Monday, November 27, 2017

Is there one best oolong brewing temperature?

This is about there being an objective best case versus subjective preference variation related to water temperature used to brew oolong.  That's not catchy, is it?  Let's try the popular media version:

Do you like your oolongs steeped in boiling point water, or use water that's a bit cooler instead?  Some people claim there is one right answer.

Of course personal preference relates to some degree to every choice and sub-theme related to tea.  Or does it?  Are tea bags generally inferior to mid-range quality loose tea?  I think so.  I guess you could still put those teas in a bag and they wouldn't turn out so differently, but that's complicating the real issue, the actual generality.

Would most people agree that green tea should be brewed using water at less than boiling point temperature?  Sure.  Even an issue like that one, selected to have one clear answer, might not be as objectively clear as it first seems. 

As a bit of background, different references say different things about what temperature to use for oolong.  Check out this version from the Reddit tea subforum page:

There it is then; brew oolongs at 85 C / 185 F, we're finished.  Or maybe not.  That guide may apply better to Western style brewing than Gongfu style, even though one doesn't typically encounter the idea that temperature choices would vary uniformly between the two approaches.  They can, though; along with using a higher proportion of tea to water using much shorter infusion times can serve some of the same purpose as moderating temperature, related to offsetting astringency or other aspect range that could be experienced as negative. 

Since this subject came up related to a tea group discussion let's start from there instead.

Brewing oolong at boiling point temperature

Someone asked about staff in Taiwanese tea shops universally brewing oolong using boiling point temperature water in the Gong Fu Cha FB tea group.  This triggered an interesting discussion of whether or not water at that temperature really is best for preparing oolongs or not.  There are lots of references and tables out there related to standard brewing parameter suggestions (I wrote about that awhile back) and those vary for oolongs.  To summarize, several different opinions emerged:

-brew oolongs using boiling point water temperature, obviously (about half the responses, or maybe just over that).

-only flawed oolongs will give better results at lower than boiling point temperatures, related to offsetting flaws; use boiling point temperature water for every high quality oolong type.

-only brew the lightest versions at lower temperatures (the least oxidized, in this context, although the styles discussed also tended to be less roasted too).

-brew oolongs at whatever temperature you prefer the outcome related to; subjective preference for specific aspects is the ultimate guide.

The argument for the "only use boiling point" option is that tea components extract differently at different temperatures, and for better quality teas--combining the first two answers, sort of--that's really the optimum.

I was arguing for the last, more or less, but probably as much related to defending people's option to prefer whatever parameter they want.  I do tend to brew most oolongs using boiling point water, although I also shift parameters quite a bit, to see what happens related to that.  Per my understanding it does just vary the aspect range a little if you use slightly lower temperature (90-95 C, 195-205 F).  When experimenting with different oolongs--they come in quite a range of types--some do seem better prepared at slightly cooler temperature. 

Of course it is hard to exclude quality level and flaws in specific teas as a factor related to that, and it's impossible for me to taste a tea using someone else's aspect preferences (their sense of taste, in the one sense).  I guess it's conceivable that I'm just not drinking good enough tea, or that my own flawed preferences are a problem.  That sounds like I'd be joking (and it can be hard for even me to tell when I am or not), but preferences do tend to shift over time, and I'm definitely not claiming to have arrived at a God's eye perspective on tea, just somewhere in between only getting started and having sorted some things out.

all different oolongs, but only part of the range

For Dan Cong it depends on the character of the version; some tend to be softer, and boiling point water is fine, and if that characteristic astringency is a bit more intense using slightly cooler water moderates that (versus using flash infusions; both will work, but the results aren't identical).  I'm not so sure that would be a case of a tea considered as flawed, since those teas vary by lots of factors, but of course teas come in a range of quality levels, and it does seem like less of an issue for better versions, so maybe it really is that simple.  I've tried versions sold more as commercial, mass produced Dan Cong that were different in quality and character, but they vary by plant type / aspect range in better versions too.  Ya Shi (duck shit) tends to be softer and more subtle than Mi Lan Xiang, for example (or also aroma based versus flavor intensive, per a different way of using some terms, but that also introduces a second set of concerns).

One comment by Thomas Smith attempted to explain an actual difference in using slightly cooler water, about changes that go along with variation:

[Brewing at boiling point] Definitely pushes more taste to the forefront, bringing it more in line with the intensity the aroma can provide. The cost seems to be a reduction in the ease of distinguishing taste characteristics, a skew of sourness over sweetness, a move to flavors closer to darker leafy greens and citrus in the lighter oxidized teas (as compared to romaine/endive crispness and a fruitiness closer to pomes and drupes), and a slight comparative dampening of aroma in secondary and tertiary infusions. Can provide more heft, though, which can be pleasant.

Interesting!  He added more to that, within the context of additional discussion:

Hotter water can relinquish more solutes more readily, but can also more rapidly force volatiles out of solution, leaving the aroma potentially less complex by the time it is consumed. Certainly not a huge issue for many wulongs, but a factor in some. And, as indicated earlier, oversaturation can diminish one’s ability to actually perceive the full complexity that can be achieved. The compounds that are soluble at appreciable levels with 100 degree water when steeped at typical short brewing times are also soluble at 85 degrees, given slightly more time. There is merit to experimentation.

A couple of those are subtle points that could easily be taken the wrong way, extended to mean something they seem not to intend, or to reach specific conclusions that really aren't being argued.   As I took it he's not really making a case for or against brewing at any temperature in those comments, instead talking around related factors.  Anyone interested in running through all the points made on either side--or the various sides--can take a look at the discussion, since individual comments and points would be in response to the others.

Related to green tea brewing in Vietnam

The grounding of any optimums in tea preference is problematic.  Even for that same point related to green tea, for which almost no one is ever going to advocate use of full boiling point temperature, it's my understanding that it is completely conventional to brew green tea at that temperature in the Vietnamese tea tradition.  The idea is that some people there love the astringency and bitterness that results from that practice (or so I take it).

Of course you can't generalize a whole country like that, and it's likely that not only are some people influenced by lots of factors (foreign traditions, personal experience, and whatever else), there are also regional variations in both teas and brewing conventions.  I just talked to Huyen about that (that friend who sent some Vietnamese tea samples), and she confirmed that there are really two schools of thought about green tea brewing temperature there.  What she actually did say:

green tea brewing at boiling point in Hanoi

With green tea: there are 2 ways brewing. First, if you want to focus about the flavor, you can use boiling water at 95-98 degree.  But if you want to focus about the taste, you can brew at 80-85 degrees.  The time to steep tea is 20-25 seconds.  That’s my way to brew tea.

Someone might justifiably claim that flavor and taste are synonyms, so opposing them doesn't work (or the same would apply slightly differently for the Chinese description opposing flavor and aroma, really, since taste is tongue-based but most of flavor is really aromatic component based, that is, aroma). 

I think what's going on in both cases are references to real, valid distinctions, just framed in these other cultural and language based contexts, which aren't translating well.  Once you try two versions of the same tea, one described as flavor-intensive and the other aroma-intensive (not related to Huyen's comment, still on the Chinese descriptions framing), then you know exactly what that means, and it makes sense.  My take is that there's probably more of a translation issue going on, that these are extended from use of Vietnamese terms.

If the distinctions in what we taste with our tongue versus what's picked up through aromatic compound sensation--and the related terminology--isn't familiar I'd recommend Barb Stuckey's video reference (the author of Taste What You're Missing; that would also work for further reading).

Related to it being one of two common conventions to use boiling point water for green tea in Vietnam (per this account), then could we claim that a broad part of the entire local tradition and those individual shared preferences are somehow wrong?  If the benchmark is inter-subjective agreement among Western tea enthusiasts then maybe we could; it might be that they're doing it wrong.

Or maybe not.  I ran across a reference source claiming that green tea should be brewed using boiling point water not so long ago (not expressed quite that simply, in a Tea Master's blog post on green tea).  This could be just be my impression but there seems to be a broad, general divide in tea preferences between people claiming that any tea should be brewed using boiling water, and very short infusions, with others holding more to the ranges expressed on charts and such.  It may be that the generality correlates quite a bit with regions or branches of tea traditions.

really nice Assam oolong (reviewed here); but as well to not complicate this

McDonald's hamburgers as an analogy for rejecting subjective preference

An influential and experienced member of the tea community provided an example of a broad inter-subjective agreement that we could define as wrong:  if a group of people were to choose the objectively best burger alternative between McDonald's versions and a high-quality fresh-ground version (Angus beef or the like), and some chose McDonald's versions as their favorite (which would actually happen), couldn't we say their preference is wrong?  Phrasing for that gets tricky, doesn't it?  It's hard to express "best" in such a way that it's clear that you don't mean "according to personal preference," since that is one thing that would tend to mean.

Why is McDonald's burger version clearly inferior?  Let's start with the beef itself:

Thankfully, McDonald’s and several other chains recently stopped using the “pink slime” in their beef. But the vast majority of fast food beef comes from CAFO (concentrated agricultural feeding operation) cows. Not only is this horrible for the animals and the environment, but eating meat from sick animals will only make you sick.  Eat a McDonald’s hamburger and you might be getting a mouth full of antibiotics, hormones, and dangerous bacteria.

Beyond all that (some of which you may not actually be able to taste) there are over 50 questionable chemicals and additives in a single burger (including the other ingredients), per that article, and it's not even possible to order those cooked to specific temperatures.  They're just not great.

As I interpret this we're not comparing McDonald's food to the local steakhouse burger version, per the tea brewing temperature analogy; it maps closer to the "best burger in Bangkok" debate that never completely stops in a local FB foodie group.  Maybe somehow one of those burgers really is best, but it seems more likely that most could agree some of the outlier opinions are based on an odd preference range, or perhaps limited exposure to the others.  Maybe it would be possible to come up with a short list, to identify some answers and preferences as more correct.  No one even jokes about McDonald's being best in that group; if they were having a bad day the admins might ban you.

I'm not really finished with mapping out all of this oolong brewing temperature issue, but as I see it there is no end to it.  It seems likely that as with exposure to a broad range of foods--corresponding to McDonald's foods lovers trying a range of fresh food alternatives--people would gravitate more towards consensus opinions.  I can't say if everyone would only use boiling point temperature water for oolongs, with enough brewing experience, and if using the highest quality tea versions.

A friend brought up a related point when talking about tea-houses in Taiwan a couple months ago; to him they tend to brew tea too strong, seemingly appreciating the feel and aftertaste aspects in the tea more than the flavor, and ruin the effect of the taste by over-brewing, per his preferences.  That was seconded by a relatively identical comment in that discussion.  That doesn't map directly onto the hot water versus slightly cooler debate for oolongs, but some of the same concerns could just be playing out a different way. 

Another friend added a thought that muddies the waters just a bit further:  a cigarette smoker would be more inclined to favor stronger flavors, perhaps even flavors in a certain range, and this could push them towards distinct preferences (eg. oolongs brewed at boiling point, versus liking some types of oolong brewed cooler).  It's sometimes mentioned that a lot of exposure to tea leads to preferences skewing in certain directions, not just related to being more right, to fine-tuning awareness, but also to natural progressions occurring.  I've discussed this in relation to de-emphasizing flavor as a main factor in the past, but I've seen it mentioned related to flavor range too.

another interesting non-standard oolong, from Toba Wangi in Indonesia 


To me there is an interesting tension between two competing ideas: 

1)  personal preference ("taste") is individual and varied, and differing opinions can be valid

2)  with enough exposure and progress along a natural preference curve there are consensus right answers related to patterns of agreement (objectivity in the sense of inter-subjective agreement). 

I'm not really arguing for or against either, I just don't see one simple answer as identifying the facts of the matter in most cases related to tea preference.  Sometimes it works better to say "beginners tend to like that aspect range, more experienced tea drinkers this other," but for any one outcome it's rarely that simple.

Since lots of people gave a lot of great input it's also worth reading that group discussion, in light of these sorts of concerns, of course also based on one's own experiences in brewing oolongs.


  1. I learned at a very young age that taste is adaptable. My father was a crop duster and we lived in Beaumont Texas. My family was big on drinking water. It was milk a mealtime and water at any other time. I loved the taste of Beaumont water. But my father's company got into defoliating cotton in West Texas. West Texas water is very hard. I hated the taste of it. But after a few months I grew to like the taste of the water. When cotton season was over we would move back to Beaumont. I was surprised to find that I no longer thought Beaumont water was that great. But after a couple of months I thought Beaumont water tasted great.

    1. Related to tea people would move straight to discussing which water works best, or further on to which works best with which tea types. The general idea that taste (preference) is relative is one that I keep coming back to; it informs the context of exploring the subject of tea. It would seem like with enough experience, insight, and taste-memory someone could arrive at all sorts of conclusions about variations or consistency within themselves across different time-frames, related to tea or any other food or drink. Plenty of related issues do come up, and people express varying opinions about lots of them (about water, brewing temperature, and teaware, or other external factors, related to eating, their own cycles of variation; it goes on and on). It's interesting to consider but to me one has to strike a balance between exploring and understanding subjects and their experience and just simply having experiences, to not stifle discovery but not clutter immediate experience either.