09 December 2010

1998 is NOT the same as 98 – Aged Teas II

An aged oolong, particularly Dong Ding and Tieguanyin, should have begun to “degrade” in the sense that it has lost much of its roast and the character of the tea has begun to soften.  It is often difficult to taste for these changes with much of the aged teas that are sold because they have undergone subsequent re-roasts.  I believe that a good aged oolong should have been oxidized; I don’t know to what percent, but I would guess 15% at the least.  Traditional Dong Ding that is over 10 years old will meet this criteria, and older Tieguanyin (especially the Muzha variety; Anxi’s started to go green over 10 years ago and varies more) should also meet this criteria.  The tea base will soften sloppily without the proper oxidation and may taste expired.  Anxi’s greener oolongs, for example, can taste quite harsh even after many years of aging.  The lack of oxidation seems to affect how well the tea can retain its base characteristics.  The tea should also have had several roasts when it was produced, which helps to seal in the flavor.  Traditional Tieguanyin is roasted as many as 4-5 times and Dong Ding generally has 2-3 roasts.

There are two main schools of aged oolongs, one which says that if the tea base is strong enough and the original oxidation and roast are good enough, that the tea should be left to soften naturally to reach its best state.  This type of tea is harder to find and usually more expensive.  The other major type of aged oolong is one that has been re-roasted over the years to preserve and/or enhance the taste.  This type of aged oolong is easier to find, but also easier to fake.  I was shown one method of fakery, alternating the tea betweens cycles of rest and baking, to produce a musty, tart, “old-ish” taste that is characteristic of aging oolongs.  After the finishing roast is applied, it is allowed to sit and would be able to fool a lot of people.  Since most people have not had a wide variety of aged oolongs of various types, the re-roasted variety of aged tea tastes more legitimate because it has fire and a robust body, which one can relate to what a traditional oolong should be like.

Like good, aged pu’er, Taiwan and Hong Kong can be good places to find aged oolongs.  And like an aged pu’er, aged oolongs can be very pricey, upwards of thousands of dollars a pound. 

If you’re shopping for aged teas in Taiwan, though, there is a basic thing that you need to know:  the year that the tea was made.  1998 and 98, for example, are not necessarily the same thing.  The Republic of China was founded in 1912 as the first year of the republic.  If 1998 is the common calendar year, 98 is the ROC or Minguo (民國) year, taken by subtracting 1911 from the current year.  Thus, a tea that is labeled or sold as 98 generally means that it is 1911+98 years old, or made in 2009.  That is not an aged tea.  Many Taiwanese tea farmers and retailers still use the Minguo calendar.

Fine, fine, good trivia you say, but you’re not as nutty about aged teas as I am and don’t plan to travel to Taiwan to search for them, since you’ve heard that the store 2 cities up the freeway from you has good stuff.  OK, but where did THEY get their aged Taiwan tea from?  I have visited many tea shops across North America and many of them don’t know as much about their product as we’d hope.  I was once told by a retailer that she had some excellent aged Taiwan high mountain oolong, but the date stamp on the packaging was for Minguo years.  She didn’t understand what that meant and didn’t believe that there was an alternate calendar system; I dropped the point since she was probably more embarrassed than defiant.  However, I’ve said before that when a retailer deals with premium products at premium prices, there is no excuse for “not knowing;” that means they’re either dishonest to sell inferior tea at superior tea prices, or they’re ignorant and sell lesser-quality tea at premium prices. 

I’d like to share a good source to buy an aged, non re-roasted Nantou (e.g. Dong Ding) aged tea to try, the type that is harder to find.  If you have never had this type of tea before, you may find it to be strange and quite different.  For the price, though, it is to this date the best place I’ve found to conveniently acquire and try this type of tea outside of Asia.  I share this with reluctance because the quantity is so limited, but it has to be done in the spirit of tea learning.  Essence of Tea is based in the UK and will ship all over.  They are knowledgeable about Taiwan teas (I’ve heard their pu’er is good, but haven’t tried much – Felicific Life Blog).  I know that there are other Western tea retailers with non re-roasted, aged oolongs, but this one deserves mentioning because the product is legit, the purchase quantity is flexible, and the price is quite good.

Mr. Zhan of Nine Pots Manor has an aged and re-roasted Hong Shui Oolong from Central Taiwan that I’ve talked about before.  As far as I know, his teas are not sold by anyone outside of Asia, but Shiuwen at Floating Leaves Tea acquired a small amount this year (not on her site).  The tea should be between 25-30 years old and is an example of a traditional, high-oxidized hong-shui tea, while also exhibiting some of the characteristic tastes of an aged oolong. 

Have you found other places with an aged oolong that deserve attention?

05 December 2010

What is Aged Oolong Tea? Part 1

“Why do young people always ask for aged teas?  Why do they want something that I didn’t sell out of years ago?  New tea is fresh and tastes good.  It’s also cheaper.”

Mr. Shhh is probably close to 90 years old, but he walks up and down the busy Taiwan streets as fast as I do, probably faster if I wasn’t holding him up by lugging stuff with me as we walked to his shop.  To him, even 60 year-olds are considered “young people.”  Mr. Shhh has a habit of interrupting people in the middle of their stories or conversations to give his commentary, hence he begins many of his stories with “Shhh shh, I….”  Having lived a full life and having many worthwhile stories from his years as a farmer, producer, retailer and educator, his words are insightful.

Mr. Shhh’s shop is now run by his descendents, but he maintains an office in the corner of the warehouse.  He invited me over to take a look at various types of teas that his family had worked on recently, as well as teas from long ago.

“How long does an oolong have to be aged or stored to be considered an aged oolong?”  All of the various tea makers, roasters and sellers have different answers for what they consider aged tea.  There are also no less than 3 ways to ask this question.  Lao Cha (老茶) is the most commonly-understood way to ask for old tea (aged).  I have heard some people call it Jiu Cha (久茶) which also translates as old tea, but connotes something that is possibly past-date or from past seasons (old, not necessarily aged).  Many farmers better understand what I mean by a good, aged oolong when I ask for Laoren Cha (老人茶) or old folks’ tea, which is the traditional type of oxidized oolongs that older folks drank decades ago.  Mr. Shhh says that if the tea wasn’t charcoal roasted, he doesn’t consider it aged.  There are relatively few roasters that still roast with charcoal, so his actual implication was that the tea would probably have to be 15-20+ years old for him to consider it an actual aged tea. 

Passing by various retailers in the markets and tea streets of Taipei, I have been told that an aged tea can be 2 or 3 years old.  “No, that is just old tea,” I would say, to which they would normally say something like, “Of course, aged tea is old, what’s the difference?”  Ha, not a bad answer, my fault for not being specific. 

I’ve been wanting to write a series of posts to share my knowledge and experiences with aged oolongs, Dong Ding and Tieguanyin in particular, for quite some time.  There has been a growing interest among tea folks for aged oolongs, and along with that, there’s been a proliferation of shops carrying “aged oolongs” – some at exorbitant prices.  My Dong Ding teacher really hates it when I bring up old tea because it is a complete rip-off to him.  What do we non-professionals know about what is aged or not and what is good or bad, he says.  For every real and good aged oolong that we may find, we may have tried or bought another 5, 10, 15…teas to find it.  I can’t even say that a good aged Dong Ding reminds me of the teas I first fell in love with, since they have changed so much over their years of storage and aging as to provide a different experience.  But there is a clarity in a good, aged oolong tea’s character that has blossomed and softened over the years, a complexity of “shadow” tastes, as if plum, pear, apricot and various floral essences had visited the tea long ago and departed.  It is a special experience to enjoy.  I hope that by sharing the knowledge that I have learned from successful and failed experiences in my search for these teas that you will be able to find some that are worth savoring.

Briefly, an aged oolong to me should have undergone the softening of its base and roast for quite some time, to the point where the major components of its taste should be less distinct as individual flavors.  The aged Dong Ding or Tieguanyin should have been properly oxidized and roasted in the beginning; a good, aged oolong will have been produced from a quality tea by a skilled tea-maker and masterfully oxidized and roasted (no different from a good contemporary oolong and a run of the mill one).  I’ve also mentioned in several past posts that age is only one criteria; not all aged teas taste good and in fact, most do not.  I don’t consider a tea aged unless it is at least 15 years old, and in most cases, I don’t think that the tea will reach its apex for several decades.  I’ll fill in the details in later posts and have more pictures to represent what I’m talking about, too.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.