It can taste magical when it's fresh, with so many layers of flavor and aromas that a thesaurus may be needed to adequately describe its characteristics. They can also be very expensive. Depending on the tea, the top-prize oolongs can go for more than $1000 USD/pound – that’s if you even get the chance to buy them.
Depending on the tea and the competition, there may be quite a number of winners – grand prize, first prizes, second places, 3rd places, honorable mentions…. If you’ve ever chanced to buy a competition oolong and have kept it around – especially the less-oxidized one – you may have noticed that its taste changes a lot as it ages.
I pulled out a 2nd-place Muzha TGY sample that I found while unpacking the other day and brewed it. I remember how it tasted nearly 3 years ago – full bodied, fruity, truly alive. I checked the tasting notes from my trip and it was something that I would have bought if there was any supply to buy. I tasted the sample and it was expectedly stale. Its roast had faded, but there was more clarity for me to taste the tea base. It tasted off, unpleasant and unfulfilling.
Why would such a well-roasted tea deteriorate so much? It happens a lot with competition teas and I think that the original processing and oxidation of the tea is to blame. This tea, and many like them, was not adequately oxidized before it was baked. As the fire and roast fades, one can more easily compare the tea base to the tea’s roast, and there is a big gap. Could such a problem be “fixed” so many years after? Kinda yes, mostly no. To re-roast the tea’s base, one must be able to heat the core of the tea and force out the extraneous flavors using increasing levels of heat; heating and rest must be alternated. Finally, one must seal in the flavor with a correct finishing roast. However, finished teas have already been touched by high heat and it’s difficult to produce a great result through re-roasting. The best that one can hope for is to transform the tea into a more consistent taste, but it is very hard to make it excellent. Oxidation happens before the tea is finished and first touched by fire, so it is not easy to alter the taste from the original oxidation process. Can it be done? Master roasters have given me mixed answers, but I have yet to have any of them successfully bring such a tea back to life for me.
Like a green or high mountain tea, the competition oolongs are meant to wow you when they’re fresh. There may be value in holding on to the tea for a long while, but if we go by taste, they tend to taste best shortly after production. I know that back in the old days, many competition teas were stored and aged (you can still buy some decades-old prize-winning oolongs; they’re not cheap) but changes to tea processing, oxidation levels and consumer tastes have altered the storability of these teas. A quick spot roast right before drinking will make it more palatable. I have several different spot roasting sets on order – stay tuned for results from my next round of experiments.