Early in China’s Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Fujian tea producers began a new tea process, resulting in wulong—or oolong—teas. For these, three to four tea leaves are plucked along with the buds. These more mature leaves are able to stand up to the extensive processing steps that they undergo (see previous post).During this processing, the leaves are kept intact and are twisted (into curls) or rolled (into small balls, as shown above). Therefore, there must be ample room for the tight curls or balls to fully unfurl as they brew—you can clearly see why in the above photo of Sumatra Barisan, from Indonesia.
During the Ming period (1368–1644), tea was brewed in stoneware cups or bowls with a lid. Somewhere in the 1500s, Yixing red clay pots began to be used. These were ideal for green—and then oolong—tea. The tea was simply put into the pots, giving the leaves plenty of room to open up and release their full flavor.
The porosity of the clay conferred even more advantages—the clay absorbed the tea’s flavor and aroma. In 1685, Phillippe Dufour wrote that
the Chinese use for their infusion teapots made of a red clay . . . which they claim are better than any others (Mueller 2005).
When China began exporting tea to the West, they also sent their clay teapots—which were often embellished by the Europeans, as in this example.
But Europeans were soon clamoring for Chinese porcelain. With China only too happy to accommodate Western taste, porcelain teapots became all the rage in Europe, replacing the clay pot favored by the Chinese.
But, of course, the Chinese knew their tea!
As published in this month’s Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture, Liao et al. found that compared to ceramic, stainless steel, glass, and plastic teapots, Yixing clay teapots
produce tea infusions that are presumably less bitter and more fragrant and tend to contain more healthful compounds than tea infusions from other pots.
But with or without a Yixing pot, terrific oolong tea can be easily made. Just leave plenty of room for those leaves to open up.
Here I used a porcelain pot that has a web to hold back the tea leaves.
I added tightly rolled Sumatra Barisan leaves, which are a beautiful gold-green to jade green in color. They are, in fact, greener than more oolongs, just lightly oxidized. Therefore, I brewed them at around 194°F for 2 minutes. For a more oxidized oolong, you need boiling water.
The leaves soon began to fill the teapot.
You can see why a tea ball would be a really bad idea for this tea.
The brew is a lovely soft yellow color, with an amazing fragrance, and an incredible flavor. Oolongs are meant to be rebrewed—quite a few times! Each infusion will have its own particular flavor, and many prefer the second or third brews. There is a lot of room for experimentation.
Lisa, owner of TeaHaus, notes that for Sumatra Barisan, there is a “light grassiness in the first infusion, with a slightly floral note that is stronger in the second infusion, along with vegetal notes.” (Sumatra Barisan is available from TeaHaus.)
Already in 1880, a trade advertisement for oolong claimed that it was “an especial favourite with the tea-drinking public in America” (OED). Rightly so!
–Liao, Z-H, et al. “Effect of teapot materials on the chemical composition of oolong tea infusions,” Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture 90(2):751–757. January 2018.
–Mueller, S. M. “17th century Chinese export teapots: Imagination and diversity,” Orientations 36(7). 2005.
–Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. “Oolong.”