Many old oolongs can taste rather odd. Older oolongs - those with at last 20 years of age - can taste exceptionally sour, bitter and "wet.” They can smell musty, “ripe,” and seem otherwise unappealing. There can be an indescribable taste/aroma of "oldness" that is referred to as "陳味.” While the aging process can be thought of as “softening” the tea, I also imagine that it’s the breakdown of the product that what we're tasting; the unique flavors being, in part, a result of decomposition. Lovely! From experience, I will also say that unless an aged tea is roasted to death, aged teas also require more patience and experimentation to draw out their best flavors. It could be a mistake to try an aged tea once and quickly write it off a horrible, as so many of them have potential that can be worked out, but that is a topic for another time.
After my recent experiment with tea-infused liquor, I thought more about how we come to acquire a taste for things that endear us to their "acquired" properties. What possesses college students, for example, to drink the most unholy of spirits (that would be Tequila...I hate the stuff from the first to the last drop regardless of what premium cactus it comes from) party after party? And many actually come to enjoy it! Or what person, upon first eating the Chinese preserved duck egg, has the immediate initial reaction that it’s so yummy as to ask for seconds & thirds, or to compel themselves to add it to their congee, or mix it with salted eggs & steam it with lettuce and conpoy...? I can say the same about bitter melon, I don’t think any child loves it, but the taste grows on you as the bitter gives way to an understated sweetness - a mature flavor profile - that is actually enjoyable. Interesting.
I think back to the first time I had real Chaozhou style gongfu tea. I was barely a teenager and it was so strong and the infusion so thick and bitter. It was not enjoyable. How did that awful encounter eventually lead me to become a tea lover? I look back and find that some of my favorite things in life began with less-than-pleasant experiences. Many different edibles (spicy food, moon cake, sashimi...), alcohol, tea, hiking, Zen, pants….
If many of my favorite things started off as unpleasant experiences, I wonder how much more in life I’m missing out on because I refuse to try them out or give experiences second chances? The first time I met my Tieguanyin teacher's wife, she served me a mediocre, pricey tea, and then another, and it wasn't until 3 or 4 teas later that I was told they had a lot of much, much better stuff that they don’t stock on their retail shelves. I probably had pu'er over 50 times (not counting restaurant tea) before I had an eye-opening experience that led me to enjoy and appreciate it.
I recently had the chance to try a rather rough tea that, I believe, has the potential to shine if it receives some refinement via skilled roasting. It reminded me that I should try to keep an open mind and give experiences and people a few chances to put their best foot forward, since some of the best things in life don’t always reveal themselves to us on the first go-around.
Drink good tea and enrich your life.