Sep 3, 2010

About aging oolong - 1 question and 1 answer

Sometimes I would ask one same question to different people and learn what they have to say. It's not that I don't trust one person, but rather because many tea questions don't have standard answers. Sometimes I get opposite answers from different people, and I may like both answer as well. No answer is the final answer, but a collection of such answers make me learn little by little.

It was a summer afternoon when my friends and I sat in a small teashop in Beijing, drinking tea with the shop manager. In Beijing, teashop managers often share tea with customers, without intention to push for immediate purchase. It's a nice, warm traditional business mode that's seldom seen in other trades in modern day society. Of course not everybody walking in is treated with the top notch tea. But I was so lucky to be with my tea friends. Because of their friendship and good business relation with the teashop manager, we were treated with a lot of great teas, one after another. Among them, we had two Wuyi Shui Xian products. Both are high fire. One was made two years ago. One was made this year, manually roasted by this teashop manager. Both yield many infusions of complex great flavors. The 2-year-old Shui Xian is smoother and more sugary. The current-year Shui Xian is more striking with a lot of characters. We love both of them. My friend Charlie liked the 2-year-old Shui Xian better, while I prefer the new Shui Xian. In fact, many hours after our drinking session, at that night, the flavor of that Shui Xian came back to my mind again and again. It was not an aftertaste in mouth but an aftertaste in memory.

By the time we've exchanged a lot of conversation and I liked this teashop manager very much. She is a beautiful young woman, a certified senior tea taster, a qin player, a Buddhist baptized (? ordained?) in my favorite temple in Beijing. She is knowledgeable and witty, quiet but outgoing. In our conversation, I thought of this question that I've asked some people before, and I asked the question again to her. Do you think the inner quality of a oolong can be promoted by aging? I explained my perplexity to her. Although it was historically recorded that Wuyi tea of three years old was favored by tea drinkers even more than new tea, and although I did enjoy a few great oolongs that had been aged for several years, I don't have much idea about what long-term aging (say, 10 years or more) will do to a oolong. I also had some aged oolongs (not sure for how long though) that's definitely mild to stomach, good to your health, but not so special in taste.  I thought it would be interesting to learn what she thinks.

The manager told me she believes Wuyi Yan Cha can benefit a lot from aging, while she doesn't think Tie Guan Yin can age as well. Here are her reasons. Tie Guan Yin is made from relatively young tea bushes, while the best Yan Cha is usually made from old bushes. Besides, Wuyi tea bushes are grown on top of very thin soil, and majority of their nutrients and complex biomolecules are stored in the leaves instead of roots. Therefore, Tie Guan Yin's value is usually in its floating, refreshing aroma, while Yan Cha has thicker and naturally more complex flavor, which last well over years and has great potential to build up a great aged flavor.

I further asked her, If we give a grade 100 to a good oolong when it was new, will aging make its quality up to 120, 150, or allow it to maintain 100, or will aging cause its quality to fade to 80? She believes for Tie Guan Yin, aging will cause the tea to fade little by little, while for many good Yan Cha products, aging can promote the tea quality to 120, 150, 200 or even higher.

These are my question and her answer. With my limited experience, I don't know how much I am ready to accept this answer, and I am aware this is only one of many different answers on this question. But I think I like it that she has reasonable explanations on her opinion.

Previously in a blog on a vintage Tie Guan Yin, I recorded answers from a different group of people to the same question. Their answers are quite different from the response from the teashop manager, but they do share some common ground.


MarshalN said...

Where is this shop?

It sounds like she has the typical northern bias -- TGY must be green and floral. She should really try the roasted variety -- which is how TGY should be made.

Rich said...

Interesting post about having tea in Beijing! I am curious about mainland tea cultivation, though, and what the teahouse manager said about yan cha. Although the oldest yancha bushes are much older than tieguanyin bushes, my understanding is that most of the modern tea produced from yancha bushes are from relatively "young" bushes that were planted within the last 50 years. I don't know much about the nuances of tea cultivation in Wuyi, but I have been taught that many types of tea bushes, including tieguanyin (at least in Taiwan) benefit from deep-root separation every decade or so, and re-planting after several decades, since some farmers believe that tea bushes have an optimal life-span. Cuttings or off-shoots are cultivated and replanted as the fields are rotated. I have heard, though, that this practice may be changing, but if it's still the case, then the actual wuyi yancha bushes that produce the majority of modern yancha shouldn't be much older than modern tea-producing tieguanyin bushes. I also think that production methods, oxidation and roasting levels/technique, etc play big roles in how well a tea is stored. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Ho Go said...

Here in Bangkok, the owner of the best tea shop has a great 10+ year old Shui Xian that he personally re-roasts. Luckily, I was able to buy some from his private stash. To my taste, this is one of the more unusual teas I've ever had. Absolutely delicious without a trace of astringency. So smooth, sweet, and, delicate. Another tea drinking friend hates it. :) Haha.

Just last week, I asked him if he likes aged TGY. He told me that Chinese people prefer to drink TGY more fresh (roasted, is his preference)and he didn't like aged TGY. He is not a northerner. He's from Fujian. Family is in the business more than 100 years.

So, what is the correct answer? Maybe none. Just because a Yancha might be 10+ years, it may be crap if wasn't brought up well. In the hands of a master, there is more of a chance of a tea becoming increasingly more interesting with age but the last judge will be the drinker. My TGY is maybe 3 years and delicious. I also prefer roasted but not heavy. Best.....

Gingko said...

MarshalN, the shop is in a small "tea city" in the "Korean neighborhood". And you made a good point that very possibly when people talk about TGY, they talk about modern green style TGY, in the north or south. The manager is from Fujian. In fact, in Beijing, I only know one source to buy traditional darker TGY and many of my friends in Beijing didn't know it and don't care. In Fujian I only know few sources to get traditional darker TGY and one of them is significantly above the "authenticity level" of others.

RTea, the root-separation and re-planting sounds interesting! I wonder if it's similar to modern day re-planting of TGY and some other cultivars. People like to use young bushes of TGY. Before propagation cloning was invented, it was very hard to raise a new tea bush. Maybe the procedure you described is another way to achieve the same goal? Besides, I don't have much idea about what affect how a tea is stored. I had never heard of the idea of aging oolong in the first 30 years of my life. Nowadays people talk about it more. So I bring this question to different people, and hope they give me not only their opinions, but also their explanations. Or hope they let me taste some tea :-p

Ho Go, Bangkok sounds great! I constantly think, nowadays when China's oolong market is largely determined by one trend after another, maybe more traditions are preserved in more stable tea drinking societies in southeast Asia.

Gingko said...

Forgot to mention that it's a long tradition in both Wuyi and southern Fujian that people store aged oolong for medical uses. I think that's totally different from aging oolong for connoisseur appreciation. The medical aged oolong is what I think very smooth and mild, good to your health, but not worth the hype. But I suspect that people who love puerh shu may hold a different view on it.

Marlena said...

I can't really comment on aging Oolong, but I have been to small towns in Ireland, where, if you are there at the right time, store proprietors will invite you to share their tea. The tea itself is not exquisite, but the conversation and the idea of taking time from the store for tea and chat is. I wish people here would do that. It is such a civilised thing to do.

Rich said...

Hi Gingko, I think root separation and re-planting (from offshoots and clones) is still the way to do it. I have also been taught that to re-grow the plant from "scratch" is not only more difficult, but reduces the chances of having a plant that is of "high" quality. There is a tea farm about 90 mins north of where I live where a farmer has been experimenting with various hybrid plants for over a decade. It's interesting to hear about how the quality of the leaves improves the older the plants get.

Aged oolong is a beautiful thing, but it's not easy to find good and honest ones. I have tea that is aged simply because of my mistake or someone else's mistake; I've so over-roasted tea that it must continue to sit before it's drinkable again.

The trend for oolong seems to be going greener and lighter. If we look at, for example, the seasonal winners of such tea competitions as Anxi and Muzha's Tieguanyin and Pinglin Baozhong and compare them to the winners from 10+ years ago, we would definitely see a pattern of lighter oxidation and/or roasting. I don't think this is a good or bad thing, but like Ho Go said, it's a matter of preference. Not so fortunately for me, I prefer higher-oxidized Tieguanyin with moderate roasting and a robust body that is not so easy to find nowadays.

Marlonm said...

I would have to agree. I've found lightly oxidized, green tgy becoming more popular over the medium to heavily oxidized tgy.I personally prefer the lighter one.

As for the Yan Cha, I heard while traveling through China that a good wuyi oolong should be aged 1 year before it can become drinkable.

I've never been to Beijing, but all around southern China they serve tea much in the same manner. It's so incredible to share the wonders of tea with complete strangers that make you feel right at home


-ppp- said...

Why do we judge different teas or different types of the same tea to be of better or worse than the others?

I mean, we don't ( ok, maybe we do, but hopefully no reasonable tea drinker does) judge people based on their qualities. Couldn't teas be viewed as unique, positive inviduals - different, but still worth the experience.

Teas are in a constant state of flux anyway. A single leaf contains hundreds of attributes. And that's when we don't even take to consideration the drinker, the set, the moment and the results these produce when they collide with the tea.