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Why doesn't my oolong tea taste like the bottled ones?

I lived in Japan for a while and got completely addicted to the bottled oolong tea drinks, Suntory in particular. I keep buying oolong tea here in Chinatown (having absolutely no idea what the hell I'm doing), brewing it with boiling water, and it tastes completely different.

I know there's a lot of different kinds of oolong, have I just not hit on the right one yet? Or is there a different process for brewing it?

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  1. I'd say most likely it's a different kind of oolong. There are multitudes of degrees of roasting and oxidation, not to mention specialized varieties like tieguanyin, dancong and bai hao.

    Try to remember if the bottled oolong you liked was more on the greenish side or the darker, toastier side. That will give you some frame of reference. (The bottled oolongs I've seen in New York have been on the greenish side.) Some oolongs, like the Taiwanese ali shan, can carry sweetish notes. Tieguanyin tends toward the austere, crisp, even metallic side.

    It's hard to write about all this because there really is so much variety.

    1. Hmm. I too like the bottled and canned ones ... They seem a little malty. I started toasting green tea and sometimes rice lightly in a pan and then brewing. It makes a delicious drink. Maybe try your own very light home toasting to add depth of flavor?

      1. The Japanese are one of the first to offer ice oolong tea WITHOUT sweetener, which I've always appreciated. Before the current white tea craze they almost always use the darker oolong. A medium to dark oxidation Dong Ding oolong, (may be spelled Tong Ding, also) or any of the Dan Cong ("single bush", pronounced more like Dahn Tsong) will be close to what you've had made by Suntory. The Tieguanyin that Comestible mentioned is another possibility although, again, these days there seem to be more light and green version that are fragrant in a unnatural perfumed way, than the dark metallic rich tasting ones that the older generation tend to associate to when they hear the name.

        I've found Dan Cong here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/703024 . Some of the supermarket brands offer them, but most are harsh and gives me a stomach ache.

        As to the method of brewing. In the summer I've enjoyed ice brew dan cong. Usually though, it's the last brew where after multiple brewing you leave the last batch soaking the leaves, pour the next morning, and it will be alright as cold/ice tea.

        *edit: Rishi used to have a selection called "Nantou Oolong" and maybe "Wood Dragon" that are pretty good, too. Not sure if they still offer it. I used to see them in Whole Foods' tea & coffee station.

        5 Replies
        1. re: HLing

          Personally I was always a fan of Rishi's Jade Oolong, which was sort of typical of the fargarant green "high mountain" type ones. Rishi still offers all of them through thier website (I think) but Your a right, Whole Foods doesn't offer it anymore (also I'm not 100% sure but the Nantou may have been the other brand whole foods carried, the one that also had the Crooked Horse Oolong).

          A lot also depends on whether you are going for Loose leaf or need it to be in bags (Loose leaf is, by defintion better, but not eveyone has the time to brew from loose every time) If you do need it to be bag, I find the Foojoy Tiekwanyin (formerly Royal Kwanyin) teabags to be pretty decent, theyre what I use on a day to day basis (I save my good looses for the weekend whne I have time to treat them right) Other good bags are Fuijian Butterfy Oolong (this is actually slightly better than the above, but often a lot harder to locate) and Ten Ren's Ten Wu (a weaker version of the Jade Oolong mentioned, but a good starter for the type.)

          1. re: HLing

            That is great to know. I've run into a similar thing over time with chardonnay - there used to be more wonderful buttery mild versions done with a secondary fermentation process but in more recent years citrus overtones have prevailed and producers have not done so much of that length of fermentation, I understand. So the whole drink is rendered different from what I knew. I've run into what you mention about oolongs as well.

            1. re: Cinnamon

              Cinnamon, that's interesting and sad about chardonnay's parallel journey ! I wonder what would happen if we all spoke up about the decline in quality in various areas. If not to stop the downward slope, at least those of us unhappy about the changes can know that we're not just imagining things individually. Some might even be able to re-educate those who probably don't and can't know what they've never encountered.....

            2. re: HLing

              Oops, you're right Jumpingmonk, it wasn't Rishi I was thinking of who offered Nantou Oolong, it was In Pursuit of Tea. They don't offer the same one any more. The only one they have now is the Nantou Si Ji Chun, which is the newer type of "all floral and no body" tea that I don't care for. The scent is too fake and flighty, just like the newer green Tieguanyin from Mainland. I'm hoping the new found popularity of tea die down a bit so that it can return to the days when good tea had good body and natural flavor, and are not drunken solely for health benefits......sigh.

              1. re: HLing

                Tell me about it . One of the Chinese markets next to me used to have a certain selection of standard loose teas. One of the ones the carries was the Oolong know as Hairy Crab, which I quite liked. Then a year or so ago in an effort to try and "fit the new market" they replaced it with one called Gold Coin Rock which is terrible, very very vegetal (not a good point for me)
                Then there was the one and only time I tried the oolong bags made by Prince of Peace. The fist time I took a spit I literally spat it across the table then said "I think they spelled the last word of the name wrong"

            3. Thanks for the tips, everyone! Love this board.

              Will head down to Wing Fat and see if I can track down some Dan Cong. I got one of those mug-with-strainers at Pearl River, which is improving my life considerably at work. No more bags!

              8 Replies
              1. re: localtalent

                localtalent, if you go to Wing Fat, instead of getting the Dan Cong from the big glass jars, if you're brave, get the one on the shelf over those glass jars. Look for the light brown cylinder containers about 8.5 inches tall, 5 inches diameter, with gold writings on them. (no English on it. )Ask for the Feng Huang MI LAN XIAN Dan Cong. This is just a pronounciation aid, but they should be able to understand it, even if you just say Mi Lan Xian. It's $24.50.

                1. re: localtalent

                  There are many different varieties of dan congs and many grades within the types; dan congs are particularly subject to bitterness if brewed improperly. Oolong teas comprise a very large palette of geographical areas (and respective altitudes) and, within those, many varieties with different levels of roasting and/or oxidation as HLing mentions. I also liked Rishi's Jade Oolong when it was available although it had no staying power whatsoever (oolongs should be good for multiple infusions, especially if served gong fu style). I moved away from Rishi as I discovered better (not to mention less expensive) sources and became more knowledgeable. Try Seven Cups in Tucson if you don't mind ordering online--they're very upfront, only carry product from China and Taiwan, and one of the co-owners is a government-certified tea master from China. I don't think they'd disappoint you. Their Web site also has some nice podcasts dealing with the various types of tea, including the different varieties of oolongs.

                  1. re: MacGuffin

                    Yeah that was one fault with the jade, you could only get about two infusions out of it. Even then the trick was to go with fairly cool water; you almost would do better simply turning on the hot water tap and using that (I learned to look at the color, as long as the tea was sort of pale green it was fine (proably why they call it "Jade"); the moment the infusion turned tan, that was it.

                    1. re: jumpingmonk

                      You got TWO infusions?! Mazel tov! (It really was a gorgeous color, wasn't it?)
                      Quite a few of the high-grown Taiwan oolongs that are unroasted and only lightly oxidized are similar and even though they're more expensive, you get a lot more bang for your buck, especially if you soak your used leaves overnight in the fridge in a covered jar with not too much water--delicious iced tea in the morning! Some of the greener oolongs from Anxi are in that vein, too, and are often very good value.
                      BTW, I always brew oolongs gong fu style and I find that rather than using boiling water (which is a pretty good one-size-fits-all for oolongs), I get noticeably tastier results when I let the boiling water just go still, i.e., as hot as possible without bubbles. I now use boiling water only for blacks and puerhs.

                      1. re: MacGuffin

                        I agree with both MacGruffin and Jumpingmonk regarding the cooler water temperature. The good high mountain teas, like the Da Yu Ling or the Buddha Hand (there are some confusion about this name) that Xue Feng Tea makes, use large and thick full leaves that when unrolled are not broken into pieces or ripped, and so it is able to give 4, 5 steepings if the temperature and timing is right. The recent Da Yu Ling seem to be either imitations as some seem to be of thinner leaves. Could be that there are Mainland Chinese products that are not the real deal.

                        Anyway, in general It took a while to figure out a way around the new trend of greener tea: one wants the deeper flavor of the tea without cooking the leaves by too hot a temperature. To get both fragrance and depth of taste, one of the ways is to make it the "forgotten tea", which came about accidentally. It's when you use a smaller amount (smaller than the usual gong fu tea making requires) in a good purple clay teapot, and where you boiled the water, but "forgot" about it until it had cooled down a bit, and then you make the tea, and then, "forget" about it until way way past the time. This would be one steeping only, but delicious with the best of both world.

                        MacGuffin, you're right about the Dan Cong being bitter, although it is the kind of bitterness that has a round after taste that makes it thirst quenching, especially if it's cool or iced. It's not the tannic taste of what most associate with lighter teas.

                        1. re: HLing

                          You're quite right--it's not a tannic astringency at all.
                          There's a young woman in California who carries mostly dan congs--her name is Imen: http://www.teahabitat.com/store/ (she's not cheap but she gets some very funky stuff). If you like dan congs, I recommend the Eight Immortals carried by Seven Cups. This tea is usually a dan cong but theirs is actually a rock oolong from transplanted bushes; the mineral soil eliminates the bitterness but retains the robust flavor. Also, their Ye Fang dan cong is like dark honey--well worth trying.

                          1. re: HLing

                            I was always taugh the greener the tea, the cooler the water. I tend to use a sort of "bastard gong fu" for making my weekend tea (I use a large glazed ceramic bowl instead of a purple clay teapot which allows the water to cool down very quicky. I ususally find microwaving the water (in a different bowl, so the tea bowl doesn't get too hot) about 3-4 minutes (I tend to make my tea by the pitcher full, so we are talking about at least a quart at a time) gets it to the ideal temp without it going dead.
                            BTW If you ever can get hold of them, cold Jade mountain blends wonderfully with fresh squeezed juice of a couple of yuzu.
                            Yes some of the other high mountain Oolongs can have that flavor to them. Kwan Yin Wang can sometimes, as can some of the really good grades of Tie Lo Han. I'm currently saving up for my first taste of Song Dynasty Royal tree, which probably has the flavor, given how it is described.

                            1. re: jumpingmonk

                              You can definitely up the temperature (even to boiling) on the green oolongs without ending up with a spinachy brew (unlike true greens, yellows, and whites). I've never had a greenish Tie Lo Han, though. It's a tea I like a lot but I've only had it roasted.