We have finally welcomed the joyful spring season, filled with bright bits of green and bursts of sunshine. As we creep into the fresh spring air, consider taking tea along for the ride to double as a comforting sip and hand warmer. While green tea seems to be the chosen one in the American market, oolong teas have been patiently waiting their turn to take the stage. For a select few, oolong has risen to the top as a treasured favorite that’s tucked into tins and relished on special occasions.
Oolong teas are true works of art that are thoughtfully handcrafted in China and Taiwan and are respected as artisan steeps. They have been partially oxidized, which means after they are harvested, the leaves are bruised in order to expose their oils to air. Afterwards, they are heated and processed, and the leaves’ final flavors are set. Some leaves are even placed over charcoal to add and intensify smoked, woody notes.
While oolong teas can range from delicately green and floral to richly dark and roasted, the three featured below dip into the darker toasty side, with hints of fruit and nuances of honey. Layered flavors linger within leaves and unfold on your palate to reveal new complexities that ebb and flow through a series of infusions (yes, you can resteep these gems several times). Consider oolong as something to be slowly savored from daybreak into the afternoon hours.
The mystifying complexities that introduce themselves in the tea trio below send your senses from peaches and toasted nuts to crackling campfire wood with an overall earthy tone. As soon as you believe you’ve defined the flavors hidden in the leaves, a new note pounces on or gently sweeps across your taste buds.
Before you steep, let’s recall a few basic rules from my Beginner Steeps piece. For a quick summary, pay close attention to the recommended water temperature and steep time and use the right accessories for a proper steep. Stay away from tiny tea balls that suffocate leaves and opt for large infusers that let the leaves dance about and extract flavors. There is an art to the steep to achieve the perfect sip. Be sure to settle into your chair as the oolong leaves brew, breathing in the aroma and watching as the water is painted a faint gold, deep amber or brassy copper shade. Let the nuanced oolong flavors linger on your taste buds as they slowly unfold.
If you prefer to nibble while you steep, pair the warming and earthy oolong teas with grilled vegetables or baked fruit to complement the tea’s roasted notes. For a simply sweet approach, serve toast slathered with creamy butter and rich honey to pair with the nutty and orchid-like floral notes of the medium-roasted Tie Guan Yin. And if you’re feeling creative in the kitchen, swap water with the darker, woodsy Red Robe tea when making soups or cooking rice.
Oolong Tea Steeps
Red Robe Oolong – China
Also known as Red Hood or Da Hong Pao, the long, dark and twisted leaves brew to offer a smoky charcoal aroma (think lighting a grill in a fall forest). The richly roasted woodsy flavors are incredibly smooth and balanced by a bit of burnt brown sugar sweetness.
Brew 1 heaping teaspoon in 8 ounces of water at 195 degrees for 2 minutes.
Formosa Oolong – Taiwan
Often made with dark brown tea leaves and stems, this prized oolong is known for its deeply earthy aroma (reminiscent of fall scents), smooth feel on the palate and amber liquor. The slightly nutty and roasted flavors warm the palate and offer peach flavors with hints of rich honey and raisins.
Brew 1 teaspoon in 8 ounces of water at 200 degrees for 4 minutes.
Medium-Roasted Ti Guan Yin Oolong – Taiwan
The most delicate and floral of the three, this roasted oolong reveals toasted nut aromas and flavors that swell into a hint of honey that finishes with bright stone fruit notes (think peach) and leaves you with an orchid, floral bouquet that lingers long after the sip. These tightly coiled (and ever so slightly green) gems slowly unfurl through multiple infusions to release complex tastes.
Brew 1.5 teaspoons in 6 ounces of water at 210 degrees for 2 minutes and 30 seconds.