Tag Archives: oolong

How Much Tea?

With all of these posts about my tea making process, I realized that I hadn’t ever said much about the amount of tea that I’m using. Time and Temperature are very important factors when making tea, as well as the tools you are using. But the amount of leaf in your pot can have just as much of an effect on the finished product and the steps you take to get there.

My general guideline for a 150-200ml pot or gaiwan is about 4g of leaf. Ah, but what if you don’t have a scale? In fact, I almost never use a scale myself, so not to worry, with some experience you can make a pretty good guess.

The first rule of thumb is to just cover the bottom of your brewing vessel with a layer of leaves until barely any of the surface is showing. This is almost always an accurate measure for a gaiwan (of any size!). Secondly, you need to think about the tea leaves themselves. This is the part that trips up even the seasoned tea devotee.

Why the difficulty with this measure? Because different teas are dried differently. A full leaf white tea takes up about 5 times the volume of a rolled oolong. And a small chunk of Puer can weigh as much as a whole package of black tea. A finely cut Japanese green tea can weigh twice as much as a green Chinese leaf.

To help with this conundrum, I’ve taken photos of different teas, each measured to 4g for comparison.

Tai Ping Hou Kui, a "Fluffy" Green

Tai Ping Hou Kui, a “Fluffy” Green

The key to getting the right amount of leaf is just considering the density of a tea before you brew it. These are the density categories I use: Fluffy, Fine, Twisted, Rolled, and Dense.


Bai Mu Dan, a "Fluffy" White

Bai Mu Dan, a “Fluffy” White

Full leaf white tea, many full leaf Chinese greens (except Liu’An Guapian), some Chinese (generally Yunnan golden needle) black tea, a few oolongs (Bai Hao).

Use more leaves than you think.


Ping Shui Ri Zhu, a "Fine" Green

Ping Shui Ri Zhu, a “Fine” Green

Japanese greens, any broken tea (a damaged full leaf tea or tea bag tea no matter how high quality the bag supposedly is).

The trick here is to use more leaves than you think but brew them very gently. Use cooler water around 70c or lower and keep infusion times very short (5 seconds to 1 minute).


Bao Zhong, a Twisted Oolong.

Bao Zhong, a Twisted Oolong.

A few Chinese greens (notably Liu’An Guapian), many Oolongs from southern China and Taiwan (not rolled into balls), some full leaf twisted black tea (notably no. 18, Sun Moon Lake, Qi Men, Dian Hong, Darjeeling first flush). I also put loose Puer in this category.

A medium amount of leaf, just covering the bottom of your infusing vessel.


Ali Shan Jin Xuan, a Rolled Oolong.

Ali Shan Jin Xuan, a Rolled Oolong.

Most Taiwan oolong (except Bai Hao and Bao Zhong), a few Chinese greens that are rolled into balls (except Zhucha/gunpowder).

A small amount of leaf, not quite covering the bottom of your infusing vessel. These teas tend to expand a lot (I’m always surprised how huge they get) and if the leaves become so packed that the tea cannot move around, the flavors will be blunt, strong, and boring.


Lao Shu Bing Cha, a Dense Sheng Puer

Lao Shu Bing Cha, a Dense Sheng Puer

Brick Puer, gunpowder green (Zhucha).

While it’s certainly possible to use a small volume of leaf for these teas and steep for 2-3 minutes, I prefer to use a medium amount and do very fast infusions (5 seconds to 1 minute).


As you might be able to tell from my notes, the more leaves (by weight), the faster and stronger the tea will infuse. Using lots of leaves just means that you may need to decrease the infusion time (or the temperature) to keep the tea from becoming overly strong. If you steep a tea for 10 seconds and it’s unpleasantly bitter (something that happens to me all the time), then you really just have too many leaves in the pot. Similarly, if steeping a tea for 3 minutes gives you no flavor at all, you may want to add some more leaf.

As with any “rules” surrounding tea brewing, keep in mind that these are just suggestions based on my experience. Your taste may vary considerably and so it’s vital that you experiment to find the time, temperature, and quantity that fits you best.

2011 Shan Lin Xi from Wu Siou Nature Farm

It’s been a while, so I decided to try another tea from my stash of old oolongs. This time, I opened a pack of rolled Shan Lin Xi (aka: Shan Lin She, Sanlinxi, or any number of other things, but really 杉林溪烏龍). It’s getting difficult to remember which high mountain oolongs I got from where, but this one is likely a spring harvest of 2011 which I bought from a tea factory we visited on the side of Shan Lin Xi.


Honestly, I hadn’t heard of the mountain until I was there. I’m certain that I’d encountered its green rolled leaves before, but the mountain’s name is not nearly as well known as its nearby cousin in Nantou county, Dong Ding. As such, I think many exporters have labeled Shan Lin Xi as “Dong Ding”, the prestigious “Ali Shan”, or even the ubiquitous “High Mountain Oolong”, which technically refers to any oolong grown over 1000 meters up.

Despite its lack of fame, tea from this mountain often rivals the flavors and qualities of its neighbors and I think that tea shops are beginning to seek it out by name.

If you’re wondering, tea on Shan Lin Xi is still harvested carefully by hand by a group of tea ladies (and sometimes men, but the general thought is that men’s hands are too big and rough for such delicate work) early in the morning on beautiful foggy days. They wear traditional tea picker clothing that I imagine hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years, including a conical hat and brightly colored arm covers, possibly sewn by hand. The one relatively modern addition I saw was a small razor blade taped to the forefinger of each woman that enabled snipping the tiny leaf sets much more efficiently than just using the fingers alone.


For a quality rolled oolong, only the first (that is, the youngest) three leaves of the bush are picked, along with part of the stem. Sometimes four or even five leaves are included, at the discretion of the producer for that particular garden. Larger and older leaves are usually tougher and less flavorful so they are avoided, but depending on the weather and the altitude (as well as the relative quality of the tea being sought) the fourth leaf can still be quite good.


When I visited the harvest, they were picking four leaves because that spring had been unusually cold and even the fourth leaf was apparently small and delicate enough to add to the energy of the tea.

A fun thing to check when you’re done drinking some oolong is to very carefully pull out some leaves and look for the full leaf sets. Inevitably some single leaves will fall off the sets or break, but if you’ve got a good quality tea you should have no trouble finding stems with two, three, or four leaves still attached, as if it just came off the bush. It’s one of the amazing things about the gentle rolling process of oolongs that these small balls of tea can unfurl back into their original form months later undamaged.

Photo Oct 11, 11 55 09 AM

The leaf sets on this tea were great and intact. Once it really held some magical flavors, but unfortunately as with many of the teas in this set, the years have not treated it well.

The aroma was quite nice, actually, with many of the bright flowery scents that I remember. It may be just the roast, but I also get a hint of tropical fruit when I smell Shan Lin Xi. The first infusion I made was amber gold. When I pulled it out, I thought that perhaps due to its age I should try a slightly longer time than usual, so I did 1.5 minutes. That turned out to be a mistake. The flavor was quite strong and more than a little blunt (lacking in nuance).

Photo Oct 11, 11 39 47 AM

Hopeful since the tea had definitely retained its strength, I made a second infusion at 30 seconds. This one was a light gold with unfortunately almost no taste to speak of. When it had cooled a bit I could get the tropical aroma a bit in my mouth, but it was not impressive.

I tried two more infusions around 1 minute and allowed the tea to cool a bit before sipping (a common mistake I find when tasting tea is to sip it while it’s still too hot and your taste buds can’t distinguish the flavors). This was better, and I could now identify a high mountain oolong in the taste. Still, the flavors were light and really I think only a memory of what the leaves once held.

Photo Oct 11, 11 40 36 AM

Since it took me so many tries to find the right flavor, I may try this tea again just to be sure I’m not unfairly judging it, but I think this will go in the thumbs-down category. Oh well! Space for another delicious tea to fill my cabinet. And this time I’ll be more careful about drinking it before it gets too old!

hong shui spring for fall

How to describe this tea experience? This spring 2010 Gao Shan Hong Shui (or Hung Shui) has the aroma and taste of plum and baked apricot. Caramelized layers surprise me, coming from a flaxen gold liquor. It doesn’t have nearly the darkness that I’d expect in a similarly aromatic Tie Guan Yin.

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The aroma is heavenly, especially in the mouth. I shared it with a friend in the teahouse and he pointed out, quite rightly, that while it’s undeniably roasted, it doesn’t have any hint of the sharp toast or charcoal flavors present in a Shui Xian. There’s a bit of the honey taste of a good Bai Hao, but it doesn’t come across as floral. The fruitiness is similar to a really delicious Mi Lan Dan Cong, but lighter in body.

What a wonderful mystery this tea holds!

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My heartfelt thanks to Stéphane from TeaMasters for introducing me to this tea. I suspect that I never would have heard of it otherwise. It doesn’t seem to be a popular style, and there’s still quite a lot that I don’t know about it. This particular leaf is from San Lin Shi on June 3rd, 2010 (another gift from Stéphane is knowing the exact date of harvest).

From what I know, Hong Shui (红水, literally, red water) is a process and not specific to cultivar, although as it is grown in Nantou province it probably is mostly Qingxin. The leaves are more oxidized than a standard Dong Ding style, and are then more deeply roasted. The roast is clearly done very carefully, though, to avoid any overly toasted taste creeping in.

All of this meshes nicely with what Stéphane has written, so if you’re interested in more on the topic, please read his blog.

Old Tea: 2010 Winter Alishan Jin Xuan

Another among the teas I decided to test in my grand (old) tea tasting experiment of this summer.

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Another Ali Shan Jin Xuan (I have a lot), these particular leaves are the last remnants of one of my favorite teas of all time. Unless I’m misremembering, I purchased this tea from DigniTea in Taipei, a family-run tea company specializing in different styles of tea from Ali Shan. Here’s my glowing review from 2011:

Golden straw liquor, aroma of fresh lillies with a slight hint of something richer: a gingerbread sweetness. Flavor is buttery sweet lightly grilled asparagus with a gentle dryness in the finish. The aroma in the mouth lingers for quite a while.

My friend and I had been wandering around the Guting station area of Taipei looking for a specific tea house we had read about when we came across this small shop. It looked promising, and within minutes of entering we were sitting at the rather modern bar inside and discussing tea styles and preparation with the wonderful proprietor. She told us about her family’s business and how all of their tea was from Ali Shan, although they had many different varieties.


For the sake of adventure, I brought back with me some winter Jin Xuan (Jin Xuan is a Taiwan-invented cultivar), spring Jin Xuan, Nitrogen-packed Qing Xin (apparently the nitrogen causes the leaves not to change as much after packaging as the standard vacuum-seal), a black Ali Shan, and an Ali Shan GABA tea (Nitrogen-flushed).

I have been extremely happy with all of them!

Now, oolongs of this style often reach their height after 6 months to 1 year of age (assuming good storage), and that definitely held true in my case. For over a year after bringing the packages back from Taiwan, I turned to my DigniTea when I was looking for something really special. As the supply of this Jin Xuan, my favorite, neared its end, I transferred the last leaves to a metal tin to (I thought) better preserve it.

This is always the danger with a beloved tea: you try to keep it alive long past its time. I’m not certain the reason for it, but after a good long life this tea has changed for the worst.

Photo Sep 06, 3 09 48 PM

My first infusion was for 1.5 minutes with near-boiling water, usually a good bet. The roasted aroma was present, but seemed very light and the color was pale. When I tasted it, though, I was very surprised by the taste. The best word I could come up with to describe it was “soapy”. The creamy delicious sweetness had become a sort of sour taste that was definitely not pleasant. Just in case, I made a second infusion, paying more careful attention to the leaves. The results were the same, soapy, in fact it became more pronounced. I didn’t even bother with a third.

Alas for the fine teas in our life! This is a lesson of impermanence in life, certainly. If you find something worth enjoying, enjoy it fully while it is here! If you hoard it, it may be lost, or changed into something else entirely different from the character you cherished. So it was with this tea. I humbly thank it for the lesson.

Old Tea: Pinglin Bao Zhong

This is the second tea I decided to test in my grand (old) tea tasting experiment of this summer.

Another from Taiwan in 2011, drinking this tea is always a step back to rural Pinglin. We had taken a bus to the town hoping to find a plethora of tea shops, but we were surprised at how quiet it all was.


Just next to our bus stop, we found one of the ubiquitous shops that occupies the bottom floor of a two-story house with a large garage door. When the garage doors are closed (and sometimes when they’re open!), you can never tell if it’s someone’s living room or a shop. In this case, it was a family tea business.

A husband and wife bustled around amid a hundred large plastic bags of tea that filled all available space, while the grandmother sorted some tea in the corner and kids ran about in back. The eldest of the children spoke some english, so when our intention was made clear, he was the one to serve us some tea on a beautiful tea table hidden behind some piles of dried Bao Zhong leaves. Not only was the table beautiful, but the family had quite a collection of teapots and gaiwans as well. The tannin-stained matte textures on the yixing showed quite clearly that they had seen many years of good use.


We had many good pots of tea at that shop, and purchased plenty to take back with us. My favorite was a roasted Bao Zhong which is the subject of this post.


What’s interesting about this tasting was that I had apparently saved the tea in several places. I have the original foil bag, still about one quarter full, and I had two different small tins which I use when traveling. The tins are good quality and both seal quite well and yet when I infused the tea from those, it was bland, and only a distant memory of that roasted oolong from which it came. I had planned to mark off the rest, but when I came across the bag, the tea inside had such a delightful aroma that I just had to try again.


I’m glad that I did! The aroma was the same that you smell walking around Pinglin or Maokong, sweet roasted tea. I can hardly explain what it’s like to be surrounded by it. It infuses you. If you’ve ever had the opportunity inhale the aroma of a pot of quickly heated roasted oolong, you’ll know what I mean. If not, the closest parallel that I can imagine is something like roasted chestnuts. Rich and comforting. In the mouth, the taste is flowery and actually seems to intensify as it cools. Bao Zhong is a lightly oxidized oolong and so it tends to do best at cooler temperatures.


The overall experience is light but correctly so for a tea of this style. I think one of the difficulties that I’ve had with Bao Zhong is using sufficient leaves in the gaiwan, since they are twisted in a way that makes it appear as though you’ve got more in there than there really is. It may be that when tasting the other packages of this tea, I simply didn’t use enough leaf and the resulting tea couldn’t generate enough body to seem worth considering. I also wonder if the typical foil pouch has some qualities that perhaps make it a better storage medium than even an airtight metal tin. Maybe this tea really needs to breathe. This definitely gives me something to experiment with in the future.


Altogether, this one’s a keeper. Really, it’s amazing that a lighter oolong such as this lasted longer than some of the rolled ones I’ve been trying. But that’s all just part of the mystery of tea, I suppose.

Note: I’ve written about this tea before.

Old Tea: Ali Shan Jin Xuan

This is the first set of teas I decided to test in my grand (old) tea tasting experiment of this summer.

My first foray into the stash of oolong I’ve been keeping around brought back fond memories of days spent in Taiwan. A 2011 Ali Shan Jin Xuan which I purchased at the top of Ali Shan mountain itself. (shan, 山, literally means mountain, so I’m repeating myself, but I’m willing to accept that today). It wasn’t an easy trip.

Photo Aug 27, 11 35 45 AM

My friend and I had planned to travel to the Chiayi area and spend several days visiting the gardens of this famous tea mountain, but as we sat in Lugu watching local TV we learned that a deadly train wreck had just occurred near the mountain and so, just to be on the safe side, we put it off.

Several days later, back in Taipei, we resolved to make a day trip of the journey. So early one morning, we packed up and headed out with only a short detour to find some breakfast and pick up food for the train ride. We knew roughly how long it would take to get to the base of the mountain, but we didn’t think about the extra time moving around always takes in a place where you don’t speak the language. So when we arrived in Chiayi and found a bus to the city, it was already mid-afternoon. Imagine our surprise when the people working there told us that the last bus up the mountain had left at 2pm!

We hadn’t realized that the bus ride up the winding mountain passes took a full three hours, and that in order to get up in time to do something and catch a return trip, we should have been there near daybreak.

With a tiny amount of Mandarin available to us and a firm resolve, we found a taxi driver willing to ferry us up to the top, and he promised it would be faster than a bus ride. He was right, but that little taxi swerving up the one-lane mountain road at high speed is still one of my least favorite memories.

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We made the trip in just over 2 hours, just as the sun was setting. We expected quite a view, but of course one of the reasons that Ali Shan is so well suited to tea growing is the clouds and mist that often cover its peak. In a last-ditch effort we found our way to a tea shop and became their last customers of the evening. After tasting several options, I bought this tea as my favorite, and equally as a trophy of our reaching the summit of this holy place.

I’ll spare you the part where we had to ask for help from a 7-11 clerk to get a taxi back down again.

Even though these leaves have been sealed in a foil bag within a tin, they are showing their age. The flavor of the infusions was very light with only a hint of the creamy floral aroma that the Jin Xuan cultivar is known for. I tried three infusions, attempting to pull out something to impress, but while I could certainly increase the strength of the tea, the flavor remained so light as to be almost indistinguishable.

This tea, alas, will be consigned to the bin.

Brazier Experiments Three

Photo Jul 29, 3 53 54 PM

Significant progress with the tea stove! One of our biggest challenges was lighting the charcoal, and so we thought, “let’s go buy one of those charcoal starter chimney things“. When we were in the store looking at them, though, it seemed to me that their design was really simple. Just a grate to hold up the charcoal, a space underneath to light a fire, and a bunch of holes all around for airflow. It seemed very similar to something we already had…

Photo Jul 29, 3 54 53 PM

Hey, that’s just like the inside of the tea stove! I don’t think it was designed with this lighting technique in mind (judging by Peter Novak’s posts), but it worked quite well for us.

We filled the bottom of the stove with newspaper and set it on fire, and then placed several hunks of charcoal in the top grate. The paper burns quite quickly, of course, so we continued to feed more paper into the bottom section through the large air holes as it burned. It may have worked even better if we had some actual kindling in there to keep the fire going with less work. The result: glowing charcoal in about twenty minutes! I think we can even do better than that, now that we have some idea of what we’re doing.

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To celebrate, we infused several delicious pots of a buttery Hawiian oolong, given to me as a gift by the owners of Dobra Tea after their travels there earlier this year. So bold in color, but mellow and sweet in taste, I’m very happy to have this tea and the wonderful tea stove with which to make it!

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Bai Hao Tuesday

My friend Andrew is visiting Bai Hao tea fields in Taiwan as I write this, so it’s small magic that my fiancee, when asked to choose a tea, picked out my bag of 2012 M. Xu Bai Hao (東方美人茶) that I picked up several months ago in Montreal (courtesy of the fantastic folks at Camellia Sinensis).

I’ve written about this tea before, but I have to say that this time through I felt as though I was drinking a different tea.

The first thing I noticed was the color of the dry leaves themselves. My fiancee did a good job of describing them as “multicolored”. There was bright green, dark green, tan, gold, and dark. It’s rare I’ve seen such a change in hue within one tea, perhaps only in a First Flush Darjeeling with their particular early-season processing that makes for such a nuanced flavor. I tried to capture the colors in a photo. Maybe you can see some of it for yourself.

bai hao_leaf

When I poured the first infusion, I was struck by how the liquor reminded me of apple juice, right down the the small bubbles on the surface. It’s possible that first impression might have colored my later thoughts, but I don’t know.


What I do know is that the taste was a wonderful crisp sweetness with a round body to match. I have to say, this tea is aging well for what I heard was a bad harvest year. The aroma was cloying. I was reminded distinctly of a cup of apple cider as the first drops touched my tongue. After that I couldn’t shake the apple connection. The toasty, crisp cider character pervaded everything.

I guess the next time someone asks for an Apple tea, I should produce this Bai Hao.

Da Hong Pao from Shanghai Shop

Rich golden orange liquor with a sweet pumpkin taste and a gentle roast in the aroma. Fantastic.

Such good Da Hong Pao. I bought several Wuyi teas when I was in Shanghai and I haven’t had this one in a while. Clearly I’ve been missing out! Thankfully my fiancée picked it from our tea cabinet because it has a nice tin. I remember asking for the tin specifically when I bought the tea, even though it didn’t normally come in a tin.

I felt pretty skillful at haggling because I got the tin and my hedgehog tea pet from that store at quite a discount. I’ve been wondering, though, if indeed the discount was as good as I thought, or if the proprietors were perhaps just hoping that these strange foreigners would just go away.

1970s Bao Zhong

When we were wandering around Pinglin (坪林區) in Taiwan looking for exciting Bao Zhong to taste, we only found a couple of places that piqued our interest.

The first was a small family shop right next to the bus stop and was where we spent most of our time. That’s another story.

The second, though, seemed a little more professional (which is not always a good sign) and I think was partially a cafe or restaurant, although – like the rest of Pinglin – it was deserted. There were also plenty of the giant mosquitos that Taiwan seems to be famous for milling around the room and attacking me whenever they had the chance. I didn’t dare sit in one place for too long and give them an advantage, and don’t ask me about the bathroom. It was still an interesting place, and had gigantic clay jars of various tea in the center of the floor.

I forget exactly which teas we tried, but for the most part we were unimpressed and their prices were a little high. Before leaving to go back to the other shop, though, I asked about a tea that was on a shelf in a somewhat ornate container. It turns out that the tea was an aged oolong, purportedly 40 years old.

The real thing that surprises me each time I drink this tea is how smooth it is. For some reason I always expect a strong charcoal-style roast to come out of the leaves. I’m not sure if it’s due to the darkness of the dry leaf or the unmistakable aroma of a dark roasted oolong, but there’s something that implies a Feng Huang Dan Cong in this tea. There’s even a hint of the fruitiness one finds in a Guandong Phoenix. And yet it’s gentle, soothing on the stomach, and has a bit of a lychee or fig character hidden in its orange-colored liquor.

I’m glad that I bought some.