04 March 2010

Stale Teas – Baked, not Roasted

Since oolongs never touch a flame directly, tea roasting is a bit of a misnomer.  Baking is a more accurate term, with “roasting” equipment functioning much more like ovens than like grills. 

But since we all know the process as roasting, I won’t fight the tide. 

I’ve been drinking and giving away more tea these past 6 months than I’ve purchased.  For some of my favorite daily-drinkers, my supplies have dwindled to 1 ounce or less.  Some of these teas have been sitting in little bags or containers for nearly a year and have gone stale.  Too small in quantity to roast with any of my equipment, so what to do?

Wrap it in foil and stick it in a toaster oven.

I take a sheet of foil and place the remnants of tea in it, creating a flat plate-like vessel; I don’t enclose the tea with foil.  I preheat the oven to 150-200 degrees F and put the tea inside for about 20-45 minutes, depending on the tea and what I’m looking for.  The heat serves to push out the moisture and some of the odors in the leaves.  This simple process will not restore the full flavors of the brew, but it will make stale teas more pleasant.

I don’t talk about pu’er much at all, but I do read about and drink it regularly.  There is a lot of discussion about the pros/cons of dry-stored pu’er vs wet-stored ones in the pu’er world.  I like both, but with older wet-stored cakes, there may be some particularly strong off-flavors.  Being that I love to experiment with tea, I wondered if simple baking of off-flavored pu’er would improve the tea.  The formula is different than with oolong (and unfortunately, I haven’t played around with the process enough to share my experiences) but it does work. 

Try it for yourself, baked Pu tastes good.


  1. Roasting has nothing to do with whether direct flame is used, and in fact, in most cases, it's not. Coming up with a definition for roasting vs. baking is harder than you'd think (see Chowhound thread below).

    Given that roasting is the term typically used in English for applying dry heat to coffee or seeds, I think roasting (or dry-roasting) is roughly the appropriate term to use.

  2. Yo Will, what's new?

    Point taken: I can agree that whether or not a flame touches the leaves isn't relevant to the term. I am more apt to say that dry roasting, as I understand the definition that is given in wiki, isn't quite accurate, either. With regards to oolongs, and specifically to Muzha Tieguanyin, charcoal roasted Taiwan oolongs and Dong Ding, the tea leaves do not touch the heat source/pan/wok during the actual roasting stage (although it does touch a hot wok-like piece of equipment as part of the processing prior to the roast). As with an oven, the roast happens to tea when heated air in an enclosed space is used to heat the leaves being roasted; this process I know you are quite familiar with as well. The examples given in the entry are all food items that are in contact with a heated surface, through which the roasting process is done.

    As the chowhound post makes clear, though, articulating the differences between roast/bake(and getting people to agree on the articulated points) has proven to be quite a challenge. I won't toss out whatever applicable term one may apply to the process, though I believe baking is more accurate than roasting. Frankly, the terms matter less to me than the processing experience that I describe.

    Terminology aside, the application of heat via a basic oolong roasting method, a la toaster oven, can produce what I believe to be a more pleasant and round pu'er. With pu'er cakes of some age that may have been stored in various locations and humidity conditions, there is, to me, an earthy element that is off-putting (contrasting with an earthy element that I find quite satisfying). In the initial experiments I've done, I've found that low-temperature baking of a sample of stored pu'er will remove that 雜味 that I find unpleasant, and will soften some aspects of the tea. The temperature is below what I use for oolongs, but the time needed is higher.

    The main problem in my experimentation is simply that unlike oolongs, I don't have the variety or quantity of pu'er teas to play with. As I continue to investigate various new processes to enhance pu'ers, I hope that others who are more skilled and knowledgeable in the pu'er world will explore creative enhancements for the brew. And of course, I hope they would then share their wonderful findings.

  3. Now you said it, I wonder why it was called roast from the beginning. And after seeing Will's comment, I feel the stir-fry method (chao qing) for green tea (such as long jing) is more like roasting coffee or seeds, while the method to make hong qing green tea (like huang shan mao feng) is more like baking. I have been calling hong qing "roast", and now wonder if I should change it to "bake"!

  4. Gingko, yup, I think the processing for green tea is more akin to the type of dry-roasting that the wiki talks about, although "chao" is more accurately described by pan-fried. If you've watched teamakers work on longjing before, they used their hands (gloved, cloth-covered, or bare) to heat the leaves upon the heated wok. Pan-fried or even dry-roasted, but probably not baked (which, as you observe, may be more applicable to other types of green teas).

    Regardless, it wasn't my intent to correct the world of tea's usage of roasting, I'm interested in using heat to enhance the brew. If you have any, I welcome stories or ideas for such improvements, especially ones that relate to pu'er.

  5. Not much! I'll send you an email offline pretty soon.

    Baking just doesn't sound right to me, maybe because these days it's usually associated with specific types of cooking. But all of these things are really hard to describe - it's more of an "I know it when I see it" kind of thing. I think there was a better description of the difference between baking or roasting in one of Michael Ruhlman's books - I'll see if I can find it when I get home. IIRC, it might have been a trick question (i.e., there's no difference, but people use them to describe different things).

    I have definitely found that Chinese-speakers are sometimes confused by the use of "roasting" (in English) as a translation of "烘焙". I guess part of the confusion is that 烘 can be 'bake', but could also mean to dry or warm. FWIW, nciku lists 烘焙 as 'dry cure' or 'roast'. I think using "dry cure" might be even more accurate, but reminds me a little too much of smoked meat or something.

    I don't personally tend to roast puer - I don't usually drink a lot of wet-stored stuff, and if I have something with a lot of storage taste, I will usually try to air it out for a while, or do some extra rinsing to get rid of the storage taste. But I have seen other people roast puer of various types, with some degree of success. I've seen people use the little bong-shaped roaster which you use over an alcohol burner type flame; this can be successful, but also time consuming.

    This style of roasting (a quick roast before brewing) dates back to the Tang dynasty, and in fact, the purpose may have been similar then (to remove moisture and / or off-tastes).

    One guy I know swears by leaving the lid off the pot between infusions (and even during infusions) for the rinse and the first couple of rounds after it, or even doing a running rinse over the tea. Whether this actually allows the off-flavors to escape or simply reduces the temperature of the water, the technique seems (in my very unscientific tests) to help.

  6. Isn't a small amount of oil often used, for green tea, at least?

  7. There is definitely a lot of room for inaccuracy when translating between english and chinese and vice versa. To this day, I still see people argue over whether Shui Xian is Water Sprite, Narcissus, both or neither. Ha.

    There is a cantonese word using 局 as the base but (I believe) with the radical for fire added that is a more accurate word for baking. Like you mentioned, "hong" can imply baking, but it can also mean drying and various other things. Perhaps from now on, I should use the Chinese words for things to be more precise.

    Thanks for the info on pu'er experiments. Pre-drink heating is interesting and there was a period of several months last year where I did it with many teas before consumption because I felt it really made the brew come alive. I caught an exhibit of the history of tea preparation in China at Hong Kong's Museum of Tea last year that I really should write about - I got some pretty cool pics of the steps used for the main styles of tea making in both the Tang and Song dynasties.

    I will try leaving the lid off and see if it makes a difference. This new cooked cake I have smells a bit tart and overly earthy and definitely has room for improvement.

  8. I could have sworn I left a post earlier this morning...but for some reason it's not there:

    anyway, I recall reading on the puerh LJ about somebody roasting puerh with some success, though I don't know if the experiment involved wet stored stuff.

  9. Hey Maitre Tea, sorry, haven't seen an earlier post from you.

    Interesting stories about pu'er that I've been reading about. I saw on one of the blogs that I follow that leaving musty pu'er out in the open to air helps a lot. So much to learn about pu'er, it's definitely quite an interesting tea. Just such a shame that the really old, good stuff is so difficult (and expensive) to get a hold of.

  10. hi,

    maybe we should not start with the cultural-fetched translations (baked/roasted refer to things taht make sense in our culinary references), but with the chinese terms corresponding to processes applied.

    of course, baked/roasted can only work as metaphors here, because... we are on a different universe and references have shifted.

    So, if I may ask, as you Will are far more advanced in chinese than most of us, it would be wonderful if you could provide more terms (chinese characters + pinyin) with litteral tranlation and short depiction of what kind of treatment applied to a tea they refer to.
    maybe a post on your blog ?

    but of course if it is too to time consuming, forget it, after all you are not supposed to be the documentary force :DD

    Now as for "roasting" (or whatever) pu er, it can bean interesting experiment, but thing is, if you do that to a whole cake it might also kill its aging perspective. so best is to experiment on a chunk you want to consume in the short term. Heating dry sometimes seems to be part of the brewing (pre-brewing) : I must have read somewhere that in guangdong it is a practice that exists, and also in Yunnan green pu er can be dryheated before brewed. to what extent is the concept of it different from that of preheating the leaves in the pot or gaïwan ? different way of doing it (goes further though) but the basic idea is very similar.

    (please excuse any liguistic clumsiness, as I am not native in English)


  11. Ok, I see. It's just too hard to decide which word to use :D

    When thinking more of it, I feel bake doesn't sound perfect either. Any food stuff baked, seem to always have moist in it, not as dry and crisp as tea leaves.

    If it's small amount of tea heat dried just before drinking, like what people did in ancient time, then it's different from processing large amount of tea, and is often called 炙, 烤,maybe parch or scorch? But when 炙烤 is used for meat stuff, it's just like roast in English.

    Although it's a bit off the topic, since RTea mentioned it - Shui Xian really has nothing to do with either water sprite or narcissus. It's not a translation problem. Shui in local dialect is the word for Zhu (祝). The tea cultivar was first propagated by a person from Zhu/Shui family and people thought it tasted like heaven. Therefore they called it Zhu Fairy Tea, which was pronounced like Shui Xian. No Chinese tea book would relate shui xian to narcissus. Narcissus is nice. But I am anti-romantic :P

  12. Over a year ago, Will started a tea forum for tea lovers that has been successful at staving off the inane drivel found on many other forums. www.teadrunk.org. Good place to inquire about/build/collaborate on tea-related projects.

    I really should read more Chinese blogs and books. My interest is narrow-focused on two particular types of oolongs. Unsurprisingly, my Chinese tea books are on those oolongs, an intro to Taiwanese teas that is actually quite comprehensive, and one about zisha teapots. I went onto Baike (http://baike.baidu.com/view/90135.htm) and read about the story behind 水仙 there. Although I'm sure there are many variations, this one is quite fun and corroborates Gingko's mention of Zhu Fairy tea. Stories are fun.

    However, since it's not about Dong Ding or Tieguanyin (or even pu'er), my interest wanes :)

    As the core subject of this post suggests, my passion resides in using heat to manipulate and improve my brews. One may translate the process as one sees fit and I will happily declare there to be some merit in the translation, but most importantly (well, of nearly complete importance to me) is that when one embarks upon the process to improve one's tea through the application of skill and heat, please share a cup with me! If so requested, I will do the same.