Famous Dark Oolongs

Published: Tuesday 12 December, 2017

With their long, twisting, and curling peaty-brown leaves, dark oolongs are responsible for this category’s name: Black Dragon. This translation of “oolong,” comes from the fact that, in every batch of dry tea, there are always long dramatic leaves that resemble dragons, coiled serpents, and writhing snakes.Whereas jade oolongs (the balled variety that are tight nuggets of curled up tea shoots) have a floral and aromatic character, dark oolongs are much more complex, with layers of different flavor notes. Dark oolongs often are fruity, with hints of apricots and prunes, plums, and peaches, with darker roasty notes of charcoal, chocolate, and toasted nuts. They are deeply satisfying and rewarding when enjoyed alone and also have enough power and body to marry well with cakes, biscuits, and other sweet treats traditionally enjoyed at Afternoon Tea.

Tea makers in the Wuyi Mountains (武夷山), Fujian province, China, produce some of the most impressive dark oolongs, the most famous of which is probably Da Hong Pao oolong (大紅袍). The name means Big Red Robe and is so called because of a legend that tea gathered from four bushes growing in the Wuyi Mountains cured the mother of one of China’s Ming Dynasty emperors of a dangerous illness. To honor the bushes, the emperor is said to have sent his big, red robe to protect them from harsh weather during the winter months. The story is told in several different forms but always involves the emperor’s robe.

The four bushes from which the first famous Da Hong Pao tea was plucked still grow high on the rock face of a steep slope in the mountains, and only designated tea masters are allowed to harvest them each spring to make tiny quantities of tea that sells for thousands of dollars and are often gifted by the Chinese government to visiting dignitaries and honored members of society. The Da Hong Pao teas that are more readily available on the market are made from bushes grown from cuttings taken from those famous 
mother bushes.

Da Hong Pao oolong teas are toasty, smooth, and rich with top notes of ripe stone fruits and dried prunes, as well as darker hints of cocoa nibs and charred wood. The deep, complex, roasty flavors develop during the final stages of drying when the teas are roasted over smoldering charcoal.