Oolong: The Pinot Noir of Teas

Like a lot of people, I drink a lot of coffee. I wake up, make a cup, and then I head to work, where I have another cup. Then I take part in my early afternoon ritual of a latte and biscotti, where I insert the latter into the former using a very practiced dipping technique developed over the course of a decade.

Tea is just so . . . unsexy. When I’m going to war in the office, I’ve always felt like relying on tea was the equivalent of bringing a pen knife to a sword fight. Sure, you can, in theory, get the job done; it’s just not as efficient.

And then a very fancy tea house opened up in my town. I’m not one to get suckered into fads, but everyone in it looks so damn serene when I walk by. So instead of having another cup of coffee, I decided to explore what tea has to offer.

Which is how I discovered oolong.

What Is Oolong?

Compared to some other teas, oolong has a mild taste. Like green tea and black tea, it comes from C. sinensis. Oolong’s unique taste profile is derived from how it’s processed. While green tea is picked and dried immediately, oolong tea is partially oxidated before it’s heated and dried. Black teas have louder, more tannic taste, thanks to heavier oxidation. That makes oolong a bit softer tasting, with a caffeine level that matches most green teas. And oolong tea is the only type of tea that is baked or roasted.

Benefits of Oolong

Oolong is rich in antioxidants and contains vitamins A, B, C, E, and K. It’s also rich in detoxifying alkaloids like folic acid and niacin. In addition to caffeine, oolong tea contains theophylline and theobromine, which help stimulate the nervous system. Since oolong is semi-oxidized, it can produce polyphenols to block the absorption of cholesterol. Oolong can also help dilate blood vessels, helping blood flow through arteries.

Brewing the Perfect Cup

There’s a moment in the movie Sideways where the main character, Miles, a struggling novelist and wine aficionado, justifies his commitment to pinot noir, a notoriously fickle wine grape.“Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression,” he says. And the same might be said about oolong tea. It really benefits from careful, almost ritualistic brewing.

So how can you brew the perfect oolong?

Step One: Pour the amount of tea you want into your vessel: a Chinese vessel called a gaiwan, comprised of a saucer, bowl, and lid. The gaiwan tends to work the best because Gaiwan porcelain absorbs the heat and does not damage the tea.

Step Two: Boil water to 100 degrees Celsius.

Step Three: Let the water cool for 15-30 seconds.

Step Four: Mindfully pour water using a circular motion to cover the tea.

Step Five and Beyond: A lot of tea drinkers can stop here, continuing to pour the tea until the vessel is full. Let the tea steep for between two and three minutes.

However, for tea drinkers with Miles-like passion, immediately strain the liquid, called a ‘rinse,’ and repeat the above steps, pouring another round of the boiled-and-slightly-cooled water onto the warmed leaves for a more flavorful tea experience.

Good teas should be able to sustain 3 to 5 brews.