September 28, 2009

Some aged Taiwanese oolong

I've been drinking a lot of pu-erh lately, in the afternoons. For the past couple of years I've avoided drinking tea after about 3 pm, but recently I've been enjoying a pot as late as 6. With pu-erh, it's not so bad--for me, a cup of old pu-erh is more calming than caffeinating, though I'm sure I'd have some trouble getting to sleep within a couple hours of drinking some. Anyway, my selection of old pu-erh is limited and I've been returning to the same teas (some of them expensive) a bit too often. Luckily, I've lately had a couple of other teas that produce a similar experience. One of them has been a small sample of aged Taiwanese oolong that I recently received as a gift. Now, there have been plenty of times in the past that I've ragged on aged oolongs--I've tried over 10 examples (excluding Wuyi Yen Cha that have sat around for a few years) and maybe 2 have been teas that I would ever buy (or drink) again. Not that all of the aged oolongs I've had were shitty teas (well, a couple were), but most of them didn't differ enough from their un-aged counterparts to justify the 30% or more price difference.

Some of the last summer tomatoes; the cute little green bowl was made by a friend--more of her work to come!

This tea makes me second-guess my attitudes toward aged oolong. Labeled as 50's/60's, it's easily one of the oldest (if not the oldest) teas I've ever tasted, provided the age is accurate. Who really cares, though--it's about drinking experience and flavor, right? Despite my giddy anticipation, this tea was a winner in both respects. Every once in a great while I'll stumble on one of those cunning seductress teas--at first, the flavor just isn't there. "Looks like the storage took its toll on this one," I'll brashly quip, hoisting my trousers up with both thumbs for effect. After a few sips, though, it starts building, and after a handful of infusions the complexity can only be described as delightful--the tea tastes different, depending on the size of the sip, the temperature, the amount of air taken through the mouth and/or nose before and after swallowing, and the gan dances on with every breath. The flavor alternates between darkly floral and woody fruit, with only a hint of the humidity present in the 70's oolong from NadaCha and none of the whatever-it-is that makes the 90's baozhong from Hou De sort of unbearable after a couple cups. I'm not much on super-accurate flavor description (sorry, but most of the time identification of specific flowers, fruits or other plants would be specious coming out of my mouth, not to mention pretentious), but to me this tea is definitely of the same genre as those other two. That is, aged baozhong. I wish they still produced more baozhong this way--to me it's a lot more interesting than those green, green flowers-in-a-cup teas that seem to be winning all the competitions lately. I'm sure some of the deliciousness comes from the aging, too.

As far as the rest of the drinking experience is concerned, it's cake. One thing I do like about well-aged oolongs is that they're usually easy to brew, and you can usually keep coaxing flavor out of them with long steeps. The mouthfeel is great and slippery, especially for a roasted tea. Finally, the qi of this tea is great--mellowing, with a relaxing sort of cloudy buzzing feeling around the head and eyes--usually I only find this sort of qi in pu-erhs. I'm no expert on qi, nor am I especially sensitive to it, but if a tea gives me a pleasant feeling other than a straight-up caffeine buzz, I'm always appreciative. The cashed leaves are in pretty great shape, considering the tea is potentially twice as old as I am. It is so fascinating to me to hold and experience only lightly processed organic matter from such a long time ago, and the chance to compare the look, feel, and flavor of the leaves to recent teas is engrossing as well. This tea was a distinct privilege to try.

As for aged oolongs as a genre, I remain respectfully aloof. I've tasted proof that, done properly, aged oolong can present a drinking experience unique from both unaged oolong and aged pu-erh, but I've tasted much more proof that few people seem to know how to do it properly. If the amount of practically usable information (in English) about aging pu-erh is frustratingly incomplete, anecdotal, and old-wives'-tale-y, then the secrets of successful oolong aging are downright arcane. I won't be exhaustively picking over my available tea sources for aged teas, but I'll probably continue nosing about for teas I'd be willing to drink regularly, if all the elements line up correctly. Personally, I don't have any big plans to age any Taiwanese oolongs (I've got 4oz of Dong Ding jarred away), though I'm probably going to experiment with aging some Wuyi teas, just for fun. I've been enjoying reading everyone's posts about the Yunnan Sourcing tasting event--though it's a bit like reading reviews of a movie you didn't see, it's always fun to hear multiple opinions about the same teas, and hear how differently some people regarded each tea.


Anonymous said...

As always, I'm learning a lot about aged Oolongs. I'm glad to hear about one that's done quite well among the many that didn't improve much over the years. It seems there are so many factors that go into how a tea will eventually taste that aging teas just ups the amount of them that could possibly go wrong. Personally, I like the young, raw Pu-erhs a lot, and I don't look at them with any plans to improve them over time but just keep them for future enjoyment. --Teaternity

Zero the Hero said...

Hey Jason,

Y'know, that's a great attitude--if you know you enjoy a tea now and don't expect anything amazing to happen with aging, keeping it simply for future enjoyment will likely lead to satisfaction--both if the tea stays the same, and if it improves with age.