Meet Oolong Tea

Welcome to the party! An intimate get-together, I know. I’ve already introduced you to two of my best friends.

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Next: Comes Green Tea. He is so peaceful and perfect. The kind of guy you want around when you are dreaming your great dreams. He reminds you to be in the moment and find the simple beauty of breathing and moving about on this planet. He is also great at writing a Haiku! Green tea can be that breath of fresh air you wanted for any hour or situation.

Now I have to make a new introduction. This guy is different than the others. You might go grab a beer with Black Tea and he’s there for you. You might want to take Green Tea to the art gallery or on a long country walk. Actually, you could do both with either of those guys and they will do great. This other guy…he’s a little different. His name is Oolong.

Don’t get me wrong! Oolong is a great guy, and you can call him up anytime in the same tea cup/tea bag combo with nearly boiling water for three to five minutes and take him anywhere. You won’t be sorry, and you won’t mistake him for the others. He is earthy and complex. But if you really want to get to know him you have to be ready to get into a longer conversation.

Black Tea and Green Tea are comparatively easy to get to know…but if you want to get to know Oolong you may need to prepare yourself to make a bit more of an investment. You may need to invest in making sure you have the time for a conversation in a few stages. Also, you are very likely going to want to invest in the right apparatus to draw the most out of him. Not that you need it…it just might come out better that way.

You see, Oolong is that guy with secrets. He doesn’t have dark secrets, but rather a part of himself which he won’t reveal to just anyone. He waits to make sure someone really wants to know who he is before sharing the depths of his soul.

Finding Oolong

To meet this guy you may have to venture off the beaten path.  A professional tea retailer can point to you to a good Oolong.  As with each of the other fellows to whom I have introduced you, there is a great deal of variety.  For this meeting you are looking for an Oolong that is dark and balled up. Not quite pearls, but the leaves should be huddled in tight upon one another.  If you are getting advice from a professional you want a leaf that has good potential for a “gong-fu tea ceremony”.

Preparing the Meeting

This is where a proper gong-fu tea set can be helpful. You can actually acquire a basic set fairly easily on online retailers for less than twenty USD.  Still, you can enjoy this experience with just your regular tea cup and strainer or tea pot.

While you heat your water you can prepare the tea.  Set aside at least three times the amount of tea that you would for an ordinary cup of tea (i.e. 3 tsp/6 oz mug).  Eventually you learn to eyeball this figure based upon your experience with that tea.  You want to examine your tea.  Hold it in your hand.  Smell it.  What do you expect from this cup of tea?

Use your warm water to heat the pot, or cup, with which you will be working.

The Pre-meeting Soak

You don’t want to meet this guy if he is all bound up. He needs a moment to unwind before he is really ready to tell his story. So you want to pour some nearly boiling water over him and soak him for 10 seconds or so and then get him out of the water. Take your tea out of the water and examine it. Smell it again as it has opened up a bit. Now your new friend is relaxed, and his guard is down. Now he is ready to tell you everything that no one else gets to know. Don’t drink the water from the rinse. Give it a smell and throw it out. That is not your cup of tea.

The First Meeting

The time has come! Pour the nearly boiling water over the tea and cover it to steep and begin the count. I would suggest about 25 seconds (yes, just 25 seconds) as a good starting point. Once you have reached the time limit remove the tea from the water, or the water from the tea (depending on what brewing method you are using). Now sniff the tea deeply and sip it loudly. What do you taste? What do you smell? Is it earthy and rich? Is it deep and floral? There can be such variety in this tea it is amazing. It should not be bitter. If it is that means that less brew time is needed.

A Word on the Method

In a traditional ceremony the cups are very small. Westerners may think of them as little more than a thimble. In this ceremony, tea is not drunk to satisfy thirst; neither is it to provide a caffeine fix. The purpose of this ceremony is to delight and challenge the pallet and provide a simple pleasure in a focused way.

It is worth noting that this is tea at its finest.  It can be enjoyed in private, but is far better to be enjoyed in the company of others.  Much like a proper British High Tea much of the pleasure comes from the company.  It is also helpful to have someone with whom you may compare experiences.

Second Meeting and on…

The process changes very little with each infusion. Examine the leaves briefly, add the nearly boiling water and remove it around the 25-30 second mark. Each infusion will be different. It is like having a long conversation about a deep issue, rather than just checking the high points to see where you agree and disagree. It is hammering every detail out together.

With Black Tea you got the whole brew all at once, and with Green Tea we just wanted the first minute or less, but with Oolang you can choose to meet the same leaves several times at distinctly different points in the infusion process. The first cup is likely to be a bit more perky and flavor forward. Going into the second and third cups you will notice more complexity rising out of the tea. The earthy base that dominated the first cup becomes increasingly more complex yet gentle.

Experts seem to disagree on which cup is the best. The third or fourth tend to be the standard answers. I find that it depends on the characteristics of the tea in use, and my skill in brewing said tea. The real answer is which one do you like the best?

A Good Conversation

A few fun facts about this style of tea brewing:

– “Gong-fu Cha” is the title of this style of brewing. I have read that this means “time and energy”. This is using craftsmanship – discipline even – to draw a unique and challenging experience from the tea leaf. It is a great pleasure, and the pleasure increases, but it does demand an investment. Needless to say these characteristics are indispensable to the gentleman.
– There are those currently, and throughout history, who are titled “tea masters”. Yes, their whole job is finding, selecting, and brewing the perfect cup of tea for those who can afford it. While I will never be a “tea master” (and you may never be one either) we are still privileged to be able to dabble in this end of the pool.

– There are many wonderful videos and instructions to be found detailing the needed supplies, history and purpose of this style of brewing.  I only wanted to give you a peek of the small part of this world which has been opened to me.

Again, there is no wrong way to make this acquaintance…Unless you didn’t like him. If you didn’t like him I would suggest trying again under different circumstances. Nevertheless, if this is your brew on the run first thing in the morning then bless you. There is no right way to enjoy this tea either; only a wizened tea master would know which I am not. It is my hope, however, that this article has invited you to appreciate something beautiful, something simple, and something that can add value to your life that cannot be measured either in money or time.

Thank you for taking this brief trip through a few different brewing styles. I have an earnest belief that good tea, enjoyed well, can contribute to your wisdom, your dignity and your quality of life. I hope that your experiences with tea make you increasingly like the Gentleman you were always meant to be.

Mr. Maston