April 22, 2004

Consider Oolong

oolong tea leaves

Surely you have seen those tiny asian teapots and teacups at the asian market. I always thought they were for display, or for altars to Buddha. But really, people use them to brew and drink tea in. Once I went to a fancy Chinese tea store in Houston when my aunt was in town. They brewed some delicious Osmanthus tea that cost $275 a pound and served it in tiny little porcelain tea cups. I just figured they weren't going to give us very much to taste since it was so expensive, but in reality many Chinese tea drinkers and monks drink fine tea in very small amounts just to get the aroma of the tea leaves and flowers in their mouth. Having grown up in Texas and being used to brewing tea by the gallons and ingesting just as much, this was a whole new concept to me. Since then I've learned the importance of brewing Chinese tea in small batches.

There are many ways to brew tea "correctly" and I'm sure those of the British persuasion have their own opinions, but I'm going to specifically explain how to brew Chinese Oolong Tea here, or at least how I learned how to do it from wrinkly old Chinese people.

But first, here are some basics. If you didn't already know, Chinese Green Tea is green because the tea leaves are picked and dried naturally and then it's ready to be stored. Some green teas are fried in a special tea wok to remove the grassy taste. If the tea leaves are fully fermented it is Black Tea. Oolong tea is somewhere between Green Tea and Black Tea with the fermentation level being anywhere from 20%-80%. The taste of Oolong is also somewhere between Green Tea and Black Tea. It is only partially fermented, so you'll notice the color isn't as dark as Black Tea leaves, but it is deeper than Green Tea leaves. After a short fermentation, Oolong leaves are fried and rolled up into little balls like in the above picture. If you ever get Oolong Tea with small, flat, unrolled leaves, it's not a very good quality Oolong. Oolong means "Black Dragon" in Chinese and originated in the Fujian provence of China. Most Oolong teas available today are now made in Taiwan. It is highly regarded as the "champagne of teas" in both China and Japan. There was also once a beloved Japanese bunny named Oolong who had a fondness for buns.

So you should get some of the good Oolong Tea where the leaves are all rolled up. You should also use a porcelain teapot. Try to get one of those tiny Chinese or Japanese ones that come with small teacups and a tea tray. The tray is there for a reason and aids in the correct brewing of the tea. If you don't have one you can use a dish with a deep lip or a large bowl. If you are making more than one brew to serve several people (or you like to ingest hot tea by quartfulls) you should have a second tea pot to hold the brewed tea.

1. Set the teapot in the tea tray. Bring a pot of filtered water to boiling point. Fill and rinse the outside of the teapot with the boiling water letting the spillover catch in the tray. If you have a second teapot to hold the brewed tea, do the same to it.

2. Drain the water from the brewing pot and fill it about one third full of tea leaves.

3. Fill the pot with boiling water about halfway or enough to cover the tea leaves. Place the lid on and quickly drain the water out. You are basically rinsing the tea leaves to get them to unroll and ready for steeping.

4. Now fill the pot again with boiling water all the way until overflowing. For some reason everytime I've seen this done, they like to pour the water until it overflows all over the outside of the teapot. I'm not sure the reasoning behind this. I think it is to make sure the tea pot is completely full and there is no air trapped under the lid. In any case, make sure you keep the pot in a bowl or tray to catch the hot water.

5. Cover and steep for 45 seconds then quickly pour the tea into the teacups or into the second teapot to keep warm. Whatever you do, you don't want to oversteep. If you have a tea set with tiny cups, arrange the teacups in a circle on the tea tray or shallow bowl and quickly pour the tea into the teacups by moving the pot around in one continous circular motion, letting any spillover catch in the tray. (Making tea is very messy.) This is done so that every cup of tea gets a little bit of tea from the top of the pot as well as the bottom of the pot, ensuring that every cup tastes exactly the same.

6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 if you are brewing a second pot. For each additional brew of the of the same leaves, add 10-15 seconds to the previous steeping time to ensure that each brew tastes the same. Depending on the quality of your tea you can get 5 or 6 good brews out of good tea leaves. Some really expensive teas I've had have held up to 10 brewings.

I actually use this brewing technique for all good Chinese teas I have, but I'm sure there are some subtleties amongst the teas that tea masters would warrant reason to brew differently. Alas, I am no tea master. Sometime I just throw a few loose leaves in the bottom of my coffee mug and fill with hot water. Shame on me, I know.

Posted by yi at April 22, 2004 4:34 PM

nice redesign!

Posted by: gabe at April 22, 2004 4:54 PM
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