25 June 2012

Many Teas Deserve a 2nd Chance

Many old oolongs can taste rather odd.  Older oolongs - those with at last 20 years of age - can taste exceptionally sour, bitter and "wet.”  They can smell musty, “ripe,” and seem otherwise unappealing.  There can be an indescribable taste/aroma of "oldness" that is referred to as "陳味.”  While the aging process can be thought of as “softening” the tea, I also imagine that it’s the breakdown of the product that what we're tasting; the unique flavors being, in part, a result of decomposition.  Lovely!  From experience, I will also say that unless an aged tea is roasted to death, aged teas also require more patience and experimentation to draw out their best flavors.  It could be a mistake to try an aged tea once and quickly write it off a horrible, as so many of them have potential that can be worked out, but that is a topic for another time.

After my recent experiment with tea-infused liquor, I thought more about how we come to acquire a taste for things that endear us to their "acquired" properties.  What possesses college students, for example, to drink the most unholy of spirits (that would be Tequila...I hate the stuff from the first to the last drop regardless of what premium cactus it comes from) party after party?  And many actually come to enjoy it!  Or what person, upon first eating the Chinese preserved duck egg, has the immediate initial reaction that it’s so yummy as to ask for seconds & thirds, or to compel themselves to add it to their congee, or mix it with salted eggs & steam it with lettuce and conpoy...?  I can say the same about bitter melon, I don’t think any child loves it, but the taste grows on you as the bitter gives way to an understated sweetness - a mature flavor profile - that is actually enjoyable.  Interesting.

I think back to the first time I had real Chaozhou style gongfu tea.  I was barely a teenager and it was so strong and the infusion so thick and bitter.  It was not enjoyable.  How did that awful encounter eventually lead me to become a tea lover?  I look back and find that some of my favorite things in life began with less-than-pleasant experiences.  Many different edibles (spicy food, moon cake, sashimi...), alcohol, tea, hiking, Zen, pants….

If many of my favorite things started off as unpleasant experiences, I wonder how much more in life I’m missing out on because I refuse to try them out or give experiences second chances?  The first time I met my Tieguanyin teacher's wife, she served me a mediocre, pricey tea, and then another, and it wasn't until 3 or 4 teas later that I was told they had a lot of much, much better stuff that they don’t stock on their retail shelves.  I probably had pu'er over 50 times (not counting restaurant tea) before I had an eye-opening experience that led me to enjoy and appreciate it.

I recently had the chance to try a rather rough tea that, I believe, has the potential to shine if it receives some refinement via skilled roasting.  It reminded me that I should try to keep an open mind and give experiences and people a few chances to put their best foot forward, since some of the best things in life don’t always reveal themselves to us on the first go-around.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.


  1. Ah, Tequila! To me the holiest of all the alcohol.
    Great post Rich.

    Hey, how bout that Aged Baohzong?Pretty nice!!

  2. I'll be sure to send any Tequila presents that I receive your way!

    That aged Baozhong is very surprising and yes, very nice! I think it's at least from the 1970s, but possibly older. The aged TGY sample is probably at least 20 years old, but it needs some mindful roasting. The body is pretty solid, though, and it'll definitely be a treat once it's polished and has had some time to rest.

  3. Excellent and timely essay -- a pleasure to read :)

  4. Thanks so much! I forget, are you in the Oregon area? If so, the special tasting that Floating Leaves is doing this or next month will include that old Baozhong. I'm not a Baozhong fan, but that aged tea is pretty special, definitely worth tasting.


  5. It's a good discussion. I've recently experimented (with mixed results) on some re-roasting of oolongs. The mixed results is my skill level, I'm sure! ;-)

  6. This is interesting, and something I've thought about much in the past. I think there's many small things I've come to appreciate and acquire over time, and seen tastes change...though I think the basic tastes/interests have stayed consistent--many of the things I am most passionate about and still doing--types of activities, mindflow, kinds of people I connect with, hit me hard and ecstatically between ages 16-20 and have only deepened in those directions since then. I think if you're an intuitive/intense kind of person, that's the case.