The dry leaves: The first step to a proper brewing experience is to understand the dry leaves as much as you can. Is it hand-harvested or machine-harvested? Is it roasted? What’s the roast degree? Is it aged? How old? Is it oxidized? What degree? How dry are the leaves? How tight are the leaf pellets, etc.
These are the information you should be provided when making purchases. At least in Hou De we do. You can generally tell by looking at the dry leaves to see if they are hand-harvested or machine-harvested. Sometimes “competition” oolongs may look like machine-harvested because of the additional de-steming step by hands.
Hand-harvested oolongs usually tend to have their aroma and taste “wake up” slower than machines-harvested ones, because of the more complete leaf system and tighter structure. The later is usually a result of a more “juicy” leaves that bind together better. So when you face a hand-harvested oolong, especially high quality ones like Li-Shan, A-Li-Shan or Shan-Lin-Shi oolongs, be ready to have a less aromatic first brewing or increase the first steeping by 5 to 10 seconds. Machine-harvested oolongs are more straightforward, but have less brewing durability than hand-harvested ones.
If the oolong is roasted, oxidized or aged, it may need a longer steeping time, and better with a higher water temperature throughout the brewings. The more roasted degree / older / more oxidized, the longer the first steeping and water temperature should be.
Also, check the dryness of the leaf pellets. Hold one pellet between fingers and crush it. A properly dried and fresh high-mountain oolong leaves should be crushed easily. If not, either the drying step during processing was not done properly, or the leaves have absorbed moisture due to storage. In this case, we will need to refreshen the leaves by a roaster/mini dryer, or contact your vendor.
Amount of leaves/Steeping time: For the pellet-shaped Taiwan oolongs, putting in 1/4 of the total depth of your teapot is generally a good start. For more “gong-fu” purists, 1/3 usually works.
Water temperature for high-mountain oolongs, I usually use ~205 deg F (slightly less than boiling). First-steeping is 30 seconds, the 2nd , 3rd and the 4th steepings are all 20 seconds. After that, increase 10 seconds to every following steeping.
If you put in 1/3 of leaves, first-steeping is 25 second, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th steepings are all 15 seconds. After that, increase 10 seconds to every following steeping.
A colder water temperature should match with a slightly longer steeping time, and vice versa.
If you are not familiar with such tiny-teapot and quick-steeping way, I strongly encourage you to try it. Instead of getting one big mug of tea, you unveil the complexity and quality of the precious oolong, layer after layer, in each individual steeping. It’s exciting to see how the aroma and taste profile change from one cup to another, and to test how many steepings this oolong can last!
Air-tight lid by water-seal: Because of the quick-steeping nature, a small-sized (100~200cc) teapot becomes very convenient. One tip to achieve a better aroma is to create an air-tight condition around the rim of lid/top opening by water-seal. You can do this by slightly overflow the water when pouring. When you close the lid, the water seals the rim and makes sure the aroma stay inside the pot.
If you are like Mr. Lin Kean Siew who likes to use a bigger teapot (> 300cc), you can create the water seal by pouring hot water over the teapot after you close the lid. A key to use a larger teapot is to pre-warm the body by rinsing with hot water before putting in dry leaves.
End of brewing: At the end of brewing, you will see the tea leaves expand to fully occupy the content of the teapot. It’s common for a good quality High-Mountain oolong to give you more than 8 wonderful steepings, and maybe 10 or more. You can play with the unfurled leaves: putting them in you hand, and using your fingers to feel the softness, thickness and flexibility of the leaves. Look carefully to confirm the information you initially had: harvesting method, roasting / oxidation degree, freshness / age, etc. You will be able to fine tune your brewing parameters next time you enjoy the same oolong.
Especially if you use an yixing teapot, you should clean the teapot inside out thoroughly by rinsing with hot water and leave it on a shelf to dry naturally. Some people suggest not to clean the yixing teapot so as to get faster seasoning effect. I don’t like the idea. I prefer a clean, albeit a bit slower, and lasting seasoning effect.
Lastly, I want to emphasize that this suggestion is just a starting point to begin your adventure. You may find a 195deg F water with a slightly longer steeping time works better, or you may find plus/minus 5 seconds steeping from this suggestion produce better cups. You need to try and adventure yourself.
Please let us know if this format of brewing suggestion is effective. Any idea as what to change/how to improve. I will post brewing suggestion for other types of teas like Wuyi, dancong and pu-erhs shortly.