|I've made a huge mistake.|
I kind of like how this blog is just turning into a catalog of my recent tea-making mistakes. This is one I make periodically with rolled oolong (usually roasted ones, since, unlike with green gaoshan teas, you need more than just a bare covering of the bottom of the pot for an ideal brew--much harder to estimate).
Here's how it goes: I put some tea in the pot. I look in and decide, "That's definitely not enough," then add some: "Ok, maybe that's better," then, "Just a couple more to make sure." Then, when the the leaves are already crawling out of the pot after the first infusion, I realize the folly of my decision.
From there, it's a matter of either a)
Sucking it up and drinking a really strong pot of tea and incurring a massive buzz, b)
Trying to take a few leaves out (which means wasting them), which usually still ends up a lot like a)
, or c)
, then pulling the leaves out of the pot later in the day and re-steeping them in a huge mug because they were so cramped in the 100 ml pot that there's invariably plenty of juice left in there.
What? Me measure? You'd think I'd be getting better at this by now...
I recently started drinking two charcoal-roasted dong ding oolongs I've been storing since mid 2010, both purchased from Shiuwen at Floating Leaves Tea
. Though I tried both teas a few times during the last three years, the most recent experience was definitely the most interesting, leaving me with a few thoughts on aging oolong, and tea in general.
The first tea is a heavily-roasted dong ding. At the time of purchase, I enjoyed the tea but thought it would probably become more balanced (the roast would diminish, that is) if it were aged for a relatively short period, so I completely filled an airtight ceramic container with about 250g (my whole stash of a tea that was already unavailable [Shiuwen couldn't remember which farmer she bought it from!]). In the intervening tastings, the tea tasted roughly the same as I remembered, and it wasn't until pulling it out a couple months ago I really thought it tasted like all of the flavors were really blending well. The vibrant tea base, which was always there and present in later brewings, showed itself early on, and the brewing ability appeared to still be strong.
The second tea is what I would consider medium-roast, though compared to most dong ding I find it's actually pretty high (good charcoal roasted dong ding seems to be getting harder and harder to find). The tea was eminently drinkable back in 2010 and, having a larger quantity in my possession I kept a similar amount (~250g in an identical container). Though I didn't feel like the tea had any flaws or "too much" of any characteristic, I wanted to be able to drink it longer and was curious to find out if it would change remarkably or improve in some way with a handful of years. Each time I tasted the tea, I was instantaneously transported to the week I spent in my parents' basement in early July 2010, hammering out the last few overdubs for my first album
, riding a creative high and thinking very positive thoughts about making my first confident artistic statements and about the potential my somewhat strange music might have to connect with people as it made its way into the world. After three years of artistic advancement, but also increasing disillusionment and resignation to a more pragmatic outlook, the ability to magically return to that naïve optimism has been a welcome feeling.
On the most recent re-visit, though, I found the tea was tasting a bit tired--that surge of strength on the second or third infusion wasn't quite as forthcoming as it had been before. The roast had diminished a little, which is ok with me (it's aging, after all), but there certainly wasn't any "aged oolong" flavor coming through, like there was in aged teas I'd purchased. Three years isn't very long, if you're expecting a full-on aged oolong, but if your tea's getting stale, you're likely entering territory that will require either re-roasting or very long-term aging to produce a tasty tea.
So, after these two fateful encounters, I resolved to continue to sparingly drink the first oolong until it's gone, and to consume the second as soon as possible. The experience has left me with some opinions that are by no means ironclad, but are--unlike quite a bit of tea wisdom that gets re-re-repeated without much evidence--based on the personal experiences of one tea drinker who's been doing it for a few years. If you're thinking about aging oolong (or other teas), I invite you to join in learning from my experience, and consider this advice.
. 250g may seem like a lot when you're buying for immediate consumption, but once you taste it once a year or more for a few years, you'll suddenly be down to a much less significant quantity. At this time, you'll start dealing with container issues
--oolong should be in an airtight container, and once you remove tea from a previously-full container and reseal it, you're storing your tea with a quantity of air that's not going to do it any favors. This is a difficult issue to confront if you want to periodically taste your tea. Will you buy smaller and smaller containers and move the tea as the quantity dwindles? Will you store in multiple containers and designate one as the "trying" container (risky, because tea ages better the larger the quantity that's stored together)? In our minds we tend to build up the potential of a tea that's been aging--if you unseal 200g of tea after 20 years of aging, you're still only left with roughly 25 sessions worth of tea (by my brewing parameters). That'll go pretty quickly, no matter how big a quantity you told yourself 200g was when you first started aging the tea!
The tea will change
. This seems like a no-brainer, but it's just about the most important thing you need to think of when investing in a tea (of any kind) to age. Ask yourself: "Do I love this tea just the way it is right now?" If not, "Do I think the things I don't like about this tea will get better if I age it?" Or at least, "Will I be ok if the tea transforms into something almost completely different from what it is right now?" If you've tried aged Wuyi yan cha or Taiwanese oolongs, you probably know they don't really taste anything like fresh examples. In the case of the second tea, when I found it losing steam and tasting like a hollower version of its original self, I realized I wasn't hoping for that tea to transform at all--I mainly just wanted to experience the original tea as long as I could. As difficult as it was to give up the physical sensory link to my memories from 2010 (talk about a life lesson in general!) and move on, I decided it would be better to go to that place again a few more times while I could and still have the tea taste roughly the same. In the case of the first tea, I knew I wanted the roast to mellow a bit, and fortunately it did. After experiencing what happened to the second tea, I realized the first tea is now at the ideal quality peak I originally sought after--since it's exactly how I wanted it to be
, I am risking another disappointment if I keep aging it! The very act of squirreling tea away for decades of hypothetical improvement is sort of stingy in the first place, so it can be difficult to unclench the fist and say, "Ok; it's time to stop holding back and just drink it," and to do so within a reasonable time period
, while the tea is in its current form! Remember that the purpose you bought the tea in the first place was enjoyment; if it's already at a peak of enjoyability in comparison with other teas you've tried, what are you doing setting it aside to change?! Live a little bit--the tea's quantity certainly isn't going to increase as it ages! This leads to the final main point.
Anything can happen to the tea
. Whether it's good or not-so-good, when you stash tea away, there's a chance that anything
can happen to it. Though pu-erh aging takes top prize for most potential aging catastrophes, oolong has just as much potential to go brutally stale, get humidity damage, or just plain transform into a tea that has none of the original's strengths and few (if any) benefits of aging. You're rolling the dice when you age a tea, and if you're happy with a tea the way it is right now, you need to take the risks into consideration before you make the leap. Conversely, it's generally not good practice to age a tea you think is shitty and hope that it'll become amazing. However, you'll certainly avoid the chance that a tea you love will lose its best qualities! Who knows--if I had kept the second tea for 20 more years, maybe the staleness would have moved into a real aged character, but in this case I wasn't willing to give up the experience of the original tea for that chance.
I still have some quite large quantities of yan cha in storage. Some are wax-sealed and some are simply closed in containers. I was never as emotionally invested in these teas, but this recent experience has caused me to consider my original impulses. I enjoy aged yan cha and have tried a few pretty recent examples that exhibit the sort of mellowed, medicinal flavor that comes with aging, and I also love roasty, punchy young yan cha, so either direction the tea could go would be ok with me. Then again, anything can happen
, so I need to be prepared for stale tea. Luckily, I've got enough that I don't mind seeing what happens to one or two jars after a decade or more. Time will tell...
Anybody out there have any long-term oolong aging stories to share?
On an unrelated note, I have a couple of Yixing for sale
...music remains a labor of love with few material benefits.
Today it's my pleasure to write about some samples I received from the generous hands of blog
friends and operators of Tea Urchin
, Eugene and Belle. They're currently based in Shanghai and from the impressive breadth of their blog content they're indisputable examples of the new breed of online tea vendors who fearlessly launch themselves into the tea garden trenches, bent on sourcing the best teas as directly as possible and gathering a girthy and transparent wealth of knowledge for their customers (and themselves) in the hopes of further advancing the progress of tea connoisseurship in the non-Asian world. As far as I'm concerned, there's pretty much unlimited room in the market for vendors of this stripe--the more educated consumers become, the more the market for great tea grows. In my experience they all tend to be pretty nice people, too!
From what I can tell, the "online tea vendor" moniker is synonymous with "free sample-giver"--from the free samples that most sellers include with orders to care packages like the one Eugene and Belle sent me, it's a wonder vendors don't give away all their stock in seven-gram increments! Yet, there is always the promise of turning a free sample recipient into a long-term customer...
|Autumn 2011 Gua Feng Zhai|
Pictured in-focus above is the Autumn 2011 Gua Feng Zhai sheng pu-erh offered by Tea Urchin; it's been a while since I've partaken in any autumn pu-erh (I think maybe some 2007 XZH was the last autumn tea I'd tried before this one). Plopping a nice chunk into my warmed aged
sheng tea pot (don't worry, it'll be just fine) my nose was greeted by that familiar new sheng aroma--grassy with some strained rustic elements and a sinewy back bone. Let me again state that I'm not a young sheng pu-erh tasting expert or even an aficionado, though experiences like this are always enjoyable and illuminating opportunities. I know there's more than one bump-on-a-log online who'll grumble that autumn pu-erh isn't worth drinking, but this shit tastes pretty good to me! Naturally, it's tasting very green and energetic but there's plenty of bitterness lurking in that "oops I let it sit five seconds too long before pouring out" zone, and there's some nice progression happening across the infusions. How does it compare to other Gua Feng Zhai examples? Beats the hell out of me, but what's in my cup certainly meets my criteria for what constitutes "good" young sheng!
|Summer 2011 Lao Man E|
Comparatively, this summer 2011 Lao Man E is less floral and fragrant and visibly more amber in the cup. While I appreciate bright, energetic teas, my daily drinking these days tends to favor teas with broader characteristics--instead of a punchy young flavor, this tea offers a bit more of a sampler of different earth tones, which seem to complement bitterness more naturally. I do agree with the Tea Urchin description, though, that this summer tea is surprisingly less bitter than other spring teas I've tried from Bulang. I'm guessing you'll find even more sticks-in-the-mud declaring summer pu-erh not worth drinking or aging, but if I were going to drink a young sheng pu-erh on a daily basis, it would probably be something more like this. Keep in mind, I'm the kind of rotten tomato who's inclined to believe that anyone with less than roundabout 30 years of personal pu-erh aging and drinking experience is probably unqualified to make statements about how a particular brand new pu-erh will age. Rather than desperately rationalizing that the tea we already bought is definitely
or will definitely
turn into something great, we'd probably be better served by buying and drinking something we already think tastes good, loving it without conditions that it improve at a later date (I'm also now accepting applications as a marriage counselor)! We've all heard that one before, though, right? If I had more discretionary income, I'd probably be buying one or more of every new pressing made by my favorite vendors, so my savings can at least be thankful that these days I have to focus not on speculative purchases but rather on the teas I drink daily...
Like yan cha! While my pu-erh purchases are quite cautious, my yan cha stockpile is in a constant state of danger, and I'm always on the lookout for well-roasted teas. I also received some Da Hong Pao, Rou Gui and Tie Luo Han from Belle and Eugene, all of which are reasonably priced and seem to be traditionally processed. I can think of few currently-available Tie Luo Han examples that fit what's become ideal in my mind--at it's best, Tie Luo Han is almost not even there--there isn't any high lingering aroma or buzzing mouth activity; it's more of a "feel" tea that can quietly offer an awful lot that other yan cha can't. Good on Tea Urchin for offering one that's roughly priced at a yan cha "daily drinking" level. While my 2012 pu-erh purchases are likely to be about as minimal as they were in 2011, I suspect I'll be visiting Tea Urchin for yan cha before too much more time passes. Thanks again to Belle and Eugene for the opportunity and delicious teas--I'm sure we'll be seeing more and more great Tea Urchin offerings in the near future.