By Bruce Richardson (elmwoodinn.com)
Photography by Kamin Williams
Oolongs have inspired the Chinese and the Taiwanese for centuries with their full-bodied brews and fragrant aromas. These teas are partially oxidized and thus fall between the blacks and greens in the four tea families. Oolongs, depending on their origin and the skills of the tea master, can be light and fragrant or deep and roasted. Chinese oolongs generally tend to have a darker roast and fruitier nature than Taiwanese oolongs, which are generally greener with a more floral aroma. Fine oolongs are meant to be infused several times, with different flavor notes released during each steeping.
Spotlight on Oolong
These four oolong teas should be in every tea lover’s collection:
One of Taiwan's premier oolongs comes from high-grown bushes that are shaded from the sun. This tea is lightly oxidized, resulting in a subtle pale liquor with green overtones and a floral aroma.
This classic Taiwanese oolong exhibits characteristics of both green tea and oolongs. The long, twisted emerald leaves release a subtle yet intoxicating aroma reminiscent of the fragrance of lilacs and gardenias.
Ti Kuan Yin
The best known of Chinese balled oolongs, named for the goddess of mercy, is an aromatic and elegant tea manufactured in central Fujian province. The slightly twisted leaves unfurl in a mixture of red-brown and dark green colors and release honey-colored liquor with a delicately sweet floral flavor.
This popular oolong tea comes from Fujian province, where it is infused with the delicate scent of night-blooming jasmine flowers. The tea master combines two delicate leaves and an unopened bud into a beautiful hand-rolled pearl. When added to water, the pearls majestically unfurl, releasing their delicate scent and flavor. Not inexpensive, this tea is a work of art that pleases the eye, nose, and palate.
How Oolong Tea Is Made
Two methods of production are used to manufacture two types of oolong: dark, open-leafed oolongs and greener balled oolongs. Darker oolongs are withered first in the sun and then indoors on bamboo baskets. The leaves are turned every two hours. When oxidation reaches 70 percent, the leaves are turned 5 to 10 minutes inside a hot panning machine to halt oxidation before being dried in an oven.
Balled oolongs are withered in the same manner as dark oolongs, but oxidation is halted at 30 percent. After resting overnight, bags of leaves are rolled into balls by small machines. The basketball-size bags are opened, and the curled leaves are separated before being dried.
Oolong teas are best brewed with 190° to 205° water and generally should be consumed without the addition of milk, lemon, or sweetener. Clay, porcelain, or cast-iron pots are preferred for steeping. Oolongs should always be given a quick rinse with hot water before infusing. This awakens the leaves and prepares them for the first of several infusions. Balled oolongs will take some time to open. Both dark and balled oolongs may be infused up to seven times, with each infusion offering different nuances.
True oolong devotees will want to explore the Gongfu method of infusing and drinking exceptional oolongs. The Gongfu tea service, complete with Yixing pots and numerous accoutrements, was developed exclusively for the enjoyment of these aromatic and complex teas.
Oolong Brewing Tips
- Fill the kettle with filtered cold water, and heat to less than a boil, 190° to 205°.
- Warm a small teapot with hot tap water.
- Discard the water in the teapot.
- Place 1 tablespoon of dry tea per cup directly into the pot or infuser basket.
- Rinse tea by covering leaves with fresh hot water and pouring off liquor immediately. This awakens the leaves for infusing.
- Add water, and steep 1 to 3 minutes, according to taste. Pour immediately into cups, and decant any leftover liquor.
Bruce Richardson and his wife, Shelley, are authors of numerous teatime cookbooks, such as A Year of Teas at the Elmwood Inn and The Tea Table.