18 September 2009

Good Old Teas

I love aged oolongs, but why?

It's because many older teas that have been aged well are from superior crops, representing an age of tea that we may never have again.  Skill, technology, weather/soil/growing conditions and the tea plants are changing, and the particular tastes of teas that I love are changing, too.

Take Dong Ding for example.  Zhou Yu of Wistaria teahouse in Taipei told me that the early-to-mid 1980s are the golden years for the tea.  Indeed, a good example from that era is truly exquisite, costing as much as thousands of dollars a pound.  If you are lucky enough to try a pot of one his 1980s Dong Ding, it will set you back about $100.  But for that price, you will get to relive a part of this tea's glorious history. 

I've mentioned that it's difficult to find an example of this type of tea that is very good.  I've gotten samples from all over the world of aged Dong Ding in particular and I'd estimate that 1/2 of them have been roasted to death; they taste burnt.  Some retailers have said that the taste is a result of charcoal roasting and is supposed to be present. That is complete BS for a tea of such age.  More-recent charcoal roasting will indeed have some smoky notes with "fire," but will not taste burnt either, unless the tea was over-fired or burnt by accident.  Another tell-tale sign of tea being roasted to death is if the leaves fail to open even after multiple infusions.  Examples of fake or poorly-roasted teas in my collection have dark caramel hues, overpowering burnt aromas and fail to open when brewed.  Some retailers have argued that the frequency of roasting that old teas require result in tea that does not open.  I will say with complete certainty that very good, very old, rolled oolongs exist that have been re-roasted several times and will still open.

As my Dong Ding teacher said, it should be no surprise that people lie to make profit on supposedly aged products because prices are higher.  He's shown and explained to me how roasting and aging can be manipulated (through heat or chemicals) to mimic some of the tastes of aging.  But if you pay attention to the smell, look, taste and underlying body, you will get a sense of the quality of the tea.  As Zhou Yu has said, good tea has good "qi" that makes you feel comfortable and balanced. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.


  1. This is all good to learn about aging of different Oolongs. It's a help to see about fake aged Wuyis and other teas that have suffered problems in re-roasting. However, I'm not quite in agreement about the Golden Years of the 1980s for tea. I've heard other people say such things too but I couldn't possibly appreciate that era with any disappointment over more recent teas. --Teaternity

  2. Hey Jason, yup, aged teas can be delicious!

    The comment from Mr Zhou about the golden age refers only to Dong Ding Oolong from Taiwan, not to any other tea. Such a golden age doesn't mean, as I understand Mr. Zhou's comment, that the Dong Ding from that period is superior to all Dong Ding tea produced before and after. A lot of the legendary producers of that tea were involved with production in the 1980s, and there was a string of several seasons during that time period with superb harvests. In other words, the stars for that tea were quite aligned!

    By contrast, if there is some kind of golden age for Alishan oolong, for example, I highly doubt it would have been within the past 3 years, as there were a couple of good seasons sprinkled amid many more lackluster ones.