A Tea Addict's Journal

Evaluating an aged oolong

December 13, 2007 · 3 Comments

How do you tell a good aged oolong from a bad one? After drinking a few months of this stuff, I at least have some tentative thoughts on this issue.

Let’s take today’s tea — a bag of tea I picked up yesterday in exchange for the bad aged oolong I got last time. I’ll get to why that one was bad later.

The dry leaves’ physical appearance will rarely tell you anything too useful. Colour of the leaves are almost always dark. Sometimes it’s darker than others, but that in and of itself is a very useless indicator of anything. The shape of the tea might tell you something about what it could be, but even then — not a very useful indicator.

The smell of the dry leaves, however, can. For teas that have turned somewhat sour, you can sometimes smell a sour note in the aroma of the dry leaves. If you want to cheat, you can always breath into a little leaves (that you of course placed in your hands and don’t really intend on throwing back into the bag). That way you can smell the aroma much more clearly. Sour? Give it up already, it’s not worth your time.

Assuming it passes the initial sourness test, then there are the teas that are musty or not musty. The ones that aren’t musty are often re-roasted, the ones that are musty, as I find over time, are usually less re-roasted or not at all. Makes sense — the roasting will kill any musty smell. Sometimes you can also smell the roasted nature of the tea from the dry leaves. Now, done with the dry leaves. Let’s move on to making the tea.

I usually fill the gaiwan with 1/2 to 2/3 full of leaves when I make this stuff, at least for a first try. Sometimes the sourness is subtle, and if you brew it with less leaves you don’t always notice the problem. Now, teas that don’t smell sour can still be a bit sour, but usually, those are sourness that go away in an infusion or two. That, personally, I find acceptable. I also find that teas that don’t taste sour at all when hot can sometimes take on more of a sour note when cooled a bit. That’s something to look out for.

For the really roasted stuff, you have to feel the body of the tea to see if it’s aged or not. Sometimes that charcoal taste masks a lot of things, including age. A highly roasted but not very aged tea will lack that nice sweet note at the end, and it will also be less thick, at least in my personal experience. Some of the really roasted stuff will need a bit of time to mellow out and let the charcoal taste go away a bit before drinking, but even for current consumption they can be good — if you are into that kind of thing. I don’t buy a lot of that stuff, but I do have some. It’s fun.

I personally like the less roasted stuff. They take on a puerh-like note the first few infusions, then mellow out into a sweet tea that will more closely resemble a young oolong. In the end you will get back the young oolong taste/finish without much aged note at all other than the extra sweetness. It’s very interesting that way. Even aged and somewhat roasted stuff can do this. The tea that I originally wanted from the store is exactly like this — the first few infusions taste almost like a liu’an, and then into a softer, sweeter aged oolong taste, and then ending up as a younger tea would taste. I like this kind of tea the best. Today’s tea is sort of like that — I felt almost like I was drinking a new oolong near the end, without the harshness of a young tea. Also, aged oolongs tend to go on forever. You should be able to get 10+ steepings from it easily.

Wet leaves says a lot about what you’re drinking. In fact, I think wet leaves tell you more about what you’re drinking than anything else other than the physical act of drinking the tea. It will confirm what kind of tea you’re actually drinking, usually, and it will also tell you the condition of the tea, whether it’s mixed or not, etc, things that aren’t always apparent in a cup but usually more apparent when you can spread out the leaves. Today’s tea hasn’t been reroasted much — that much is obvious. The leaves unfurl easily, with a greenish scent. Decent tea.

So, what was the tea that I rejected like? It was roasted — tastes like charcoal the first infusion. But the body of the tea was thin and died fast. It was not aged, or not much aged. I’d venture to guess it’s less than 5 years old, which is why I was so unhappy about it.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // December 14, 2007 at 2:38 am | Reply

    I don’t know who is hiring or how much the pay is, but you most definitely get the job.


  • behhl // December 14, 2007 at 4:01 am | Reply

    The most interesting thing for me is your finding that after repeated steepings you get the young oolong taste … speaks to me that the oolong doesn’t ‘age’ at all if that is the case – what do you think? After being sealed in storage without fresh ventilation even puerh would not really ‘age’ in that sense?

    If you ask some merchants they recommend that their typically roasted oolongs would probably taste best 2 or 3 years after the roasting and sealed into storage packs/jars. By then they tend to lose the initial roasting flavours and develop a more ‘mature’ (for want of better word) flavour; but what happens after 5 years, 10 years? People I ask seem puzzled why anyone would want to know, they shrug – its not a common thing to store oolongs so long.

    Wuyi cha yes, puerh, yes, but aged oolongs? the eyes glaze over.

    You may have just started the first treatise basis for Aged Oolong … hmmm. Historian creating history in the making?  


  • MarshalN // December 14, 2007 at 4:39 am | Reply

    But Wuyi yancha is also a kind of oolong!

    Taiwanese have been drinking old oolong for a long time now.  This stuff is usually drunk by older people — they often comment that “it’s rare for a young person like you to be looking for stuff like this”.  I’ve gotten that comment from at least a dozen people.

    I think the aging of these teas that I feel return to their young state very late in the infusions is the same as a dry stored puerh — a dry stored puerh that has been aged, when drunk to the very end, will also exhibit some of the youngness that one feels from drinking a much younger puerh.  I’m not saying that an aged oolong will taste the same as a young oolong when brewed out, but rather that there is something similar between a young oolong and a “dry stored” (for lack of a better term) aged oolong.  Stuff that have been re-roasted repeatedly, especially stuff that have been highly roasted, don’t do this, and develop a different kind of flavour as the “fire” goes away.

    Historian making history?  I wouldn’t claim to be doing something nearly so grandiose. 🙂

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