Oolong, the Tea Lover's Tea

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Asking a wine, chocolate or coffee expert to pick a favorite is like asking a mother to choose between her children. Not so for tea connoisseurs: Oolong "is the tea that got me hooked on tea," says importer Brian Wright. "It wasn't until we tasted oolong that we knew that Teaism had to exist," says Michelle Brown, who co-founded the Washington chain in 1996.

Now if only they could sell the stuff. Despite importers' enthusiasm, oolongs, a range of semi-oxidized teas that fall somewhere between green and black teas, remain defiantly below the radar. At the Park Hyatt's Tea Cellar, the menu includes more than 50 teas, only five of which are oolongs. Black tea sales were 75 times those of oolongs in grocery and natural food stores in the past year, according to market research firm SPINS.

"I've been trying to sell oolongs for 20 years. It's always a hard slog," says Michael Harney, adding that oolongs account for just 2 percent of sales at his Connecticut import company, Harney & Sons. "Tea people love oolongs. But most people don't understand them."

Experts chalk it up to the funny name and a lack of exposure. Trade ships brought black tea to the West as early as the 16th century. Green teas' reputed health benefits prompted a recent surge in popularity here. Oolongs, produced in the Chinese province of Fujian and Taiwan, were valued in Asia. But they never gained a strong international following.

It took politics to bring oolongs to the world stage, according to "The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea," published last month. In the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese teas were subject to an embargo, and enterprising Taiwanese teamakers rushed to fill the gap. When the trade embargo was lifted in 1972, cheaper -- and better -- Chinese teas flooded the market. The Taiwanese market abruptly collapsed, and teamakers there, forced to grow something else, began to make high-quality oolongs favored by the domestic market. As technology such as vacuum packaging evolved, oolongs became available in the West. Soon, China also was producing its own oolongs for export.

Teamakers in the Wuyi mountains of China's Fujian province created the first oolongs when they came up with a way to halt oxidation midway through the process, creating an almost limitless and magical range of flavors. The technique involves setting the teas in the sun, then rolling or twisting them to start oxidation. (In the north, the leaves are twisted; in the traditional southern style, the teamaker rolls the tea into tight balls.) The leaves are then "fired," or heated, to halt the process at just the right moment.

Part of oolong's lack of wide acceptance can be traced to a fear factor. Unlike green and black teas, which require one steeping, oolongs benefit from multiple infusions. That is because the leaves are picked when they are bigger and thicker, and multiple rounds of hot water help the flavors blossom and intensify. As a result, the Chinese and the Taiwanese like to drink oolongs gong-fu style. The words, which are sometimes written as "kung fu" (like the martial art), mean a skill acquired through practice.

Gong fu looks complicated but essentially involves brewing the tea in several rounds in a small clay pot. Hot water is poured over the leaves, which are allowed to steep for anywhere from 20 to 90 seconds. In Taiwan, the tea is then poured into a small ceramic cup to cool and then is poured into another small cup for drinking. Tea drinkers sniff the emptied cup to take in the intense aromas, then drink the tea. The process can be repeated up to 15 times.

A Wulong tea from the mountains of Taiwan, for example, will start out fragrant with a hint of honeysuckle, then develop peach, apricot, even earthy flavors. A Tiguanyin, a classic style of oolong, smells like raisin with a hint of smoke, tastes like nectarine, then develops a mild, malty flavor.

For Americans used to throwing a tea bag into an oversize mug, the process can seem intimidating. But making tea need not be pretentious, says Brian Wright, who runs Washington-based importer Shan Shui Teas. In Japan, a tea ceremony has strict rules based on history and culture. In China and Taiwan, "making and drinking tea is a social thing," he says as he pours hot water over Taiwanese Lanyun tea leaves, with aromas of ginger and orchid flowers. "It's what you do when you sit around and talk."

Wright was introduced to tea while studying in Taipei in 1989. His university's study-abroad program had hired a local man as a "fixer" to help students negotiate unfamiliar territory, and the students often congregated at his house to chat and drink tea in the gong-fu style. Before heading home to Berkeley, Calif., Wright bought teapots, teacups and several bags of tea.

After a few months, he ran out of tea. The stuff he found in San Francisco's Chinatown didn't measure up to the kinds he had come to love. So he asked the fixer to send some. Soon, friends were asking for shipments, too. After moving to Washington in 1992, Wright started his importing business. It is still small: Wright brings in just 1,200 pounds per year, which is sold to Teaism, among others, and through Shan Shui's Web site. "It's funny that I'm a tea authority. I'm just doing what I've always done: sitting around and drinking tea," Wright says.

Top-grade oolongs sell for as much as $200 a pound, another reason they can seem off-putting. Why pay that much for tea, especially if you don't even know how to drink it?

But the cost of brewing loose-leaf oolongs, even the priciest ones, isn't as high as it appears. A pound of leaves makes at least 90 mugs of tea, more if you do multiple infusions. Even at $200 per pound, that comes out to $2.20 a cup, about the same as a medium-size cup of tea from Starbucks. At Teaism, entry-level oolongs sell for $44 per pound, less than 50 cents per cup.

In fact, Wright recommends that new oolong drinkers stick with less-expensive tea. There's no need to splurge for tea that's meant to be served gong fu if the drinker is using a mug with a built-in strainer or a tea ball. Instead, he advises tea drinkers to get to know a tea, just as they would a wine. Once they can denote and appreciate subtleties, they can choose a higher grade or experiment with the gong-fu style.

At Teaism, oolongs are steeped for about five minutes in a ceramic teapot or a cup. The Tea Cellar at the Park Hyatt takes a different approach. In the elegant lounge decorated with Asian tea paraphernalia and jars of loose-leaf tea, tea sommelier Bum Sik Shin brews oolongs in fat glass pots so guests can see the variety of colors and watch them change over time. Three special spigots deliver water at the right temperature for oolongs, between 205 and 212 degrees.

Shin says most people choose oolongs because they're attracted to exotic names, such as monkey-picked oolong. (Legend has it that the tea got its name when Chinese monks taught the animals to pick leaves in the high mountains.) As a result, many guests might not know the traditional way to experience them and don't ask for multiple infusions. But if they do, he refills the pots at the table using a tall glass carafe.

"We grew up with tea, just as Westerners grew up with wine," says Shin, who was born in Korea. "To enjoy it, it has to be easy."

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