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As some of you might have noticed, I sometimes call the preparation, cultivation, and study of tea, the “art of tea”.
I don’t always do so as a form of flattery, but rather so as a convenience. I respect and love tea a great deal, it’s true. In certain ways, I believe it is an art form; however, in general, I tend to call it an art simply because there’s no set-in-stone way to do things. So when I call it an art, it’s because it’s not a science – because I need to call it something, and “the differing, yet equally legitimate methods of preparation, cultivation, and study of tea” reads rather clunky when you contrast the two.
Of all the lessons one must learn about tea, I firmly believe this is the most important one to grasp: after every single “rule” or “law” of tea, there is a lurking, invisible asterisk hovering in the top right hand side of it.
Instead of “Steep Japanese greens at a lower temperature than Chinese greens” read it “Steep Japanese greens at a lower temperature than Chinese greens*”
The footnote, if you’re wondering, would read something like “*Sometimes” or “*If it’s to your liking” (As an aside, I have encountered people successfully steeping Japanese greens at a boiling temperature – a total blasphemy as viewed by the tea community)
I feel this needs addressing for two reasons. Firstly, as a selfish way, I want you to understand that all of the techniques I use; all of the techniques I teach you, won’t always work for everybody. Indeed, I have gotten praises from the community for write-ups like my Casual Gongfu Tea Preparation, but I have also gotten a few nasty messages regarding them. The first reason is so you can understand that my suggestions are not laws. They are suggestions.
The second reason is a more troubling one; other people are not as humble about their tea knowledge. From mall tea boutiques spewing out falsities to sell you stuff (I have been outright lied to before in an attempt to make commission) to individuals too prideful to admit their way might not be as iron-clad as they imagine. There are plenty of people who can and will tell you false information, and attempt to write it off as fact.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have encountered many genuine, friendly people within the tea community. They are extraordinary knowledgeable, and I would count them as true masters of the art of tea.
And I’ve also encountered plenty of people who are less friendly and more pretentious. They, unfortunately, are also almost always the ones who try to push their knowledge onto you.
There are no set rules for tea. There are guidelines, true. There are ways to treat the art. These ways will usually turn out more agreeable than not, it’s true. However, there are no rules.
The topic today is bagged tea. Many tea snobs condemn them, but why? Do they truly have a reasonable justification for their distaste? Is it wholly unwarranted? Personally, I value loose leaf more than bagged tea. I find it makes a higher quality drink, but why is that? I wanted to delve beyond the superficial lair and find out.
First some history. The story goes that in the early 1900s, a New York tea vendor named Thomas Sullivan wanted to make some product samples for his customers. He got together a bunch of silk bags, to put a quantity of tea into them for an easy distribution. It was apparently a common misunderstanding, upon receiving this, that the silk bag was meant to replace the tea pot as a means of steeping. Many people did this and became enamoured with the new convenience. Being the go-getting American businessman Sullivan was, he modified the design of the bag, and subsequently went into mass production in the 1920s. Thus, the tea bag was born.
This brings up an interesting question. If Sullivan’s customers (conceivably) found little difference in quality between the two means of steeping, why do modern day tea connoisseurs do so vehemently?
The first thing to consider is leaf size. Does this have an affect on the outcome of the beverage? Tea bags generally use tea dust or tea fannings, which is why the leaves in tea bags generally look small. In production of tea leaves, they sieve the leaves down until the smallest particles remain, and estates sometimes sell these otherwise useless particles to companies wishing to produce tea bags.
But does size of the leaf truly have that much of a difference? Say if you had a genuine piece of Kobe beef. You cooked it up, and you had the option to either:
A) Eat the slice whole.
B) Cut the slice up before eating.
Even though some may have preferences, why would have a difference in quality? It’s still the same piece of meat, just prepared differently. Hypothetically there should be no difference in taste.
I wanted to test this in regards to tea bags. I measured out two identical samples of tea. Both second flush Darjeeling I got from Capital Tea. I thought this would be a good candidate, because it’s a resilient steeper, but still requires some attention in order for it to taste good.
I crushed the first sample up into particles the same size of tea fannings.
And I left the second sample whole. I used identical water temperature, an identical brewing method (the French press), identical tea, identical water quality. The only thing I left nonidentical is the steeping time and the size of the leaves. Smaller particles of tea require less of a steeping time. Think about them like sponges. If you had a sopping wet, tiny sponge and squeezed water out of it, it would take a shorter time to drain than a larger sponge. Larger tea leaves require more time to steep because it takes a longer time to extract the flavour, colour, and aroma from them, based on a similar principle. I steeped the whole leaves for two minutes, and I steeped the smaller leaves for a minute and forty seconds.
The tea fannings produced the steep on the left, and the whole leaves produced the steep on the right. As you will note, there is little difference in liquor colour. This was actually pretty remarkable to me, as tea bags can often produce a murky-looking liquor. This meant the leaves themselves were not necessarily to blame for that fact – a quality which many people cite for the reason they dislike bagged tea.
The aroma of the wet leaves shocked me, too. The liquor colour was a good first sign, but there was almost no depth of aroma in the tea fannings. It was flat, and one of the only notes was a very sharp muscatel one. If you brew a cup of bagged black tea right now and smell it, you’ll get a similar smell to what I’m talking about. The whole leaves had a rich, depth of complex aromas to them. It almost didn’t seem like it came from the same dry leaves.
When I went onto tasting, it also came as a surprise. I feel confident that I steeped the leaves in an equivalent manor, but the tastes were not at all the same. The fannings were noticeably of a lesser quality. It tasted like a tea I would take with milk and sugar – flat and too astringent. The whole leaves were unsurprising. I have had almost 100g of this tea since February, and I know what it tastes like; it was a much better steep.
What this seems to indicate is that there is actually a correlation between leaf size and taste. It may be a matter of devising a way to accommodate for the smaller particles, however. The size of coffee grind matters when brewing a cup, so it isn’t a stretch to think the same could be said for tea. The leaf size can come from the same leaf, but this tasting seems to indicate the particle size does not translate to loose-leaf brewing techniques.
I want to bring up a final note to the leaf they use for bagged tea. Generally, large tea producers have many expert tea tasters on staff. Their goal is not to find the best tea and use it, but to actually find a pretty average tea, with no unique qualities. This is for consistency’s sake. If they kept getting better each year, eventually they would plateau, and their product quality would go down. It’s better to keep it at a manageable, average quality.
Next we have the actual bag. The material matters greatly, as it can have unintended changes to the taste of your tea. Paper, plastic, cloth, and metallic materials are all used in tea, and all can add flavours to your cup. Nylon, maybe less so, but there’s always the argument that heating up plastic to that temperature can introduce carcinogens to your tea. From my experience, the paper and cloth affect the taste the most. Nylon or other synthetic materials aren’t bad taste-wise, but they are something to be aware of, if you are worried about carcinogens.
The way they attach the string can matter, too. Sometimes, they glue it on. Glue, as you might suspect, can melt in boiling water. So when you sit down to enjoy a nice cup of tea, you are also possibly drinking glue. Otherwise, common methods are staples. I can’t say I know about the type of metal they use, so I can’t speak on it. What I will say, though, is that in tea steeping we aim for total, pure immersion from the dry leaves into the water. Anything that gets in the way with it will affect the taste. That’s partly why a French press works so well as a steeping method. Total, pure immersion.
Some people will say that the size of the tea bag prevents the leaves from expanding fully, similarly to how a tea ball can. In my experience, I have seldom found that to be an issue, as the particles are so tiny, they hardly expand. Sometimes I notice the tea bag is bulging in every which corner, but modern tea producers are quite conscious of this.
Lastly, I want to address the economic values of tea bags. For a box of 100 Lipton green tea bags, you can buy it for $14.28 without shipping. This translates to about $.014 per tea bag. If you contrast this to loose leaf tea, it’s not necessarily an indicator of economic viability. If you shop right, loose leaf can be even cheaper. For a higher quality green tea from Adagio you can purchase 16oz of tea for $24.00 plus shipping. This translates to not only about 180 cups of tea, but also, according to them, is only $0.12 per cup. It isn’t always the case, but you can certainly get better quality loose leaf tea for cheaper than bagged tea. A lot of money in bagged tea actually goes towards the packaging.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not fully against tea bags. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, it’s just that they tend to be a worse idea for all of those reasons. There is the convenience issue for people, which I understand. Sometimes you’re too tired. If you invest in a tea infuser or French press (Like, $3-$20, respectively) I personally think it’s quite convenient in its own right. You only have to open the tin, scoop some leaves in, and add hot water. With a tea bag, you open the package, put the bag in the cup, and add hot water. It’s really only measuring out which troublesome, and I don’t think that’s a big issue.
I have a solution for those of you who want the best of both works.
These guys! Just take like twenty minutes measuring the right amount, and you’ll have high quality, loose leaf tea bags. They are biodegradable, tasteless, and work like a charm. They’re also great if you’re travelling.
And that’s my comparison between tea bags and loose leaf.
I needed a break of the “genres of tea” posts I’m doing. They’re getting a little dry to write all at once, and they’re probably getting dry to read, too. For this reason, I want to give you a little variety. I want to touch on something more exciting and lively – casual gongfu tea preparation.
Gongfu shares the name with the martial art kung fu. The name means “with skill and precision” So, the gongfu tea preparation method means “tea preparation with skill and precision”
It’s one the the greatest ways to prepare tea, and I firmly believe every tea drinker should try it. It’s a lot of work and experimentation, so some may be adverse to taking up the art, but if you do, you will most assuredly not be disappointed. You get much better tastes and aromas, in a way cooler atmosphere. Plus, it’s fun.
I say it’s a lot of work and experimentation; however, this post will give you a considerable advantage, and will hopefully start you off in gongfu with a passion and excitement, rather than a frustration.
There are no set directions to do casual gongfu, but I am giving you a good starting point, and you will have no problem adjusting and growing from what this post will leave you with.
So, here goes.
The basic premise of gongfu steeping is: more leaves, shorter steeping time, accurate, consistent temperature, and a small steeping vessel.
You will need a certain couple things for the gongfu steeping method, though not as many as you might imagine. In fact, the only real accoutrements you need are a steeping vessel, and a small cup.
I also recommended a serving vessel to decant your steeped tea into, a cloth, as you will inevitably spill tea (A dark cloth is the best, as stains are less visible,) a tea board, which is essentially a flat surface to put all of your accoutrements when steeping, and a fine strainer, which will catch small tea particles when decanting. There are many optional accoutrements, but none of them are necessary for a casual preparation.
When choosing a steeping vessel, you should go for a gaiwan or a small tea pot. I use a glass tea pot I got at DavidsTea. I love it, as I can monitor the steep constantly if I choose to. You can get one here. You may want to invest in a yixing tea pot (later post will explain this fully in my own words,) but I would recommend avoiding them until you explore tea and know what you want; you can only steep one kind of tea in a yixing, and is not a good investment for newcomers.
Your steeping vessel should be between 90ml-160ml or so. If you are expecting to only prepare for yourself, a smaller vessel is better. For a group, a larger one. As I mentioned, you only need a vessel and a cup. This is a very small investment. Less than $10 if you shop wisely. My recommendation would be to go to China town and check out kitchenware shops.
To my Toronto readers: You can get a 150ml (or so) gaiwan and a cup for about $7. I can get you the exact shop name, even. It is seriously not a big investment.
Where it can get pricey is in tea. Chinese tea of all varieties is best for the gongfu method. Taiwanese tea is good for gongfu, also. Other growing regions should be avoided, honestly, unless you’re confident/willing to experiment. It may work, but there’s a good chance it won’t. The investment isn’t bad if you go the right shops. Even if it’s an amazing tea, it can be priced $0.50 per steeping session. Adagio Teas has extremely affordable, good quality tea. You can get some of this tea for $0.10 per steeping session.
Now, at a later post I will go into excruciating detail about proper water quality, but it is too intimidating for this venue, so I will spare you at present. To get a crash course, most tap water is too hard to use for tea. The best water comes from a natural spring source, but obviously that’s not available to most. I would recommend using filtered water or bottled water. Brita filters work lovely as an affordable, quality option.
Now that you have your accoutrements and the water, you need to consider the temperature of the tea. Sometimes the vendor will give you steeping instructions, but sometimes they won’t. If they don’t, fear not! I have prepared a chart for common ranges of temperature. All of these teas are approximate. If your tea tastes too bitter or burnt, your temperature might be too high. Adjust as necessary.
White: 80-90c (176-194f) is a good range for white tea. As I mentioned in the white tea post, it’s a resilient tea to steep, but you will enjoy it more if it’s within that range.
Green: 80-85c (176-185f) Keep in mind this applies to only Chinese greens. Japanese greens are usually steeped at a lower temperature.
Oolong: 90-95c (194-203f)
Dark tea: 90-100c (195-212f) I typically like to do 95 degrees Celsius (203f) Dark tea is post-fermented black tea like pu-erh.
All of that is well and good if you have a variable temperature kettle, but what if you don’t? Temperature is extremely important in gongfu, so are you out of luck if you don’t have a fancy kettle? Nope!
There is a way to “read the bubbles” in order to determine the temperature. it’s easier than you might expect (if you find someone like me to do the dirty work for you.) There is an actual Chinese system for determining temperature, but I find it sort of vague. I put together a system for you that I find more accurate, which is based on the Chinese system. No need to spend $100+ on a variable temperature kettle. Please keep in mind that these temperatures are approximate. Also keep in mind that I am not ragging on variable temperature kettles. I use one and I love it.
For this system, you need to be able to look into your kettle. This can be achieved either with a glass kettle, or opening the top of your electric kettle to peer in. You can even do this on a stove top with a pot of water. I hoped to be able to get pictures, but had some issues with lighting. Hopefully I’ll get them at a later date. These descriptions may seem hard to comprehend at first, but I trust you’ll find it easier if you attempt this system. I designed it to be pretty instinctual, so the first time you notice the description, you’re going to be safe to stop the kettle.
80° (176°F): At this temperature, small bubbles are just starting to form on the bottom of your kettle. There aren’t many, and they don’t break the surface. They just sort of appear, then disappear.
85° (185°F): Those same bubbles at 80° are still appearing at the bottom of the kettle, but in a slightly higher frequency. The temperature has been reached when the tiny bubbles are just starting to break the surface of the water. Just a few bubbles, though, not many.
90° (194°F): Bubbles between 85° and 90° are starting to get considerably bigger. All of a sudden, you will notice, there is an occasional few bubbles which appear to be 5x bigger than the first ones. 90° has been reached when the large bubbles have almost entirely replaced the small ones.
95°(203°F): Water at the top is now consistently “wobbly” The bubbles consistently break the surface.
100°(212°F): Usually your kettle will indicate when this temperature is reached, but if not, then get a better kettle. The water is wobbling out of control at this point, and even larger bubbles break the surface. If unsure if boiling has been reached, wait several seconds. If it’s still wobbling out of control, then boiling has been reached.
As a final note on this, it’s a good idea to bring the temperature a few degrees above the suggested steeping temperature. You’d be surprised how quickly tea temperature falls. If you have your kettle near the area you’ll be steeping, then keep the water in the kettle. If not, then decant it into a warmed thermos or teapot. If you’re in comfortable company, use a tea cozy.
Plus they’re adorable.
Amount of Tea:
As a rule of thumb, use 2g-2.5g of tea, unless it’s an oolong or dark tea, in which case use five grams. This is a good starting point. If you don’t have a scale, don’t panic! I have a solution for that, too. Simply, get your steeping vessel and scoop leaves into it, until the bottom is more-or-less entirely covered.
This system is an incredible starting point; almost on par with the weight. Take the leaves out, because it’s time for warming.
Let’s Get It Started:
It’s kind of a show-off-y thing if it’s an especially good tea, but in a good way. Like a “You’re so important to me, I’m going to serve you this great tea” sort of way. It’s also a good opportunity to do a dry leaf analysis, if that’s your thing. While you are passing the tea leaves around, you need to warm you accoutrements. Warm your steeping vessel, your serving vessel, and your cups. Again, consistent temperature is important in gongfu.
Now, dump the tea in and get r’ going. An interesting thing to note is that the leaves take on a much stronger scent in the warmed steeping vessel. If you put the lid on, make sure it’s secure, and shake it up, it will have a very strong scent. Feel free to pass that around to your guests, and smell the leaves again. You’ll be glad you did.
If it’s an oolong or a dark tea, you’re going to need to do a tea rinse. A tea rinse is where you pour water into the vessel over the leaves, then immediately pour it out. This “awakens” the leaves, and makes it taste way better. You might want to do a tea rinse if your tea is an older one – say, encroaching on a year – but besides that, it is not necessary.
This is the place where it gets a little fuzzy. The annoying answer is “it depends.” I’ve tried to give you a better answer than that, though.
The longer version is that it depends on the amount of leaves, the type of tea, and the size of the steeping vessel. Since we’re using my standardized amount of leaves, don’t worry about that part. Also, we’re not going to consider the types of tea right now, either. So, what is left, then, is the size of your steeping vessel. For my 150ml vessel, I steep my leaves for around 1 minute and thirty five seconds. If it’s an unknown tea, I pour a bit out to check how it’s tasting. This is totally acceptable, though if you are in a group, puts some pressure on you because your guests are now expecting utter perfection. Usually it isn’t exactly that time, so I adjust as I see fit. For subsequent steeps, add five or ten seconds. After three steeps, you may want to go steep even longer, as the time will increase exponentially. Basically, use it as a guideline, and practice. This is the hardest part of gongfu, in my opinion.
For vessels not of 150ml, adjust to scale. For instance, for my 90ml vessel, I steep about 55 seconds, and adjust to scale for subsequent steeps. Use this method as a starting point. It won’t always be identical to this scale, but think of it as a recipe. Start to scale, and make notes. Adjust as you see fit.
Finally it’s time to serve and drink! Decant your tea into your serving vessel. If you’re a show-off, you can do what I do.
Annnnnnnd a video.
Be warned, though. You will probably burn yourself when attempting this for the first little while. Also, not all vessels are appropriate for this, If your tea leaks everywhere (and it wasn’t just because you burned yourself,) then maybe don’t do it the flourish-y way.
Fill their cup up, but not to the very top. They’ll burn their hands if there’s no cool place to grab.
If you do not have a serving vessel, you need to decant the tea directly into their cups. You do this by lining up the cups, and running the stream of tea back and fourth between all of them. You need to do this because otherwise your guests will get a different concentration of tea. You can’t fill up each cup individually. Here’s a video demonstration of what I am blabbing about.
If it’s a gaiwan, be ready to spill things everywhere while you’re learning.
When serving your guests, hand them their cup with one hand. Psychologically, this is a nice subtly. If you hand them their cup with both hands, many guests will actually pick the cup up with two hands, which is an awkward way to drink. If you have some tea tongs, you may use them instead. They’re nice to use because your fingers don’t get in what they’re about to drink.
But they’re not necessary.
If you’re wondering what the proper grip for the cup is whilst drinking, by the way… Thumb and index finger go on the lip of the cup, and middle finger supports the bottom of the cup. You may choose to curl your other fingers in, or you may choose to extend them.
Traditionally, men curl their fingers in, and females extend them outward, but in my opinion that’s an arbitrary gender role. Do whatever feels comfortable.
Fill up your guests’ cups whenever they are done with the tea, but avoid rushing it. If you jump every time your guest finishes their cup, they’ll feel pressured and uncomfortable. Gongfu is supposed to be comfortable.
Here’s a nice final note to this section. Your guests might feel obligated to say “thank you” every time you fill up their cup. Since you will be doing this many times throughout your visit, it can really break up the flow of conversation, and break the mood – similar to how it can feel awkward when a waiter comes and interrupts your conversation in a restaurant.
To this, I offer a solution. In gongfu, “thank you” is simply replaced by tapping the table or tea board three times such as this.
You may want to inform your guests of this, as a replacement to a “thank you”.
As a side note, you can do this in traditional Chinese restaurants, as well. You’ll notice Chinese service method is different than that of the Western world. They can seem curt and impersonal to us westerners, but they aren’t. They just don’t want to break the flow of mealtime conversations. So, just tap the table three times if you want to say thank you.
Some Final Notes:
All of my guidelines are simply just that. Guidelines. You will need to troubleshoot your steep, depending on your tea. Standardization does not always apply. That’s why tea is an art and not a science.
To address some common problems, if your leaves taste burnt, try a lower temperature. If your leaves taste bitter and leave an unpleasantly dry taste in your mouth, lessen the steep time. What your tasting are known as tannins, and they’re pretty yucky. If your steep is too strong or not strong enough, and you have already tried the adjusting the steep time, you have a problem with the quantity of leaves. Adjust as necessary.
Guangdong Dan Cong Oolong: In addition to being childishly gratifying to say aloud, oolong tea from this Chinese growing region is truly a treasure. Tea leaves are picked from wild tea bushes; intentionally ill-maintained bushes, sometimes upwards of three hundred years old and twenty feet tall, grown from seed. These teas are a medium to dark oolong, and because of the aged trees, the leaves have many strong aromas and flavours. Ageing tea from this region is not uncommon, and some of the most appreciated oolongs come from this location. Dan Cong translates to One Bush, and it refers to a trait which makes this tea post a challenge to do thoroughly; each tea is processed differently, depending on the tree. In other words, there are as many Dan Cong teas are are Dan Cong trees. For that reason, I am going to list only the most popular ones. These teas are most known for their ability to naturally imitate flavours and scents of flowers. These teas are usually a tricky brew, and I would not recommend trying unless you’re confident in your skills – especially because they can be expensive.
Feng Huang: Translates to Phoenix Mountain. Honestly, this such an umbrella term, it almost covers the whole category of Dan Cong itself. These teas are grown at a high altitude – more than fifteen hundred metres – and apparently, leaves are reserved in advanced by rich connoisseurs with connections. That being said, they are not impossible to come by at all, however, they can be expensive. A good tea will have a strong, lasting aftertaste, and a good Feng Huang meets this requirement if steeped correctly. These teas can be aged, which is something to note, as ageing is usually not done outside of Chinese dark teas (more on these at a later post.) Fragrances and tastes are usually very floral, but a specific flower such as a honey orchid. It all depends on the kind of Dan Cong. I don’t want to discourage any of you, but these types of teas are usually a difficult brew to the point in which you have to start worrying about the water’s PH levels, how long the tea has been aged, and an apt knowledge of water temperature and steeping theory (again, more on all of those in later posts.) A misstep could ruin the steep, leaving you with a bitter taste, and will probably just end up frustrating to you. If you haven’t done a lot of gong-fu style steeping before, I would recommend you start with some Anxi oolongs and work your way up.
Mi Lan Xiang: Translates to Snow Orchid. According to Seven Cups, this is the most popular Dan Cong. This tea involves a growing method which excites me the greatly. Seriously, I’m pretty sure I tell everybody about this. Because I apparently assume plants excite others as much as they do me. In the winter months, orchids grow right next to these tea bushes. As a result, this tea has a natural orchid fragrance and taste, just because orchids grow in the proximity of this tea bush. This is a dark oolong.
Huang Zhi Xiang: Translates to Yellow Sprig. This tea is usually a bit less expensive, so it’s a good introduction to Dan Congs. It is a champagne oolong, and quite mellow.
Recommended Tea Dealers:
Anxi Oolongs: Again, similar to the Wu Li Rock Mountain oolongs, Anxi oolongs are grown in the Fujian province. Unlike the Wu Li Rock Mountain oolongs, they are typically on the lighter end of roasting, and as a result are usually classified as green oolongs. Below is a list of the most common Anxi oolongs and their attributes. There are a number of fake Anxi teas hovering around in the market, so be sure to buy from a good dealer. These are exceptional candidates for Yixing teapots and the Gong-Fu steeping method in general (more on those at a later post.) Fortunately, unlike Wu Yi Rock Mountain oolongs, these teas are generally a forgiving steep, and easy to prepare.
Tie Guan Yin: Translates to Iron Goddess. It is the most famous Anxi oolong. It’s a light tea, sometimes mistakenly labelled as a green tea. It can taste crisp, bright, and floral. Sometimes mellow. There are many varieties on this kind of oolong, so it’s almost a subcategory in itself (which as a side note, is the same for many oolongs) It’s among my favourite teas. According to legend, there was a poor farmer who once went on a contemplative walk to a temple. At the temple, there was an iron statue of a goddess standing erect and commanding, amongst the otherwise dilapidated temple. The farmer thought the temple ought to be in better condition, as it was housing a statue of a goddess. He couldn’t afford to rebuild the temple, but went back the next day with a broom and some incense. He swept away all the twigs and the dust; did the best he could without spending money. He then offered the incense to the statue, and went on his way. The farmer repeated this process every so often, almost becoming a caretaker for the temple. One visit, the goddess spoke to him. She told him there was a treasure behind the temple, and he should look to go to find it. The farmer did, and the treasure was a cutting from a tea bush. The farmer planted them, cultivated them, and got filthy rich. The tea, as a nod to the goddess, was named Tie Guan Yin.
Ma Liu Mi: Translated as – and I will say perhaps a bit misleadingly – Monkey Picked Oolong tea. I will firstly say these leaves are not picked by monkeys, despite what the odd mall-boutique tea dealer will try to imply. Often these are blends of various Anxi oolongs, though they may not always be. A good dealer will be able to tell you if it is blended or not. It tastes extremely light, usually, and floral; a descriptor which is common for green oolongs. It is a very green oolong, so it could be a gentle introduction to oolongs, for you green and white tea drinkers out there. According to legend, there was a tea bush on a mountain, which happened to produce extraordinary tea. The mountain was too difficult to climb by themselves, so they decided training monkeys to pick the leaves for them was less effort. I dislike outing specific tea dealers; I instead like to recommend good ones. But I can’t go on with a good conscious without mentioning this. I don’t think I’ll publish it in my book, but I need to say it at least in my blog. I have found that Teavana greatly misleads you about their monkey picked oolong. I have been flat outright told that theirs was officially the best oolong in the world, and have been told monkeys pick this tea. And though they’re tricky with the wording, they also highly imply the same thing on their website. These things simply are not true. They gravely overcharge for this tea, and lead you to believe – quite convincingly if you’re not yet a shrewd judge of tea – that it’s picked by monkeys. I have heard this complaint again and again, and I’ve heard of many a times people are tricked into spending more money than it’s worth. You are able to get much higher quality monkey picked oolong for greatly lower prices at the dealers I list at the bottom of the page. But of course this is just my opinion, and I don’t claim this as fact (he-he-he, try suing for libel now, Teavana)
Huangjin Gui: Translated as Golden Osmanthus, as it tastes and smells similar to osmanthus flowers. Because I like flowery teas, this also goes up on my list of favourite oolongs. Depending on the tea, it has honey notes to them. It’s a green, sprightly oolong that tastes like honey and osmanthus. It tastes as appealing as it sounds.
Li Li Xiang: Translated to Every Leaf Fragrant. Similar to the monkey oolongs, it is often blended with other Anxi oolongs, though that means it usually is a bit less expensive. It makes for a lovely every day oolong tea, which you don’t have to break the bank buying. It usually tastes pretty “standard” for green oolongs, meaning floral and fruity; of apricots or other stone fruits.
Reccomended Tea Dealers
Though some say oolong tea is oxidized anywhere from 1%-99%, – and given the definition of a semi-oxidized tea, they’d be right – it nearly always ranges from 10%-85%. A green oolong refers to the lighter variety of that range. It’s also known as a light oolong. or jade oolong; however, jade also refers to a particular kind of green oolong, so its usage is not recommended as a synonym to the previously mentioned terms. A dark oolong refers to the darker portion of that range, and less commonly, a champagne oolong refers to the middle potion. The official Chinese translated spelling is wulong, and you will see both spellings when dealing with the tea community. It’s entirely about preference, which seems to be true for many tea terms, as the community is usually a fairly laid back one.
As my teacher put it, “oolong teas are the most arts-and-crafts” and arguably, he is correct. With a range of 75% oxidation to take in account for, in addition to the already complicated tea production process, you truly have to know what you’re doing in order to make these teas. If tea is an art, then oolongs are one of the most impressive mediums you can use in serving and production.
Oolong tea was invented sometime around 1650 A.D. My favourite origin myth is as follows: a tea farmer was busy picking leaves, and there happened to be a deer wandering around his garden. The farmer was so taken by the deer’s beauty, he got distracted and couldn’t help but observe it for a while. He observed it for such a long time, the tea leaves partially oxidized. Panicked, he fired the leaves immediately after, and thus, oolong was born.
If not by taste, you can usually tell an oolong’s quality based on observation of the wet, unfurled leaf: they should look healthy, fresh, and tender. If the leaves look too old, it probably means the leaves were picked later in the year and aren’t a good quality (note: will do comparison picture before publication.) Oolong plucks are a nontraditional, ranging anywhere from three to five leaves, compared to the standard “two leaves and a bud” pluck in regular tea picking. Oolongs are usually good for several steeps, and are exceptional candidates for Yixing tea pots or gaiwans.
The four most common oolong growing regions, the teas, and their attributes are as follows.
Wu Yi Rock Mountain: This is a Chinese region located in Fujian, which is one of the more renown tea growing regions. I find that all of these teas make wonderful, hearty winter teas.
Da Hong Pao: Translated to Big Red Robe. The most famous oolong for Wu Yi Rock Mountain, and for good reason. This is a dark oolong, and tastes toasty, smooth, sweet, and some traditionally produced da hong pao will taste smoky, as its roasted over charcoal briquettes. According to Wikipedia, a crop of da hong pao once sold for $1,250,000 per kilogram. Usually it’s not quite that expensive, but, there’s an impressive anecdote nonetheless.
Shui Xian: The English name is Narcissus, as the leaves have a flowery aroma and notes in its taste, comparable to that of a Narcissus flower. Originally it’s not from Wu Yi Rock Mountain, but the tea was transplanted to its current location. The tea is a dark oolong, and it’s full-bodied and floral. In Chinese restaurants, they will often have this tea, though it will more often go by the name “Shui Hsien” so be on the lookout.
Rou Gui: Translated to Cassia, which is a type of cinnamon. Good rou gui is a difficult steep to accomplish, but it’s astounding if you get it right. It’s a dark, roasted oolong, and can have chocolate and cinnamon notes to it. To add another level of complexity to serving this tea, you need to age some kinds of rou gui in order to get a better flavour.
Huang Guan Yin: Translated to Yellow Goddess. This is a new tea; only ten years old. It was a hybrid experiment done by tea scientists to combine two different oolong bushes (Ti Guan Yin and Huang Jin Gui.) It has flavours reminiscent of osmanthus and stone fruits such as apricot, all tied together with a sweet flavour and long aftertaste. It is a green-champagne oolong.
Recommended Dealers for Wu Yi Rock Mountain Oolong: