15 January 2011

The Beautiful Hue of an Old Oolong – Aged Teas III

Old oolongs take on a beautiful brownish-caramel color as they age.  Old Baozhongs which were once bright and green take on this mature hue as well.  Outside of high-oxidized and/or high-roast oolongs, very few modern oolongs have a color that is similar to aged ones.  This is one sign that the tea has some age.

old nantou tea finalAn old tea from the Nantou-area; loose rolling. Over 20 years old

It’s also why I am wary of old teas that have been over-roasted or were “very recently” roasted again with high fire and end up looking black, glossy and/or charred.  The purpose of a re-roast should be to reinforce the body of the tea and to moderate the moisture.  Not only is a gradual temperature change in the roast necessary to correctly remove that moisture content (for taste, storage and aging reasons), but it also prevents the tea from burning and losing flavor.  However, it’s that burning taste and aroma that many tea drinkers identify with traditional, older oolongs.  Most tea drinkers may not know what an aged tea’s color should be, what characteristic tastes should be present, or what an oolong ball’s shape may mean, but they are likely to know that more traditional oolongs were both higher oxidized and had higher levels of roast. 

old tgy finalAn aged Anxi Tieguanyin, about 20 years old

An over-roasted oolong that has been allowed to sit for a bit has a full taste that may also be described as nutty and is reminiscent of traditional oolongs. It’s not wrong for tea drinkers to think of this taste or to look for these characteristics when they search for old teas.  In fact, less-than-honest retailers know this, which is one reason they create fake aged oolongs with such a flavor profile.  It’s aromatic but not necessarily fruity or floral.  It’s not to say that no old oolongs are ever over-roasted, as that would be untrue.  Over-roasting makes it difficult to taste the tea’s base or to study the leaves, but I believe that no exceptional aged oolong is over-roasted. 

Over time, even a charred oolong will change in color.  It’s true!  Take an oolong that has been so over-roasted that it’s charred black, put it into a clay jar that is not air-tight and leave it for years.  Not only will the fire recede and the taste soften, but the color will soften as well.  Whether or not that tea will ever turn out “good” is a different story!

Color is one useful indicator of the age of an oolong.  Aside from using a subjective, relative assessment of taste to judge age, there is no objective method that I am aware of to accurately gauge the age of an oolong tea.  But all of this is an exercise in personal tea education, as my fundamental belief continues to be that if it tastes good to you, then it’s good.  At least to you. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.


  1. I am running to open all tea caddies with aged oolongs and check the color:)

    Thank you again for this insights into field I am recently discovering. Helpfull.


  2. Great, I hope you find some nice surprises!

    I read on Gingko's blog that she has purchased several of your treasures. What a good friend she is to share your work. I can't wait to see what she has.