While the world of green teas, including matcha, is rich and varied – it is nothing compared to the world of oolongs. The processing that makes an oolong an oolong makes room for so many styles and variations, it can be dizzying.
Oolong is a traditionally Chinese style of tea (though now also heavily produced in Taiwan as well), and is produced by combinations of drying, oxidizing, and rolling or twisting the tea leaves. Some of the teas are even oxidized by allowing a small insect to bite the leaves, and enzymes secreted by the insect start the oxidation process.
Because of this varied processing, as well as differences in growing region, elevation, and weather, the characteristics of oolongs can be exceptionally varied. Good quality oolongs can also be steeped multiple times, and the characteristics can change with each steeping. Some are very floral, sweet, and light-flavored. Some are nutty, rich and warm-flavored. Some are very toasty, even almost char-flavored. Some are nearly green, and taste very vegetal. The one in the photos here is an aged oolong, and begins with very deep fruity tones like prune, gets more smoky after 3-4 steepings, and then ends by becoming more sweet and floral after 6-8 steepings.
Oolong tea is often brewed in the Gongfu style, in which the unglazed clay pot and cups are first warmed with hot water. The tea is then added to the pot, and hot water is poured on the tea from a pot held well above the tea pot. This water is immediately poured into a pitcher – this is just in order to rinse the tea. The tea pot is then filled back up with fresh hot water, and the water used to rinse the tea is poured over the outside of the tea pot. The tea is steeped for around thirty seconds to a minute. Sometimes it is poured evenly into the drinking cups after steeping, and sometimes into a pitcher. Sometimes a sniffer cup which holds the same volume as the drinking cup is used, and filled first with the tea, which is then transferred to the drinking cup, and the aroma of the tea can be smelled in the sniffer cup.
In terms of typical home preparation, a small clay pot unglazed on at least the inside, or else a gaiwan are typically used. The water is heated to just a few degrees below boiling, and a relatively large amount of tea is used for the size of the pot. Many oolongs can be steeped 3-8 times with steepings of 30-60 seconds. We still usually rinse the tea as in the Gongfu style by pouring hot water onto the dry tea and then immediately pouring it off, though we usually just discard this water. If you are drinking it by yourself, either use a large drinking cup and pour off all the tea into the cup, or pour the tea into a pitcher first, and then refill your drinking cup from that. In any case, don’t leave water sitting on the tea, or it will over-steep. After each steeping, tilt the lid of the pot or gaiwan so that the tea can breathe and doesn’t steam itself inside the pot.
Most of all, drink consciously and enjoy what you’re tasting!