Being in semi-quarantine for nearly two months affects the mind. Now that’s not news you say; clearly, it’s the case. Yes but, one is given to ponder the most fundamental and complex of human questions, the ontological and epistemological foundations of life, being and becoming, knowing and believing, red oolongs and red water oolongs. Heady stuff.
I had learned, during a visit to TRES in 2017, that small leaf black tea was all the rage among researchers there. They didn’t really want to discuss much else. TRES had been established by the Japanese with the express purpose of developing black tea production on the island and this culture continues to thrive in the institute. It was during the early years of the 20th century that the large leafed assamica variety of camellia sinensis was introduced into what was then the Japanese colony of Formosa. TRES was now pioneering research in the use of the small leafed sinensis variety of camellia sinensis to that same end. Could the successful practices employed in the south-eastern county of Taitung be replicated in Miaoli and Hsinchu? I was able to taste some of the trial batches and they were interesting.
What of these successful practices in Taitung? Taitung lies south of the Tropic of Cancer; it is a hot, humid region not generally thought to produce fine tea. At the outset, TRES had advised growers in the region to produce a lightly oxidized tea resembling bao zhong; unfortunately, this tea was not very good. Back to the research lab.
What emerged from the experimentation was a procedure that yielded something almost polar opposite to bao zhong; a highly oxidized (80% and above) product that is produced using some methods of black tea production and some from oolong procedures. This tea came to be called hong oolong, or red oolong.
The Memory Game
Recall that in Chinese, what we in the west refer to as black tea (based on the color of the dry leaf) is, in the Chinese language, known as hong cha or red tea (based upon the color of the brewed tea liquor.) Thus, this hong oolong would perhaps have been more appropriately called black oolong in English. But it is not; we call it red oolong. But is it really an oolong at all?
Hong oolong is, as I have noted, a highly oxidized tea. In order to achieve this high level of oxidation the leaf is rolled before undergoing oxidation. Yet the defining characteristic of oolong teas is that the leaf is gently bruised prior to oxidation and only rolled once that procedure is complete. Hong oolong, despite the name and despite the fact that some oolong techniques such as panning and roasting are utilized, really isn’t an oolong at all.
When brewed, red oolong has the appearance of black tea and the characteristic taste of a black tea. Apart from employing a few techniques generally associated with oolong production, and the use of small-leafed cultivars that are associated with oolong teas there really is not much oolong at all about these teas. In my book, hong oolong teas are black teas produced in a somewhat novel way. I think the researchers at TRES would agree.
Hong Shui Oolong
But what then of hong shui oolong. This, as the doorman at the Emerald City said, is a horse of a different color.
Simply put, hong shui oolong teas are those that originate outside the classic Dong Ding production area (mostly gaoshan) that are produced in the manner of traditional Dong Ding. They are more highly oxidized than most high mountain teas (generally to about 35%) and they are roasted like traditional Dong Ding (generally to about 30%.) These teas have a fuller nuttier character than what is now the more widespread gaoshan style. Good ones display layers of complex flavors and rich mouth-filling viscosity. Indeed, prior to the “greening of gaoshan” most high mountain tea was produced in this style.
Importantly, these teas are made using only oolong production methods. The leaves are bruised to encourage oxidation and rolling occurs after oxidation is complete. Due to the higher oxidation and to the roasting, these teas yield a liquor that is amber in color as opposed to the green-gold of low oxidized and unroasted gaoshan. They look like oolong tea and they taste like oolong tea because they are oolong tea.
Moses parted the red sea; we need only part the red tea. Hong oolong (red oolong), for the reasons described, is a new type of black tea, not an oolong and hong shui oolong (red water oolong) is an oolong of the most traditional sort. Therefore:
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new oolong under the sun
That’s my take. What’s your view?
 TRES stands for Tea Research and Extension Station.
 The aim was to give growers in these counties a more profitable product for the harvests that were not suitable for Bai Hao (Oriental Beauty.) In most cases, tea from such harvests was made into restaurant quality product.
 This serves to break the cell walls of the leaf and encourage high leaf oxidation.
 Do not confuse rolling and shaping. What we generally call “ball rolling” is in fact a shaping procedure.
 Hong shui translates as “red water.”