‘Milk oolong’ is a tea we have been asked about for many years and one that has a great deal of confusion and misinformation surrounding it. Milk oolong is a Taiwanese tea which has a distinct ‘milky’ flavour. This flavour, however, is so unique that it has created an interest that stretches beyond established tea drinkers and into the mass market. This is where the issues start, as where there is demand there are always those who want to cash in and capitalise, without an eye on maintaining quality and authenticity. In countries such as the UK where many drinkers use milk in their tea, a tea that tastes of it naturally gives a unique selling point.
For all this to make sense we have to start of with a few definitive facts. The first being that there is simply no milk involved in the process at any point. All real milk oolongs come from a certain tea cultivar. This means from a specific ’cultivated variation’ of the Camellia sinensis plant named Jin Xuan (TTES 12) which was first developed in the 1980’s by the Taiwanese Tea Research and Extension Centre (TRES). When this particular cultivar is used to typically make a lightly-baked, semi-balled oolong then the result is a delicious silky smooth, creamy flavour that many associate with milk. The flavour comes from the combination of this cultivar and the terroir of where it is grown. This concerns the altitude, soil type, rock type and many more aspects. Real milk oolong is popular in Taiwan, and as Taiwan has a buoyant domestic market, this is a good sign that this tea is not remotely a gimmick but has authenticity.
This last point is important as there are many claims by some selling what they call milk oolong that for an unknowledgeable drinker may cause this tea to be seen as anything but authentic. These claims are made to explain the ‘milky’ flavour. As I mentioned earlier there is simply no milk involved in the process at any point. No growing plants in milk, no soaking or drying or steaming of the leaves in milk and definitely no infusing in milk in any way. Although milk is produced in Taiwan, it is not in enormous quantities. This means like much of this part of the world that it is therefore relatively expensive. Unsurprisingly it would not be a farmers first choice to add flavour to their crop!
This leads on to the crux of the matter. It could be surmised that if there is no milk involved in the process and the flavour is natural and the only negative is the bad, misleading marketing practice by some merchants. Wrong. Unfortunately, like all good tea, real milk oolong is not cheap and therefore to feed the mass market demand a cheaper method is required. This, like in many other products is the use of artificial flavourings. Low-quality, high volume tea is purchased and then has ‘milk’ flavour added to it. These are then marketed to highlight the ‘milkiness’, the easiest way being to make wild claims about how milk is used. Talking about cultivar and terroir is not as accessible!
So, if you want to taste a real milk oolong then make sure you ask the right questions. What cultivar is the tea made from? Is there any flavouring added? Is the tea from Taiwan? How many cows were involved in the process [joke!]
If you are unsure then another test is to see how may infusions the flavour lasts for. As artificial flavouring is not taken into the leaf it will be washed from the surface of the leaf on the first infusion. A true milk oolong will keep its flavour for upwards of six infusions.
We recently added a Jin Xuan Oolong to our range. This is a spring picked tea from Nantou County and has all the naturally produced milky flavour a good 'milky' oolong should have, without a cow in sight.
Intersted to taste more? Call into the Tea House or shop online >>