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.


  1. I enjoy reading this very much! Write more! I've seen more writings talking about aged tea as a concept than those talking about the specific details and criteria. We need more writings on aged tea like this one!

  2. Thanks Gingko, good to hear from you!

    I think aged oolongs will continue to grow in popularity. There is an aged Baozhong that I tried a few months back that is very old and shares so characteristics with pu'er; I've been told that very old oolongs may do this. With the popularity of pu'er and people growing accustomed to that taste, I think that type of tea drinker will most easily transition to enjoying good, aged oolongs.

    I picked up a new and different crop of aged Anxi TGY that I should send to you to try. It was over-roasted, so it will need to spend some time in a jar to soften, but I think the base has potential.


  3. I've heard of re-firing teas to extend shelf life, but this was always mentioned in a cautionary way; that if the tea were allowed to sit at above 6% moisture for any length of time it would go stale, but that re-firing would destroy some of the more volatile fragrances in the tea and tended to deteriorate the quality.

    I wonder if maybe the Japanese habit of storing tea under nitrogen might be the wave of the future...

  4. Oolong's taste and aroma change constantly; I'd like to think that an oolong with a good base evolves into something more complex. I agree that the re-firing will change characteristics of the tea, but those changes might make for a more pleasant brew. I'd prefer a re-roasted oolong over a super stale one.

    Nitrogen storage has its benefits, but the technology and equipment is not cheap, definitely more than what most teashops would be able to spend. A robust oolong can age gracefully and become better over time as well; the changes for such a tea are a welcomed benefit.