems of premium oolongs are manually removed to minimize bitterness.


Following the completion of the drying process, the tea leaves are visually examined and sorted into several groups of similar size and color to generate specific lots of like tea. When this procedure is completed, the tea is ready for packing.

After drying, the best-grade artisan-crafted oolong teas are usually roasted over charcoal. This helps to retain the leaves for a longer period of time and contributes to the tea’s depth of taste and aroma.

Oolong tea after processing ready for packaging
A sample of a type of oolong tea ready for packaging

The 5 Most Famous Types of Oolong Tea

As I mentioned before, depending on the level of oxidation, country of origin, climate, soil, and other different variables in the production process, there are many different types of oolong tea.

Colors range from pale gold to orange and deep brown. Flavors might also differ substantially.

I can’t put all the oolong tea types here, so I’ve decided to present you with the five most famous ones that are consumed all over the world.

  1. Iron Goddess of Mercy (Tie Guan Yin)
  2. Phoenix Tea (Dan Cong)
  3. High Mountain Oolong Tea (Gaoshan)
  4. Wuyi Oolong Tea (Da Hong Pao)
  5. Milk Oolong Tea (Jin Xuan Tea)

Iron Goddess of Mercy (Tie Guan Yin)

This is one of the ten most notable Chinese teas and a very popular one. If you are in doubt about which oolong tea you should try first, Iron Goddes is a great introduction to oolong tea.

The tea gets “Iron” in its name because of the laborious processing method, which includes up to 60 hours of slow roasting.

Honestly, this is one of my favorite oolongs. That’s why I’ve put it here on No.1. It has a floral, light flavor with hints of orchid.

Phoenix Tea (Dan Cong)

This is one of the best-selling oolong teas from China’s Phoenix Mountains.

Plants grown at high elevations endure dramatic temperature swings, resulting in resilient plants with a strong aroma. Phoenix oolong tea is most renowned for its aroma.

High Mountain Oolong Tea (Gaoshan)

This oolong type is cultivated high in the mountains of Taiwan. It’s lightly oxidized and roasted, so it’s more like green tea than black tea. It has a light and floral flavor.

Wuyi Oolong Tea (Da Hong Pao)

Big Red Robe, in English, has a smoky, sharp, and deep taste due to the high oxidation and mineral-rich sediment it is rooted in. Da Hong Pao tea is one of the most expensive teas in the world and is often reserved for welcoming privileged guests. It is considered one of the most famous teas in China.

Milk Oolong Tea (Jin Xuan Tea)

Another Taiwanese oolong that has a unique milky, creamy, buttery flavor. This tea is not milky since milk was added during the manufacturing process. It has a naturally milky flavor and texture, with hints of sweet fruit or cream.

Note: If you sip a milk oolong that has an overpowering creamy aroma or flavor, it’s probably artificially flavored. Natural milk oolong has a delicate, balanced flavor.

Potential Health Benefits

Oolong tea contains a range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The main antioxidants in oolong tea, known as tea polyphenols, are thearubigins, theaflavins, and EGCG.

Tea’s active polyphenols change when it oxidizes from un-oxidized to completely oxidized. This is why green tea is high in catechins while black tea is high in theaflavins.

  • Theaflavins – formed when black tea leaves are oxidized
  • Catechins – highest in green tea, EGCG is the main form

Oolong tea does not oxidize as fast as other teas, and many of the natural polyphenols are preserved. As a result, the oolong tea brew contains both catechins and theaflavins.

Polyphenols, such as catechins and theaflavins, are undoubtedly an essential element of what makes tea a healthy drink. They function as antioxidants, reducing the harmful effects of free radicals in the body.

To benefit from oolong tea’s antioxidative effects, consider greener, less oxidized oolong tea.

Higher oxidation is indicated by darker leaves and a reddish tea brew.

According to some studies, oolong tea is good for:

  • Weight loss – oolong tea could decrease body fat content and reduce body weight by improving lipid metabolism.
  • Boosting mood and relieving stress – L-theanine, an amino acid found in all true teas, may help you boost your mood and de-stress.
  • Improving gut microbiome – this tea may aid in the improvement of the balance of beneficial bacteria and give support, particularly while consuming a high-fat diet.
  • Increasing alertness and focus – a combination of caffeine and L-theanine increases alertness and improves focus without jitters associated with coffee consumption.
  • Improve heart health – oolong tea’s high antioxidant content may benefit heart health.

Caffeine in Oolong Tea

Due to the fact that there are many different types of oolong tea, the caffeine levels in this tea will also vary.

Depending on the chosen type of oolong tea, the caffeine levels can vary between 16 and 55 mg per 8 oz. cup using 2 grams of loose tea.

As I said before, many factors affect the caffeine levels in oolong tea, but most agree that, on average, a cup of oolong tea has roughly 37 mg of caffeine per 8-ounce cup.

In general, oolong tea has more caffeine compared to green tea and less caffeine compared to black tea.

How to Make Oolong Tea 

Oolong tea can be brewed using a traditional Chinese method for a more comprehensive and full-bodied tea-drinking experience, or a simpler Western way for beginners.

Because this is a beginner’s guide to oolong tea, I will show the simplest Western method of brewing it.


  • 1 cup (6 oz/177ml) of water plus a little extra to pre-warm the teapot or cup
  • 1 teaspoon if the tea is rolled into balls, or up to 2 tablespoons if large open leaves are used

It’s very important to use high-quality water when brewing any type of tea to get the right flavor and aroma. Always try to use filtered water or spring water to get the best flavor from your chosen tea. Try to avoid distilled or tap water.

When it comes to water temperature, oolong is not as tricky to brew as other teas. It is best brewed with water temperatures ranging from 185°F to 208°F (85-97°C).

To get the exact water temperature, you can use an electric kettle with temperature settings, or you can simply bring water to a boil, then let it cool for a couple of minutes.

Note: It is always best to check the water temperature on your tea packaging.

Tea Leaves
The finest flavor comes from using high-quality loose tea. Making the perfect cup of oolong tea requires using the appropriate amount of leaves. If the tea is rolled into balls, use less; if the tea is large open leaves, use more.

It is recommended to use 1 teaspoon of balled leaves or 2 tablespoons of large-open oolong leaves for every 6 ounces (177 ml) of water.

After making the first cup, you can adjust the quantity of tea leaves used. If the tea is too strong for you, use fewer leaves. If it is too weak for you, use more leaves.

Note: Always follow the instructions for the amount of leaves to use from the tea packaging. If you want, you can change it after the first brew.


  • Step 1: Boil water
    Heat the water to a temperature of 185°F to 208°F (85-97°C).
  • Step 2: Pre-warm the teapot or cup
    Pour a small amount of boiling water into the pot or cup. When the pot or cup is warm, swirl it around a bit, then discard the water. 
  • Step 3: Measure the leaves and place them in the teapot or cup
    If using ball-shaped leaves, use 1 teaspoon; if using large-open leaves, use 2 tablespoons.
  • Step 4: Pour the hot water into the teapot or cup and cover it with a lid
  • Step 5: Steep
    The usual guideline for oolong tea steeping time is 1 to 5 minutes. Generally, loose-leaf tea infuses faster than ball-shaped tea. It’s best to allow it to steep for 1 minute and then taste every 30 seconds to acquire the perfect flavor for your tastes.
  • Step 6: Remove the leaves
    Remove the leaves as soon as the tea is ready and enjoy your cup of perfectly brewed oolong tea.

Note: Oolong tea may be steeped several times. You may re-steep it 2-3 times if you use a larger teapot, and up to 5 times if you use a smaller capacity teapot.

Add 30 seconds to the previous steep time when re-steeping. You’ll get a new flavor with each re-steep.

At the end of this oolong tea beginner’s guide, I believe I’ve covered every basic aspect of this popular beverage. You now know what oolong tea is, what the different types are, why it is good for you, and how to brew it properly using the Western brewing method.

It is entirely up to you to try out different types of oolong. No matter what you choose, I am sure that you’ll enjoy it!