Nicole Wong • September 30, 2020
Oolong In All Its Practicalities
Oolongs, especially in the US, remain elusive to the average bevry-man, despite its broad appeal. And this tea genre is broad: categorized as anything between green and black tea. (Note: one source specified this as much as 8% to 85% oxidation--a step further than green tea’s 殺青 [“kill-green”] stage through steaming or pan-heating). Popular to produce in China and Taiwan, and emerging in Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam, there are endless variations to explore, with each producer leaving a unique signature on the teas they bake and roast.
Here's a relatively straightforward chart of the different categories of tea based on oxidation level. Yellow tea isn't very common in the US; fermented tea, like pu'erh and other aged teas, is also a rarity.
If you like the tastes of savory, like roasted squash and citra hops; floral, like jasmine and osmanthus; sweet, like agave and crystallized pineapple; spicy, like nutmeg and cinnamon; and full-bodied, like marshmallow and brown butter, baby, you’re in for a whole new world full of wonder.
The term “oolong” has a couple of AKAs. One is “wulong,” translating to “black dragon.” A reference to its long, wiry, snake-like shape, much like a snake’s coil unravels slowly. Just for fun trivia’s sake, another Chinese term is “qingcha,” or “dark green tea.” The French called it thé bleu: blue tea. With so many varieties of styles, cultivars, and terroirs, oolong is a tea of many faces--and perhaps as many steeps.
Through its twists, curls, or tightly-rolled pearl created during its processing, you can get 5-10 steeps out of a heaping teaspoon, which in the most American of perspectives, is getting your money’s worth. The best way to do so? The humble gaiwan, with a higher tea measure to water ratio than Western brewing. However, even in the most low-key of steeping standards, oolongs are plenty forgiving, with little astringency threatening to make your cup unpalatable.
When we mention gongfucha, this is the kind of tea we’re usually steeping. If you’ve seen our Instagram display a kaleidoscope of infusions, a very messy tea table, and splash photos, oolongs reign supreme. (Multiple steeps make for multiple takes!)
A celadon gaiwan, tea pitcher, cup, and tea board, all that you need to begin. Of course, there are far more fancy tables, sizes of gaiwans and cups, and materials to accessorize with, but that's for you to find. ;)
Here's a really simplified guide to gongfu:
- Pre-warm your gaiwan.
- Measure your tea into the gaiwan.
- Shake gaiwan with lid, remove, and inhale its aroma. Many of our tasting notes are identified through its scent first!
- Pour the water gently, in a clockwise motion, and cover.
- Wait. As much as you'd like to! Some teas are flavorful in 10-15 seconds; some like a hot minute to reveal themselves.
- Crook the lid with your index finger, creating a makeshift filter, and pour.
- If sipping on your tea, remove the lid between steeps. The excess steam will cause your tea to continue unfurling.
- Pour in your water, waiting a little longer (from 20-30 seconds) and letting your intuition guide as gongfucha becomes an ASMR activity.
If you never decanted a gaiwan, it's a learning curve of a Legally Blonde adage: just bend and flick.
A step further to extracting all of a tea's potential flavors is taking that spent pile, throwing it into a mason jar, and boom, holy shit, you got overnight iced tea to look forward to in the morning.
Wulongs are wunderkinds of the tea world. Even in esoteric subcategories of categories, there are pronounced differences in seasonal harvests, producer techniques, and traditions. Be on the lookout for these special beloved types next time you want a layered, complex tea experience:
- Dancongs, or Phoenix oolongs, known for their incredible floral aroma, like Night-Blooming Fragrance
- Wuyi yanchas, rock oolongs, that can range from dark caramel to smooth minerality, like Qi Lan
- Taiwanese green pearl-styled oolongs, exalted for their buttery-sweet characteristics, like Li Shan
- Brandy Oolong, a relative newcomer to the oolong scene that lives up to its name
- Tieguanyins, named for the Iron Goddess of Mercy, spanning decades of tradition but exciting enough to experiment with modernity
- Dongfang Mei Ren ("Oriental Beauty"), literal juicyfruit
- Baozhong (or Pouchong), the lightest and floral-est of oolongs if you want to take a tiny step forward in oolongs/oxidation
Can't decide? We have an Oolong Sampler Set, just in case.
There's helluva lot more, which making a long-ass list can be its own article in the future. For now, steep slowly, and share your tea odyssey with us with a tag, comment, or DM.
As always, #steepslowly!