Oolong teas represent the bridge between green teas, with do not go through any oxidation process and black teas which are 100% oxidized with oxidation levels ranging from 12-80%. Thus Oolongs represent one of the most varied and diverse styles of tea with flavors profiles ranging from bright and herbaceous, to flowery, to deep, rich and earthy, with many variations and flavors in between.
While some Oolong style teas are produced in many tea producing countries, the vast majority, and best are produced in China and Taiwan. Leaves for Oolong teas are harvested year round, but those picked in the cooler months of spring and fall, and winter, in the case of Taiwan, are more flavorful and complex than those harvested in summer. That being said, growers tend to allow the leaves to stay on the tree and mature longer than those leaves destined for white or green teas, so that they develop a more robust flavor.
Once picked all Oolongs go through a similar process. It is the length of each step of the process that makes each style different. The first step of the process is the withering process which can be done either outdoors, under the sun, or indoors. This step softens the leaves for further processing starts the process of driving out the moisture. Depending on the final style, this process can happen once or multiple times. Next the leaves are tossed and bruised, breaking open the leaf’s cells to allow the oxidation process to begin. The more times the process is repeated, the more oxidized the leaf will become, changing its color and character from teas similar in character to those of green tea to teas similar in character to those of black teas, and the whole gamut in between. It is also during this phase that the leaves will be twisted into spike, rolled into individual balls, or pearls, or left natural, depending on the style the producer is working towards. The final phase of production is the firing, or roasting stage, and is often done in 2 steps. The first firing is a quick firing to set the oxidation level. The leaves are then left to rest briefly before the final firing which will drive off the rest of the moisture and enhance the character of the tea. Greener Oolongs will receive less vigorous roasting while darker, blacker Oolongs can stand up to heavier roastings.
All this diversity means that discovering and learning about Oolong teas can be a lifelong process. My suggestion is to start with the most famous Oolong, Tieguanyin (spelled a number of different ways), also known as “Monkey picked” Oolong. While legend has it that monks used to train monkeys to pick the topmost leaves from rare, wild tea trees this is no longer the case but it still refers to the some of the highest quality Oolongs in the Fujian province made from the most tender, handpicked leaves. I find this Oolong to lie somewhere in the middle of the oxidation continuum with a slight nod towards the more oxidized end. The tea is subtle and complex with a wonderful flowery character reminiscent of orchids. From there you can explore this wide world of Oolongs deciding whether you prefer your teas with more, or less, oxidation. This is where a good, solid relationship with a very knowledgeable tea purveyor really comes in handy as they will be able to guide to the right Oolongs to suit your preferences.
If there was ever a tea that was made for multiple steepings, Oolong is that tea. When brewing Gong Fu (or Eastern) style, many of the highest quality Oolongs have been known to offer up, up to, 15-20 steepings before giving up their last. Each steeping offering up subtle differences from the steepings before it as the character of the tea unfolds. While I tend to brew my teas in a more Western style, for my Oolongs I do a hybrid style of brewing. I don’t use as much leaf as required for traditional Gong Fu brewing (if you aren’t familiar with this style please see Part II of this series where I explain it), but I do usually use about 3 times the amount that the instructions call for. Most teas you buy will list about 1 tsp. of leaves for every 8 oz. of water, which is traditional in Western style brewing so I use about 3 tsp. for every 8 oz. of water and then cut my steeping time by a half. This allows me to steep some of my better Oolongs up to 5-8 times so that I can see how the tea changes from steeping to steeping. Water temperature for Oolongs range from 180-200°F. I usually shoot for 190°F. You can use a thermometer or do what I do, which is, once my water has come to a boil, turn it off and let it sit, in the tea kettle for 3-4 minutes with the lid off, before pouring it over my tea leaves.
Black tea is what most Westerners are familiar with. It fills the vast majority of our tea bags and comprises the most of the most popular styles of tea in America and Europe, although this is changing as Westerners discover the joys of other style of teas.
It is here that the Indian subcontinent finally plays a major role in tea production. Tea is originally from China, and China makes a number of wonderful black teas, but it is the least popular style in China. Nor do you find much black tea drunk in Taiwan, Japan, or Korea, but black tea is king in India, Sri Lanka, and of course, in the West.
Black tea is the most oxidized style of tea, with the best blacks achieving 100% oxidation. Some of the highest quality black teas come from whole leaf tea, but in general, unlike most other styles of tea, most black tea is sold as broken leaf. In fact 90% of all black tea sold is C-T-C (cut-tear-curl) in which the leaf has been ripped, shredded and rolled into pieces that are choppy and granular in appearance. Not only does this help in the oxidation process but also allows manufacturers to use damaged leaves that might otherwise not be usable. This process makes for a strong tea, but often one that lacks all the nuances that a leaf can provide. While it might be fine for mass marketed teas, to really explore black teas that have more complexity it is best o seek out more traditional whole leaf or broken leaf teas made the orthodox way.
Just like with other styles of tea, how far down the rabbit hole you wish to fall is up to you. Nowadays, you can easily find decent quality black teas online, in specialty shops or even in better grocery stores. These are usually blends and about the most specific they get is region of origin such as Assam, Darjeeling or Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka although the tea still retains the old name of Ceylon). But if you really want to explore all that black tea has to offer then seek out a good tea purveyor who will carry teas from specific plantations, specific years, and in numerous grades.
We have a tendency to dismiss black teas because our stores are full of inferior black teas meant for mass market consumption, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t great black teas out there, and, in fact, there are plenty of fantastic black teas with as much complexity as some of the best Oolongs. Don’t dismiss black teas because of their mass market appeal.
When brewing black teas they, generally, do better in hotter water than other teas. For whole leaf teas use water that is about 190-200°F while broken leaf black teas do best with water right off of the boil. Timing will vary from tea to tea but usually from 3-5 minutes is best. I also find that because black teas are somewhat astringent to begin with, they are a little more forgiving when it comes to over steeping compared to other teas, which can go from good to horribly astringent in a matter of seconds, sometimes. Because of their astringent nature black teas are also the teas most often complimented by adding a bit of sweetener and a dash or milk or cream.
Pu-erh teas are the most exotic and probably the most divisive of all of China’s teas. More than any other tea this is a love it or hate it, kind of thing. Pu-erh tea only comes from China and then only from the Yunnan province. What makes the tea so special is that the tea leaves are actively allowed to ferment before being dried and allowed to age for anywhere from a few months to many decades.
The fermentation process allows the leaves to oxidize but also allows a host of beneficial bacteria, yeast and fungi to work their magic on the leaves, contributing various flavors and the ability for aging. This is often done by placing the leaves over steam which slowly moisten the leaves and provide a nice, warm environment for the microbes to do their thing. Once the proper level of oxidation and fermentation has been achieved the leaves are often compressed into various shapes, with 8 inch disks being the most popular, and then dried. Once dried, the tea is left to age from anywhere from a few months to many years to decades.
For novices to pu-erhs I suggest seeking out loose leaf teas over the compressed disks as the loose leaf teas are easier to handle and not quite such an investment.
All of this results in teas with incredible depth of flavor and complexity. The divisive part is that this also often creates, in the tea, Umami (often called the 6th taste) which manifests as such flavors as earthy, mushroomy, yeasty, or as similar to beef broth. For some this is a wonderful inclusion and for others it is not such a great thing. While not a tea for everyone I encourage everyone to make an attempt, or 2 at pu-erhs as those that like them really, really enjoy them. So far, I, personally, have not found one that I have enjoyed but I have only tried a couple so I will continue to experiment a few more times before I write this style off.
Pu-erh teas are best steeped Gong Fu (Eastern) style with many, very short steepings to keep the tea from becoming too strong and to taste the various nuances that each steeping can bring. Like black teas, pu-erhs do best in the hottest water, just off of a boil. I use 2-3 Tbs. of leaf for every 6 oz. of water. Your first steep will be a rinse. Pour enough hot water over the leaves to cover, allow to steep for about 10 seconds, then pour off the water and discard. Now you can start your regular steeps with your first steep about 30-40 seconds long. Add 5-10 seconds for each additional steep. High quality pu-erhs can handle anywhere from 8-12 steepings before they lose their flavor.