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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How to prepare oolong tea

I tend to enjoy and appreciate oolong tea more than other teas, not only because it helps to relive thirst, to digest, to stay awake and healthy but is also a sensuous and spiritual pleasure. The refined ceremonies that have developed over time for oolong tea require that one must be very particular about water, teaware, occasion, time and the people one shares with. That's why the preparation of oolong tea is also called gongfu (aka "kungfu") tea.

In china, gongfu has two meanings, one specific and one general: the specific meaning refers to certain martial arts, whereas the general meaning indicates something done with a high degree of skill - something that can only be learned with great dedication, i.e. lots of work.

Currently, there are three major styles of brewing oolong tea: Taiwan style, Fujian style, and Chaozhou/Shantou style. No matter which style, every little detail or step has a specific reason and needs to be done with care and precision. In addition, the special tea sets and the art of preparation are both enchanting and beautiful.

There is an old Chinese saying: Water is the mother of tea, teaware the father of tea. When you have a high quality loose tea, you'd better have good water and appropriate teaware in order to let the tea fully express itself - to exhibit its fragrance, flavor and character.

There are many different reasons to drink tea and different methods of preparation. If you are not ready to undertake the traditional art of oolong described below, you can always simplify.

Here are the fundamentals for both simple preparation and sophisticated gongfu tea style:

Water: Natural spring water is the best; pure water, mineral water or filtered water are also good. (Note: never use water that has been previously boiled and leave it to sit. Water as it boils looses oxygen, so allowing it to cool and reboil will affect the flavor of the tea leaves.)

Loose tea leaf quantity: Of course, this can be done according to taste, but the typical quantity of an oolong rolled into a ball (e.g. Tieguanyin, Dongding) is 1/3 to 1/4 of the teapot. If the tea leaves are long, twisted, light and loose (e.g. Wuyi cliff tea, Eastern Beauty), the quantity is half of the teapot.

Water temperature: Water should be at a medium boil, 203-212°F (95-100°C), which is called a "fish eyes" boil in Chinese. This is a higher temperature than that used for green tea, since oolongs are oxidized and more heat is needed for them to release their character.

Steeping time: This depends on the character of a particular oolong. Generally speaking, a ball-shaped oolong (e.g. Tieguanyin or Dongding) should be infused about 30-45 seconds for the first brew, and 45-60 seconds for the second - this time should be slightly extended for each subsequent brew. Wuyi cliff tea from northern Fujian and Phoenix Dancong from eastern Guangdong should only be steeped 15 seconds for the first infusion.

Number of infusions: For a properly brewed, good-quality tea, each pot can be infused more than 7 times and the third & fourth infusions (some people say second & third) typically have the best taste because the tea has fully opened and the flavor is well balanced.

Necessary tea implements for simple preparation:

* A pot or kettle (to boil the water)

* A teapot (Yixing clay teapots are best, a porcelain gaiwan or pot is also acceptable)

* Teacups (tiny Chinese teacups are best, especially when you use a clay teapot or gaiwan - the size, shape and material are designed to maximize one's appreciation of the tea's attributes)

* Strainer or tea infuser (some teapots come equipped with one)

Gongfu teaware accessories:

* All of the accessories listed above

* A tea tray

* Tea tools (1. a holder to keep the tools together, 2. a scoop for scooping loose tea, 3. a poker/pick to clean out the spout of teapots, 4. a scraper for scraping tea from the inside of teapots or to loosen tea cakes, 5. a funnel to help pour loose tea into little teapots without spilling, and 6. a pair of tongs for picking up hot teacups during the rinsing process.

* A pitcher (to balance the color, aroma and flavor of the tea, so the infusion poured into each teacup is consistent)

* Scent-smelling cups (to enjoy the aroma of the tea before the first sip)

Simple brewing method: This is similar to preparing a teabag tea, but it's important to maintain the fundamentals mentioned above and remember to separate the leaves from the water at the end of each infusion by lifting out the infuser or by straining the tea liquor from the teapot.

Steps for Kungfu tea:

1. Boil the water in the kettle.

2. Rinse and warm the tea set (teapot, pitcher, teacups and scent cups).

3. Add tea leaves to the teapot or gaiwan.

4. Rinse the tea leaves by quickly filling and emptying the teapot with boiling water (called "foot water" in Chinese) in order to remove dust specks and impurities. Another major purpose of this brief infusion (the "foot water") is to help open the tea more - the taste of this initial rinsewater is weak and unbalanced, and isn't worth drinking anyway. (Note: please only rinse the leaves for no more than three seconds - otherwise, you will begin to leach the nutrition and flavor from the tea.)

5. Refill the teapot with boiling water.

6. Remove any floating froth (the dust from the tea leaves) with the lid, then replace it.

7. Pour boiling water over the outside of the pot (to raise the pot's temperature and help to wake up the tea and release its fragrance more quickly).

8. Place the strainer on top of the pitcher and pour the tea into the pitcher.

9. Pour the tea from the pitcher into the scent cups.

10. Cover the scent cups with the teacups, then turn upside-down, so that the tea now sits in the tea cups, and each scent cup sits mouth-down inside a teacup.

11. Gently lift the scent cup from the teacup and smell the aroma.

12. Lift the teacup and taste the tea.

Since this is my blog, I'd like to mention that in my opinion, milk and artificial sweeteners should not be used with oolong! Adding milk or sweeteners is ok for black tea but not for oolong. An oolong is like a champagne or fine wine. One doesn't add milk to wine, does one?

Next, I'll write more tips about how to savor a cup of tea.


  1. Becky, thank you for presenting these steps so methodically. This gives me a list of the steps I watched you undertake when you prepared our tea. While I am likely to simplify somewhat, I can certainly testify that every step contributed to a truly exquisite cup of tea.

  2. ^_^ Thank you so much.

    hehe... Becky is a gongfu tea master ;>


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Seattle, WA, United States
I grew up with tea, and it continues to fill my life with so much beauty and discovery, pleasure, peace and friends. It is always leading me toward a greater understanding of culture, nature, myself and others. It is my hope to use this space to share the joy of tea and tea culture with you.