Oolong or Wulong? a talk on Oolong tea at The Tea Centre, Sydney

“Tea and Conversation with David Lyons: Oolong Tea” at The Tea Centre, Sydney, 27 April 2013

Once again I found myself sitting in the mezzanine level of The Tea Centre in King Street opposite the MLC Centre for another talk on tea. The Tea Centre offers a series of five talks on the history and production of tea and the different types of tea made. Previous talks I have already attended turned on green tea and black tea. Compared with these talks, the session on oolong tea is not so detailed. The regional sales manager, David Lyons, handles all these talks: he loves telling stories and his homely Mancunian accent and self-deprecating manner put everyone at ease which is just as well as there were thirteen of us appreciative tea-drinkers squinched up on a floor level designed to take only two-thirds of that number!

We’re treated to a little history on oolong tea and how it replaced green tea as everyone’s staple beverage during the Ming Dynasty period (1368 – 1644) in China. Sobering to think that strict government controls on the making of tea, in particular the production of compressed tea in cakes and bricks, and the confiscation of traditional tea-making equipment by the authorities from tea makers should have driven the producers and suppliers to figure out ways of overcoming the strictures. Oolong tea production led to a new style of drinking these teas and new styles of tea-pots and cups to drink them from. Growers looked for new land to cultivate these teas and since most tea-growing at the time was done in Fujian, the business spread to Taiwan which is physically close to Fujian. Perhaps this is how the Chinese came to colonise and dominate Taiwan, and to drive the original Taiwanese population into the hills and mountain areas.

There was some but not very much explanation of the manufacturing process that turns picked leaves into oxidised rolled roasted leaves. Most of this information was contained in leaflets that we received to read at our leisure.

Throughout the talk David gave us samples of dried tea leaves to look at and sniff, and cups of different kinds of Oolong tea including Shui Hsien and Mellow Cream Oolong teas to taste. Each different type of Oolong tea came with its own delightful fairy tale as to how it got its name – the tea known as Da Hong Pao is so-called because a grateful Emperor rewarded a humble farmer for curing the Emperor’s Mother with tea made from four bushes, with a velvet red robe to cover the bushes during the cold winter season – and it’s not difficult to see that some of these stories contain little homilies about self-sacrifice, bravery and how the humble can stand shoulder to shoulder with the high and mighty.

As for popular media claims that Oolong tea is an aid to slimming, the true story is that Oolong teas contain enzymes that help with digestion – which is why Oolong teas go well with eating yum cha dishes heavy in lard and fat – and contain vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants known as polyphenols which have been credited with reducing some forms of cancer and lowering heart disease risk. Oolong teas, like everything else we eat and drink, are only effective as part of a nutritious diet that includes plenty of vegetables and fruit.

As usual with these Tea Centre talks, the 2-hour time passed all too quickly and before we knew it, we were out on the streets again.

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