Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Gongfu Balled Oolong Cha • 工夫烏龍茶

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Intro to Gongfu balled Oolong Cha • 簡介工夫揉成團烏龍茶

The first step in any tea session, is deciding the appropriate pot for the tea to be prepared, or the other way around, if you have a particular pot you'd really like to use! For balled oolong, a high-profile pot, with a nice belly is preferable, since it gives the tea plenty of room to expand.

It can be difficult to judge the amount of tea leaves needed, as they tightly rolled beads appear deceptively small, but, in my opinion, it's better to add too few leaves than too many. Just enough to entirely cover the floor of the pot is usually enough, for my taste anyway. As they expand, they will eventually fill the pot.

Once the pot & cups are cleaned & heated, I rinse the leaves with just enough water to cover them & almost instantly pour it out into the cups. This not only washes the leaves of dust & stuff, but also wets the leaves, awakening them for the first steep. During the first steep, I pour the rinse water back over the pot, flushing the pot of any bits of leaf clinging to the pot & using every bit of tea oil possible to patina the pot. It's also a good idea to pour some water straight from the kettle over the pot to maintain an even temperature throughout the pot, which is important for an even steep.

For high mountain oolong, 90-95ºC (~194ºF) is best because that's the temperature at which the polyphenols & other related antioxidants dissolve. Not only are they what makes oolong tea so healthy, they're also responsible for it's lovely flavour. I find cooler water results in a rather flat tasting tea, lacking the high, floral notes that high mountain oolong is known for.

The next important step is steep times. The standard for any oolong is 15 seconds for the first steep, 10 seconds for the second, back up to 15 for the third, then a continued increase of 10 seconds for the next few steeps. According to personally taste & specific type of oolong, these times can be adjusted. Even as short as five seconds can be enough. Following this method, you should be able to produce at least eight fine tasting steeps, though if you're just beginning to develop your skills, don't be disappointed if you have difficulty getting more than four.

A part of gongfu cha appreciation is to admire the colour of the tea in the cup. At a single glance, I can tell if the leaves have been steeped well, or not. For non-roasted oolong, I prefer a translucent, pale jade tint, finding that the yellower the liquor, the more astringent & less soft the tast & mouth feel are. Actually, another name for oolong tea in Chinese is "qing cha" 青茶, which translates as "teal tea".

Some of the most highly respected high mountain, balled oolongs include, Tie Guan Yin, 鐵觀音 (Iron Goddess of Mercy/Iron Buddha), Lishan 梨山 (Pear Mountain), & Dong Ding 凍頂 (Frozen Peak). Alishan 阿里山,  is another popular high mountain oolong (featured in these photos), though I find it slightly less remarkable.

Though this style of oolong tea originated in mainland China, tradition Chinese oolong are aged & roasted. Around 1990, Taiwan began producing fresh, green oolong teas, which took the tea world by storm. China responded with its fresh, green version of Tie Guan Yin & though I love Taiwan's high mountain oolong, there's a remarkable, unsurpassed quality to the color, scent, & taste of the best Tie Guan Yin leaves.

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