A cup of Oolong tea

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Black tea is created by allowing the leaf to oxidize and turn dark. Green and white teas are created by not allowing the leaf to oxidize. But within the Oolong tea category, the leaf is allowed oxidation at varying levels. There are the “greener” Oolongs, oxidized at 12%-20% and the “darker” Oolongs, oxidized anywhere between 40%-70%. In my photo, I have just brewed a cup of Formosa “Tung Ting” Oolong, a greener Oolong which looks very light in the cup, much like green tea. I am in constant awe that a leaf that is picked from the very same plant can produce such different flavors depending on what happens after that leaf is picked. In addition to its processing, soil conditions also contribute to the tea’s ultimate flavor. To produce an Oolong tea, the leaves are laid out in the sun after picking and allowed a “partial withering”. In other words, the leaves shrivel up. Then they are placed in large bamboo baskets and shaken up periodically to bruise the leaf which allows even oxidation. Oxidation naturally occurs by allowing the leaves exposure to fresh air. To halt the oxidation, the leaves are heated by pan roasting. Knowing exactly when to heat the leaf is a skill that comes from years of experience. Tea masters participate in processing competitions to demonstrate their skill in this fine art. So, in a way, knowing when a tea’s oxidation is complete is like knowing when a piece of artwork is finished. All of the elements are just right and its full expression has been manifested.

A very common way to brew Oolong tea is called “Gong Fu” style. In this method of brewing the tea, a small unglazed ceramic teapot is used and the tea leaves are brewed in multiple short infusions as many as 5-8 times. First, fresh spring water is heated to just under the boiling point, ideally 185-205 Fahrenheit. The teapot is filled 1/4-1/3 with tea leaves and water is added to the halfway point. This water is not for infusing but for rinsing the leaves to rid them of any tea dust. It also allows the tea leaves to “awaken” and start to unfurl. This water is poured off after 10 seconds and then the teapot is immediately filled with water again for the first drinking infusion. The leaves are brewed for 30 seconds-1 minute for the first infusion. Each subsequent infusion lengthens the brewing time. This can always be adjusted to personal taste. Since 80% of the caffeine is extracted within the first 30 seconds of steeping time, each subsequent infusion will be decaffeinated. Even the caffeine sensitive can drink this tea all day and not worry about sleeping at night!

There are so many different flavor notes among Oolong teas from the aromatic, flowery greener Oolongs to the dark chestnut, woody Oolongs. The Silvertip and Fancy Formosa Oolongs have a fruitiness to them reminiscent of a ripe peach. So, drinking an Oolong can be much like an aromatherapy experience, sure to sooth and comfort even on the most stressful of days.

What are your experiences with Oolong tea?

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