Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Brewing Darjeeling Oolongs

I've been fascinated by the concept of Darjeeling Oolong from the first time I heard of it. In general, I like the idea of separating the style of a tea (as defined by its production process) from the region of production, and this separation is a key driving philosophy behind how I've designed RateTea.

RateTea's listings of oolongs are not a good indicator of the total quantity of global production of teas from different regions, but it is a coarse indicator of the visibility of these varieties of tea in the western world. Ranking the number of teas listed from various regions we see China and Taiwan leading the way, and India is a follow-up, with all but one tea, a lone Nilgiri oolong, being produced in Darjeeling. Darjeeling is emerging as a major oolong-producer, at least, among artisan teas.

But I've found that these teas can be very difficult to brew properly.

How to brew Darjeeling Oolong:

I've heard a lot of critical comments about Darjeeling Oolong, and in fact, I've issued a number of them myself. I have tried a handful now, possibly because I seek them out, out of curiosity, and more often than not, I'm disappointed. But I have made one key observation:

Darjeeling oolongs are best brewed with water significantly below boiling point, as one would brew a green or white tea.

I've found this to be true even of some of the surprisingly dark oolongs, but especially true of the lighter ones, which seem to make up most of what comes out of the Darjeeling region. Why? Unlike some green teas, I find that Darjeeling oolongs rarely become bitter, sour, or astringent. However, I find they often acquire an unpleasant vegetal aroma, like overcooked broccoli, if steeped with water that is too hot. Even when brewed properly though, they are still highly vegetal, but at least, for my tastes, I strongly prefer them when brewed with a lower water temperature.

How about you?

Does this post resonate with your experiences and your tastes? Do you find Darjeeling oolongs to be picky about brewing temperature, and to require lower temperatures than Chinese or Taiwanese oolongs (which can often handle boiling water just fine, even if they are best brewed with water a little below boiling).


  1. do you recommend a place to start with DJ oolongs? I am a Chinese/Formosa oolong fanatic... I'd be curious to give a darjeeling oolong a try.

    I have tasted a Darjeeling silver needle... it was quite delicous

  2. My experiences with Darjeeling oolong have been mixed, and on average, not great. My favorite Darjeeling oolong has definitely been the Soureni organic oolong that I bought from Fresh Darjeeling tea; I think that's an outstanding tea: if you like Darjeeling silver needle you might like it too, it's definitely silver-needle-like.

    I just checked RateTea.net and apparently I'm the only one to have reviewed any Darjeeling oolong. Given that the best two Darjeeling oolongs I've tried have been from Fresh Darjeeling Tea, I'd recommend trying that company: they have a few more than I've tried too. I was disappointed by the Tindharia estate oolongs I got from Upton Tea Imports, and somewhat disappointed with the Arya Topaz from Thunderbolt tea.

    Be warned: all Darjeeling oolong that I've tried has a substantial vegetal smell, which I think some people don't like!

  3. Alex Zorach,

    Have been enjoying your posts as of late especially that post on Tea Blog Spam.

    One posted about an Oolong from the famous Margaret's Hope Estate in Darjeeling last year. Also recommend lower temperatures when brewing this tea (around 80 C). Check out the comment section where Stephane from Tea Masters Blog weighs in with his thoughts when one sent him a sample:



  4. In my experience, too, Darjeeling oolongs tend to acquire a vegetal/medicinal taste and aroma if brewed with water that is too hot.
    It certainly benefits from a swirl of hot water to clean before pouring in the water to brew. I enjoy the chocolatey aroma and taste but certainly, Darjeeling Oolongs still have a LOT of room for improvement.

    1. I've never encountered a Darjeeling oolong (or even ANY Darjeeling tea) that I'd describe as remotely chocolatey. This is a quality that I've encountered more in Chinese black teas (red teas), as well as some Assam and Ceylon.

  5. Hi Alex,

    this morning I have tasted Doke Rolling Thunder oolong, second flush 2012, from Bihar and I was disappointed about tasting experience until I found your interesting article about brewing properly Indian oolongs.

    When I open tea package, I smell green tea scents and this confused me on how to brew it, but I did not follow this first sensitive notice and I prepared it in gongfucha style. Result was terrible! Tea was like water, I felt no interesting notes.
    Thinking that I made a mistake, I tried to brew in "western" style: temperature water about 90 degrees for 2-3 minute time infusion. Result was terrible as well.
    Because this tea should be a good tea, I will try again following your advice.

    After this experience, I can not compare Indian oolongs to Taiwanese ones, because they are totally different, even if style is same. To be honest no one tea should be compared to another one, but in this case strangeness made me most confused.

    Many thanks!