12 July 2009

Learning to Differentiate Laowei

There is a lack of descriptive words for tea's flavors and scents in English, most likely stemming from a lack of translations for them. 

There are only a handful of basic taste categories that we experience.  Sour is one of them.  When it comes to tea, though, there are many different types of sour, both as sensations and as flavors.  Sour as a sensation would be like biting into a lemon and getting that puckery "damn that is sour" taste, accompanied by a scrunched up face.  Sour the taste could be like the tartness of a Granny Smith apple, or a balsamic vinaigrette.  Both are pleasant, both are sour, but also quite different.

Laowei, "old flavor," is present in many old teas.  It can be a good thing, such as the soft and gentle aroma (with just a hint of mustiness) that would accompany the breakdown of a fine oolong.  Or it can be nasty, like the foul decomposition of an old, improperly stored puerh cake.  Laowei as a taste may also have a certain characteristic flavor profile, such as the light and pleasant pluminess of an aged oolong, or the camphor-like quality of an aged puerh.  Or it may taste unpleasantly sour, like a bit of rancid goat milk been mixed in with the leaves. 

When I buy teas from vendors online that have written flowery, wonderful prose about the delights of their product, only for me to feel disappointed that my brew doesn't quite match, I'd like to know what I may have done wrong in my brewing or tasting.  I think the next evolution of tea tasting will be technology that will allow people to brew and drink tea with the producers or retailers online. 


  1. Hi Rich! Funny thing... I didn't read the title close enough and it took me two paragraphs before I realized it is learning to differentiate Laowei and Not Laowai!

    but now that I'm on the same page as you... I want to thank you for posting this because I've never really thought about "old flavor" before, but it is a concept that I can relate to and should have on my radar... I'll probably even use the term Laowei myself now (but I'll make sure people know I learned about it from you... and like all things in the world of tea I'll never make any claims of understanding it :)

  2. Hi Brett,

    Haha, that's funny! Maybe I should have made it ambiguous until the end.

    Thanks for offering to credit me with the learning, but I'm fine without it too. Just glad you have another chinese term to use now. I'll be getting some other old stuff in the mail soon, so let me know if you want to try any of it.

  3. Canadians, Americans, Europeans, Australians etc...
    (It can sometimes be very hard to differentiate Laowai ;)