Tea Technique: Steeping Oolong


Dynamic oolong, as we have recently discussed, is the sort of tea whose pleasures, much like its fragrant leaves, unfurl and reveal more and more over time and repeated infusion.

For this reason, steeping oolongs in small, versatile vessels really makes exploration of flavor in these particular teas exciting. As a drinker, you'll soon discover that working with oolongs is a journey as much as a process. Here's how to get started.

What You'll Need

Oolong needs room for its leaves to expand, but it also wants a practical sized vessel for repeated infusions. Small pots that don't constrain the leaves to a filter-enclosure are best—gaiwans are easy and practical, though a well-cared-for Yixing clay teapot, which will gradually absorb the tea into its walls and develop an essence and patina related to your tea, is also well-suited to oolongs.

How to Steep

Start, as always, with the freshest water as you can get—filtered (not distilled), or spring water will produce the best flavor.

Fill your pot with a generous amount of tea leaves—somewhere near one third of the pot, or 2 to 3 Tablespoons full. Some suggest using less tea than this for rolled, spherical oolongs, which need room to unfurl a lot, and more tea for stripe-shaped, twisted oolong leaves, which don't.

Heat your water and give the leaves an initial quick rinse, which will prepare them for the first infusion. Water for oolong tea is generally heated between 185-205° F. You can measure your water with a thermometer, or get used to decanting just-boiled water into another vessel to cool it to the ideal temperature for your tea.

Let's talk timing: Steeping methods can vary tremendously depending on what sort of experience the drinker is looking for. Some tea labels will suggest steeping an oolong for 1 to 2 minutes, and you can do this with rewarding results. Reinfusions at gradually shortened, and then lengthened-again times, will continue to produce tasty and flavorfully evolving cups of tea.

If you have a Yixing pot and confidence in the stable temperature of your water, you can try brewing your oolong tea through a series of much, much shorter infusions, beginning at twenty seconds and gradually shortening them, then again lengthening them as you taste the brews weakening. This is a good way to taste the evolution of this continually giving type of tea as it reveals layer after layer of its character.


What You'll Experience

An exploration of oolong—whether darker or more lightly oxidized, Taiwanese or Chinese, rolled or twisted—has the potential to yield not only a great understanding of the teas themselvesm, but also serve to expand your palate. As you become familiar with reinfuison, playing with time and temperature, you'll come away with an ever-deepening awareness of how an oolong's shape, age, oxidation level or even method of picking all effect the style in which you brew, and the flavor in your cup.