Often when I talk with tea drinkers about my favourite teas, they tell me that they don’t drink oolong or white teas because these teas are too difficult to prepare. So instead they stick to “easy” teas: black teas.

Black teas are easy? Are you serious? After green teas, black teas are the touchiest and most persnickety of all the teas. Some of them are downright pains in the you-know-what to get right.

Why is that? Well, if your water isn’t hot enough, like at a rolling boil, most black teas end up tasting flat. And you have to time them really accurately. Too short a steep and there’s no taste. Let them steep just a touch too long and you’ll end up with a bitter, undrinkable cup.

Compare that with oolongs and whites, the easiest of all the teas to prepare and the most forgiving when you get it wrong. Yes, you read that right!

Oolong tea leavesGranted that oolong teas perform best when steeped gongfu style in a clay teapot, and I like to steep white teas in a gaiwan. You can, however, infuse both oolongs and whites in a gaiwan, gongfu style, or in a standard English-style teapot. Certainly some black teas are that versatile, but they’re few and very far between.

In English style teapots, oolongs can steep for anywhere from four to seven minutes;  white teas for ten to fifteen minutes. Now that’s what I call versatility! And there will still be enough spirit in the leaves for one or two more infusions.

Put a black tea into either a gaiwan or an Yixing clay teapot and you’ll end up with over-steeped swill. Not to mention that most black teas do not lend themselves to multiple steeps – one infusion and the leaves are spent.

Oolongs and white teas share one important characteristic with black teas: you do need to use water at the proper temperature. For oolongs that’s just below boiling while still bubbling, about 195 deg F. White teas like their water flat, between 130 to 140 deg F. (For best results, always bring the water to a full rolling boil, then let it cool down to the optimum temperature.)

And if the water is a little too hot or too cool? No problem: the teas will still come out just fine.White tea leaves They’re both really very forgiving.

“But white tea has no taste!” you’ll tell me. Actually it might not – not if you’re steeping it for one or two minutes, as many tea vendors advise. Try infusing for twelve minutes and you’ll be amazed at the wonderful taste and aromas you can coax out of white teas following this low-temperature/long-steep method.

And no, you won’t be over-steeping them. Occasionally I get distracted and forget that I left my oolong tea to steep; when I finally do return it might be fifteen minutes or even an hour later, and while I wouldn’t recommend this as a regular practice, the tea usually smells and tastes pretty darn good. Back when I was taking night classes, I always brought along a thermos of white tea to keep me alert. There weren’t any of those nifty travel mugs with built-in infusers, so I just put leaves and water into a regular thermos. Three hours later I’d drink the tea during class break, then refill the thermos with hot water – using the same tea leaves – to steep for the ride home. And never once did the tea get bitter. It smelled and tasted sweet from the first sip to the last.

Can you do that with black tea?

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