A Tea Addict's Journal

Old vs new

April 14, 2010 · 6 Comments

Over the course of the past few years, I have grown increasingly skeptical of the idea that people used to keep tea around for a long time before they drink it.  I think generally speaking, we have a somewhat romantic notion, no doubt encouraged by many tea vendors, that aging your own tea is a good idea.  This is partly because puerh, as we know it, does age well, and partly because of this impulse to collect, that we now have a bit of a culture of “buy now, drink later” when it comes to tea, specifically with puerh.

However, I have yet to find anything definitive in historical texts that says anything remotely similar to what we consider a “buy and hold” strategy.  Yunnan puerh, when sold, seems to be new, or at least almost new.  At most they were a year or so old when they reach their final destination.  Oolongs and greens were definitely not kept around for the sake of aging them; you may keep them because you can’t finish them, or because they’re quite precious and therefore not worth drinking all in one go, but I have yet to find anybody writing anything along the lines of “I am deliberately aging this tea so that it will taste better x years down the road”.

This obviously does not mean that aging was not done; I’m sure it happened.  However, I think much of the aging was accidental, either because it was unsold stock, or because it was forgotten.  When I went to the “candy store” in Taipei and others like it, they were, mostly, selling teas that have been sitting around not because they were aged, but because they were not sold.  Sure, some collector somewhere might have been sitting on a few bags of tea to age deliberately, but that is almost always strictly for personal consumption.

One of the problems of storing your own tea is that you now take on the risk of spoilage.  As some of us know very well, this can easily happen even with the best intentions and precaution.  For those who live in places such as Los Angeles, the risk might be dryness.  For those in wetter climates, the problem can be moisture.  Either way, there is a lot of risk in storing tea long term, and I’m not entirely sure if it’s a good idea to do so.

If storage was never an option for tea drinkers, then is there a reason to do it now?  Sure there is.  Some of us like the way teas taste when they get older, so we store them, hoping that at least some of our tea will turn out well.  Others prefer them young, and that’s fine too, so long as your stomach can handle a steady diet of young puerh.  I guess what I want to say, though, is that the notion of storing tea as the “traditional” way of doing things is not really true.  At least, it’s not something for which I have found any reliable, written evidence.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // April 15, 2010 at 12:20 am | Reply

    I share the same skepticism with you. I guess there are very good aged teas, but not as many as what people have been talking about. Most mainland China oolong professionals I know just don’t care about or believe in aged oolong as connoisseur tea (although many of them keep aged oolong as herbal medicine).
    As for puerh, I like sheng aged for at least a few years. It will be nice if there are more and more reliable and affordable sources of aged young sheng. Otherwise, it’s just hard for tea drinkers to accept a new puerh when a seller tells them the tea “will be good in the future”…

  • MarshalN // April 15, 2010 at 2:37 am | Reply

    And…. as many of us already know, some of those “will be good in the future” tea didn’t turn out so well.

  • Anonymous // April 15, 2010 at 7:04 am | Reply

    but is every practice in tea in writing ? probably not. For instance, and i assume as a historian you know about the “problem”, in occident medieval history very little of popular culture has left traces, written traces are literally none, and it is estimated that 80% of the “life” of the times is not accessible to our knowledge. Also, sometimes, a thing could be so common that no one would bother writing about it (usual, common things are so “normal”, so “obvious”, that saying them has no particuler point).

    so, let’s say that there is no written trace of the practice of aging tea. That could be for a certain number of reasons :
    > the traces exist but have not been found yet. Or have been destroyed, or hidden, or taken elsewhere (migration due to political events?). eg, titles of property often disappeared during revolutions, as well as financial records. maybe if chinese merchants kept records of qauntities ans sales, something could be interesting there ; but then this means that you have to know i ndetail about the accounting systems of the period you are considering, not easy maybe.
    > no one would particularly write about it, because it was not remarkable enough to tell about it (reasons : too “usual”, or on the contrary too marginal). Or not remarkable because not a taste enhancing thing, but just happened due to transportation delays or necessity to keep provisions, sort of a domestic practice.
    > in the areas where this existed, no one could read or write enough, and culture was oral ; and maybe no “mandarin” of the times visited them or if he did, he did not notice everything.
    > keeping tea for aging was not in the field of “tea drinking” but in some other field (rituals, health… ??), and it could be that vocabulary changed accordingly.
    > or maybe this was very marginal, considered as controversial so the big merchants would not mention it to preserve their reputation, but nonetheless if they had the skills did it.
    > could it be a secret, like the Venetian golddiggers in Germany ? I mean, some niche markets are very “protected”. of course the theory of the secret is to consider with a rock of salt, but… 😀

    BTW, who wrote about tea in the “old times” ? people who were actually in the making and the business, or rather observers ? for what reasons or motives would a document be written ? could there be reasons why a writer would “omit” something –for instance if he was doing command work or writing for some particular “social target” he might not want to evocate something that would displease the potential reader.

    Or maybe aging is recent and rather marginal practice (less than 150 years), at least for not compressed teas and that’s it.

    Sorry for so much and so long speculation, hope I have not been rambling too much. But there is definitely something appealing in the “silent things”.

  • lewperin // April 15, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Reply

    Very interesting post. And one that you are more or less uniquely positioned to write, at least among people who write in English.

    Since you haven’t found any documentation of tea aging in the Chinese historical record, I wonder if you could give an idea of how much of a record of tea there actually is in Chinese historical documents? Obviously, if Chinese tea practice doesn’t show up hugely in the historical record, then the lack of evidence of deliberate tea aging loses significance. (I’m not sure what a good measure would be here – maybe how many distinct tea freaks have recorded what they do in detail?)

    OK, on to a related point. As you well know, there’s a practice, in Hong Kong, at least, of breaking Pu’er cakes into pieces and aging the mixed pieces together for later sale. You’ve mentioned the deliberate mixing of different vintages – “house blends” – as a reason for this. It occurs to me that another reason might be that breaking up the cakes is thought to accelerate the aging. Do you think that’s possible?

  • MarshalN // April 16, 2010 at 1:31 am | Reply

    Lew & Flo: Both good questions. I’ll have to respond to them through another post.

  • Anonymous // April 19, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Reply

    Maybe they didn’t mention ageing, because it wasn’t something done on purpose? Really.. unless something was perishable, or like.. was valued for age, I don’t think people really kept as much track of how old things were. Like… a crate full of dishes… doesn’t really matter if it was 1 or 10 years old.

    Before the internet, fast shipping, etc how long would it really take to harvest, press, store, ship, restore, wholesale, ship, retail, finally sold/consumed etc? Also, then, like now, there was likely discount in bulk purchase, so a tea house probably bought large batches that could not be sold immediately. Perhaps older tea was mixed with newer tea to “House Blend” not just to age more tea, but because they cut old tea into the “house blend” that hadn’t otherwise sold into the newer tea because…. it was not bought and otherwise would be a loss?

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