Step 1: Choose a Tea Vessel
Oolong tea can be brewed using traditional Chinese techniques or the simpler Western method. Both techniques have their own benefits and result in great-tasting oolong teas. The Chinese method offers a more complete and full-bodied tea drinking experience for connoisseurs that enjoy the history and culture of tea. The Western method is more suitable for beginner tea consumers and those who wish to quickly brew one cup and get back to the tasks of the day.
Oolong tea is traditionally brewed the Chinese way using a yixing teapot or a gaiwan. These vessels are small, and use a concentrated amount of oolong tea leaves. Leaves are brewed for a short period of time, but the process is repeated several times for multiple small cups. Yixing pots and gaiwans are traditionally placed on slotted bamboo trays for clean preparation and easy serving.
A yixing teapot is a traditional tea brewing pot made from clay sourced from the Jiangsu province of China. Yixing teapots are designed for brewing oolong tea as well as black tea, pu-erh tea and white tea. The clay pots absorb tea with each steeping, leading to a coating that resembles the flavor and color of the tea.
Each teapot should only be used for one type of tea in order to best preserve and develop the rich flavor profiles. You should also avoid washing yixing pots with soap since this will dramatically alter the flavor coating and result in less flavorful tea brews.
A gaiwan is a lidded bowl without handles that is used along with a saucer to brew traditional Chinese teas. Developed by the Ming dynasty, these tea vessels date back centuries and are typically made of porcelain or glass. The large opening allows tea drinkers to visually enjoy oolong tea brews while the glazed surface prevents flavor alterations if used to brew different types of teas.
To use a gaiwan properly, hold the saucer with your fingers under and thumb resting on top of the saucer. Use your left hand to hold the lid and gently move the leaves when drinking.
Oolong tea can also be prepared Western-style by simply using any teapot you have on hand. While the experience won't be as culturally complete as the Chinese method, the Western brewing technique allows you to enjoy oolong tea even when you're in a hurry.
Here, we'll focus on the Asian method of oolong tea brewing, but the Western method can be used as well. Simply pay attention to the proper amounts of tea, water temperature and steeping times to get the perfect cup of oolong tea.
Step 2: Prepare Tea Leaves
We recommend brewing oolong tea using loose leaves to develop the proper oolong flavors. You can still use oolong tea bag if you prefer the convenience, but understand that the quality and flavor will likely be inferior to loose leaf varieties.
Making a great cup of oolong tea means using the right amount of tea leaves for brewing. We recommend using 1 teaspoon of balled leaves or 2 tablespoons of loose leaf oolong for every 6 ounces of water. Four our metric readers, use 2 grams of tea for every 6 to 8 ounces of water.
Step 3: Prepare Water
It's important to use high quality water to achieve the proper flavors and aromas. Avoid distilled water since it can taste flat and doesn't develop tea flavors well. Tap water should also be avoided since water treatment chemicals such as chlorine can affect taste. Instead, use filtered water or spring water for the best results whenever possible.
To develop the best flavor profile of oolong tea, it's best to use hot water that is just shy of boiling. Aim to heat your water to 180 or 200 F for brewing. You can use a thermometer for the most accurate temperature control or simply allow boiling water to cool for a minute before adding to your clay teapot or vessel.
Once water reaches the proper temperature, fill your gaiwan or yixing cup about halfway, swirl and then discard the water. This initial water is used to cleanse the leaves and open them up for flavor release. Next, fill your tea vessel up.
Step 4: Steep
The general rule for oolong tea is to steep for 1 to 5 minutes. Longer steeping times can allow additional flavors to develop for a richer, more full-bodied tea. It's best to allow leaves to steep for 1 minute and then taste every 30 seconds to get the best flavor for your preferences. Pour into tea cups and enjoy!
Oolong tea is also often consumed in the West as an iced tea. Follow these same hot tea brewing techniques and then allow the tea to cool before serving. It's best to avoid brewing with cold water for iced tea since the low water temperature doesn't allow the full flavor profile to develop.