21 October 2010

Patience and Old Teas

Gingko over at Life in Teacup has been generous enough to share several favorite tea samples with me recently, some of which are a fantastic value.  We’ve also been conversing for a few weeks about trends in oolong and she has good ideas and information regarding a much-appreciated revival of traditional Tieguanyin production methods in Anxi.  I can corroborate her news to some degree as my Muzha teacher has been invited to the mainland a few times to teach classes on traditional roasting.

I take care to be gentle when first sampling a tea.  I’ve given many samples out over the years of various teas that I’ve acquired or worked on.  Proper and careful brewing makes all the difference in the experience of the tea.  A 1997 sample of a premium Biluochun, for example, went to a man that brewed it in a French Press with boiling water.  He declared the tea to be bitter and stale and sent me a can of fancy Dragon Pearls so that I may learn what a “proper” green tea should taste like (to be fair, it wasn’t a bad tea, but jasmine is not the pinnacle of the art of green tea, either).  Another time, I gave a sample of an aged and roasted oolong to a tea friend.  As we sat together several weeks afterwards, I asked him what he thought of the tea I had brought him.  “Seriously?  It was awful,” he said.  Interesting, I thought, that he would have such a strong reaction to that tea.  We had coincidentally been drinking the same one for the past 15 minutes and he seemed to appreciate it quite a bit.  “Use a gaiwan and brew it for under a minute with sub-boiling water” I told him, “it will turn out much better that way.”


Aged teas are tricky for many reasons, a big one being that there isn’t a lot of it floating around here that can be affordably acquired.  It’s also tricky to immediately judge the tea.  Take an aged oolong that was recently re-roasted and it may taste smoky, burnt and/or awful.  It is true that no tea is supposed to taste burnt, but it’s also true that given time, the fire may subside and reveal a substantial and pleasant tea base underneath (unless the roasting chars the tea and it fails to open).  I agree that this is not the norm, but it happens, and the only way to know is to give it some time.  Aged oolongs also change rather quickly depending on how they’re stored.  For a simple test, find 4 small-sized, air-tight storage vessels:  porcelain; clay; glass and metal.  Place a small amount of tea into each one (maybe enough for 2 or 3 servings), put the lid back on (or not, if you’re feeling like a rebel) and wait a month or two.  Try the teas again and you may find that they taste quite different.  I find clay/stone to be the best for reducing fire quickly.  Porcelain and pewter tend to be better for storage once the tea has stabilized, and glass’ advantage is that it’s easy to find and relatively cheap (best if you plan to drink the tea inside of it fairly soon). 

Plastic?  Some say never, but I disagree.  The tea farmers don’t store all of their old oolongs in fancy vessels for decades.  They usually store their teas in a thick plastic bag (not the dinky zip-type baggies that can impart odors), which can be put inside giant metal drums.  Bags of random teas are often found in the nooks and crannies of their shops and these can turn out to be treasures.  Shiuwen at Floating Leaves once found a sample of a 1960s Baozhong when she was cleaning her house that turned out to be pretty special.  Incidentally, she talked with one of her producers a few weeks ago and asked, on behalf of one her customers, what the best way to store aged oolong is and he responded, simply: “Plastic.”  It is, after-all, quite resistant to air and moisture intrusion.

A few weeks ago, I found a little sample of an old-looking pu’er in a plastic baggie that turned out to be my 1970s brick of deliciousness; I still don’t remember when I packed that baggie, but it was a pleasant surprise.  Drink good tea and enrich your life.

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