What is Milk Oolong?
Despite what a lot of companies out there would have you think, it is not oolong that has been watered with milk or steamed with milk like you will hear rumours of or a rolled green oolong that has had an artificial flavour derived from lactose added to it. What milk oolong is, is any oolong that is created using the Jin Xuan cultivar TRES 12 – developed by the Taiwanese Tea Research and Extension Center (TRES). The justification for it being referred to as milk oolong is that it naturally has a milk note with its flavour profile, a creamy mouthfeel and a trademark butteriness to it and the reason for that is thought to be attributed to lactones. Lactones are compounds that exist in nature and depending on the kind of lactone you will get different flavours like fruity flavours and milk flavours among many others.
Jin Xuan will have a slight maltiness aroma to the dry leaves but doesn’t smell like milk. Top tips on selecting milk oolong are to smell the dry leaf and watch out for an artificial milk aroma, the dry leaf of a genuine milk oolong will not have this, also if it comes with the tales of watering with milk or being steamed with milk just put it back on the shelf and walk away. You don’t want to waste your time with it because despite how it good it may smell, it will taste nowhere near that good once you start to steep it.
One thing I have learnt is to avoid milk oolongs that aren’t from Taiwan or Thailand. China produces milk oolongs as well but a lot of them are artificially scented and these are often the milk oolongs most companies will sell because they are cheaper to purchase. There are some high quality scented milk oolongs out there but you should still be wary about where in the world they are from still looking for Thailand or Taiwan and watching out for an excessively potent milk aroma.
The trademark flavour of the Jin Xuan cultivar intrigues many and is so unique that it tends to attract a lot of attention, and as much as that sound like a great thing it is actually where all of the problems start. As well all know well, where there is demand there exists always someone looking to cash in and capitalize and because they want to do so without investing too much of their money they cut corners. They don’t care about standards or quality and care not for protecting authenticity, trampling all over it to make a quick dollar. The dilemma lies in misinformation and companies concealing the fact that their oolong is scented, therefore being disingenuous to their customer base who think that they are getting the real thing shadowing their opinions on milk oolong from the start.
If you have tried these artificially scented milk oolongs and they are your thing then that is fine because tea is an incredibly personal thing, but I can’t drink them any longer because I have tried high-quality Jin Xuan oolongs in the last year and they were tremendous and the artificially scented milk oolongs are shocking bad in comparison.
Aside from the misleading practices, marketing campaigns filled with lies, the assumption that milk oolong is has been a flavoured tea from the point of its creation (which I did hear someone pretty high up at a very well known tea company say on a podcast recently). There is another problem, which is that Jin Xuan oolongs are of course more expensive because you are paying for quality, authenticity, the hard work of producers and farmers that cultivate these amazing teas and more along the process.
However, because many could not afford to regularly spend much money, to cater to the mass market demand, a cheaper method was needed which is where the use of artificially flavourings came into place. Which almost always follows the following process: Low-quality tea is purchased in high volume and then milk flavouring is added, some companies out there… yes even including some very popular companies that have large followings then market those teas highlighting their crazy levels of milkiness and creaminess, using the outlandish stories that I spoke about earlier in this post, which appeal to a lot of people especially those new to tea because, to put it truthfully talking about cultivar, terroir and other aspects of tea like that isn’t too accessible when you first find your way to loose leaf tea.
This is why I believe that two worlds of milk oolong / Jin Xuan must remain separate, each appealing to their groups of tea lovers at different stages in their tea journey to keep the true Jin Xuan / milk oolong production alive and help it thrive, allowing people all over the world to try high-quality milk oolongs that provide such unique immersive tea experiences.
If you seek to know where to start in terms of true Jin Xuan / milk oolong it is truly down to making sure you ask the right questions when you are buying tea for instance: what cultivar is it, is it from Taiwan or north Thailand? Is it scented or have there been any artificial flavorings added. Take a look at the leaves to take note of their colour and shape. Be sure to smell them and make certain there isn’t a potent milkiness to them. If you aren’t convinced then test the leaves and see how many infusions they will last for, an authentic Jin Xuan will last upwards of 6+ steeps, whereas on the other hand an artificial one will last no further than one as the scents and flavours added to them will be removed while steeping.
If you want to truly experience what the Jin Xuan cultivar has to offer and just how diverse the teas of this cultivar can be just from a few different decisions when it comes down to how they are processed, I highly recommend checking out the following three teas from Mei Leaf. Although they are all from different producers these are all still of the Jin Xuan cultivar and doing a comparison tasting gong fu style with all three of these teas will give you a well-rounded experience when it comes to the Jin Xuan cultivar.
Alishan Cream – Harvest during spring on, Alishan Mountain, up to 3rd or 4th leaf picking. A little more roasted than lily cream whip. Jin Xuan cultivar
Lilly Cream Whip – Harvest during spring on, Alishan Mountain, up to 3rd or 4th leaf picking. Very lightly roasted. Jin Xuan cultivar
Midnight Sun – Harvest during spring on, Alishan Mountain, up to 3rd or 4th leaf picking. much more heavily roasted. Jin Xuan cultivar
Last year I tried all three for the first time and to cut a long story short I adored them all, I conducted many sessions with them gong fu style and immediately added them back onto my must buy list. I love doing comparisons between similar teas and these blew my mind when I did a comparison session with them all. It still astonishes me to this day that one plant can end up producing so many different kinds of teas. My favourite out of all of them during winter was Midnight Sun because it fit the season so well in terms of its flavour profile. But Lilly Cream Whip is going to be wonderful for outdoor spring / summer sessions and I can’t wait for those. They were a great introduction for me to the wider world of Jin Xuan and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
I’ve been wanting to write the post for a long time but wasn’t sure how to go about it so I left it on the back burner for a little while which I now recognize was the right decision because I was able to learn more myself and also to gather a lot more information about the Myths, Rumors and Falsehoods that surround milk oolong. I’m going to throw everything I have into doing more research on this subject and also to see if this is specific to Jin Xuan / milk oolong itself. So there will presumably be a few more posts like this on my blog over time. At the end of it all though as enthusiastic as I am about this subject, just drink what makes you happy. I’m not here to judge you or shame you but simply help you go forward on your tea journey with the knowledge I would have loved to have had at the start of my own.
Until next time. Happy Steeping – Kimberley