Confusions of the aged

Markets sometimes freeze. We saw that with devastating results in the market for mortgage-backed securities starting in 2007. Trading collapsed because people didn’t know how to value these assets properly. Holders of them don’t want to sell because they think they’re being lowballed, while buyers don’t want to offer more because they don’t think it’s worth any more. The lack of transactions sometimes make things worse, because without recent trades it’s even harder to evaluate how much these assets are actually worth, making the problem worse. So sometimes the default ends up being inaction. In the case of these securities, the ones who were left holding the bag ended up eating all the losses.

But this is a blog about tea. The reason I brought this up is because there’s a bit of a freeze going on nowadays as well in the market for aged oolongs in Taiwan. If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time you would know that I started seriously exploring this genre of tea beginning in 2007. Back then it was quite easy to find good aged oolong for a reasonable price. Unfortunately, that is no longer true. It’s harder now to come by decently aged (20+ years) oolongs for prices that are still pretty reasonable. People have been trying to hype up the market in recent years, leading to rising prices. China’s entry into this, of course, is a big factor, as with almost every other asset class on this planet. Chinese buyers are buying up old tea for no reason other than to have something different, and in this case they’re driving up prices here as well, just like with puerh.

There are some differences though. The first is that aged oolongs have no labels to go by, no cake shape to ponder, no wrappers and neifei to identify the tea. This means that one bag of aged oolong, at least from looks alone, don’t always look very different from another bag. Experienced drinkers can tell some clues from the dry leaves – their shape, their colour, their smell – that give you hints of what the tea is like, but for most people, this is pretty hard to do without a lot of contact with a wide variety of aged oolongs. It’s not easy. The lack of packaging means that unlike puerh, it is hard to say “I have this 30 years old competition grade oolong” that will easily convince another, probably less experienced buyer. The tea does all the talking and one is best to ignore any kind of information given to you by the seller.

This means that there’s always going to be a ceiling to the price of aged oolong – without the assurance of any kind of packaging, and with the wide variety of states in which an aged oolong can present itself, it is very hard for the common drinker to know what they’re buying, which means that people aren’t willing to pay a lot of serious money for it. Except in one case, that is – old competition teas. If you have a box of unopened 30 years old competition tea from Lugu, for example, it’s going to be worth some serious money. A jin can easily be $1000 USD or more. If the box doesn’t look like it’s been through a couple hurricanes, you can readily sell it for good money.

This creates a dilemma for the seller though. On my recent trip to Taiwan I talked to an owner of an old tea shop. He recently sold a bunch of these old competition teas to a collector/vendor for about $1200 a box each. Thing is, he has a couple bags of this tea left that is from the same year, but how should he price these? He wants to get the same money from selling these as he got from the boxed ones, because, as he claims, the tea is the same. I looked at the tea – it looks fine, smells fine, but at the price he’s quoting, it’s far too expensive. He even brewed some for me, just for sharing. It was decent, but honestly nothing too great. I’ve gotten far better, even in recent years, for a lot less money. Out of the packaging, aged oolongs just aren’t worth that much.

So instead he has these two aged oolongs he sells at a more pedestrian price (about $250 USD/jin) but which are really no good at all – it’s got a moldy smell and just isn’t very pleasant to drink. Because of the prices he was able to sell his other teas at, however, he has good reason to feel this is perfectly reasonable. I can see why, although I honestly don’t think anyone should buy these aged oolongs at these prices.

I also encountered a tea farmer who sold some family aged teas for a similarly high price, partly because the family is somewhat famous in the Dong Ding area. So, even for his 5 years old tea that barely tastes like aged anything at all, he also wants the same high price. What is someone supposed to do with that?

There’s also the aforementioned old tea competitions now – new competitions of aged teas. So instead of selling to random people, many vendors simply prefer to enter their aged oolong into these competitions. If the tea is decent, then they’re pretty much guaranteed at least a low ranking in these, which means getting official packaging, which also means that people then are much more willing to pay a higher price for the tea. So why sell it at all? Since the category is aged tea, just enter some this year, enter some next year, until you run out of your supply. It’s really pretty easy to do.

In the meantime, there’s an endless parade of stuff that is subpar – sour tea, badly roasted tea, moldy tea, stuff that isn’t really aged but pretending to be, etc. The possibilities are endless, and many of them are being peddled as aged oolong. Some of them make their way to Western vendors, at prices that are quite high but at qualities that are not. Many others are being sold locally at shops that tell a good tale. Either way, the consumers suffer. It’s too bad, but it’s all too common.

So, unlike some years ago, finding good aged oolong is no longer easy. It’s possible, but prices are now higher, and the quality is generally lower. When you find the good stuff, the vendor often doesn’t even want to sell. I guess that’s true almost universally for all things tea in the past ten years. It’s just sad to see that this is happening to the type of tea that I love to drink.

Competition trouble

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Many of you know that in Taiwan, they have tea competitions. The basic idea is that farmers would submit sample teas (ranging from 5 jin to 20 jin – one jin is 600g, depending on where, what, etc) for the competition. These got started by 1930 or so under Japanese rule. These days, some allow multiple entries while others only allow single entry per member of whatever association is holding that competition. The teas are judged anonymously, and then after multiple rounds of tastings a winner is declared with multiple winners of lower ranks underneath. Some teas are thrown out as not being good enough (and returned to the farmer). The teas that win a certain grade will then be packaged in sealed containers inside sealed boxes with dated labels, and then they would be returned to the farmers to sell.

The whole thing was supposed to encourage farmers to up their game and create better teas, and top winner for the big competitions, like the Lugu Tea Farmers Association one, could fetch prices of over 30,000 NTD (about 1000 USD) per jin in that special packaging. Compared to a normal price or about 3-4,000 NTD a jin for a top grade Dong Ding tea, that’s a big upgrade. For those 20 jin of tea the farmer is making 10x the normal amount. It also helps his sales for other stuff. Farmers who win the top prize can get a big wooden plaque to commemorate the win, and they frequently hang these in their shop to showcase their abilities. Some have so many they just stack them on the side of room because they don’t have enough space to hang all of them.

So this is all great right? Well, not so fast. There are troubles beneath the surface, some of which were topics of conversation between myself and some tea farmers/sellers that I have talked to in the last week I spent here in the middle part of Taiwan. The first is this: what you see is not really what you get. For example, when you see teas coming out of the competition for the Lugu Farmers Association, does it mean that all the tea came from Lugu? No, not at all. Many entries, if not most, use teas from higher elevation as the base for their entry. In fact, if you use local Lugu tea, you’re probably going to lose because the low elevation tea from Lugu simply don’t stand up to the much higher quality teas from higher areas. The thickness of the tea, the aroma, etc, are not up to normal judging standards. In other words, you can’t compete. So, when you end up with, say, Lugu Tea Farmers Association competition tea, know full well that the tea might be Dong Ding style (higher oxidation and roast) the base tea is probably not from the area.

Then you have the silly part – many (though not all) competitions allow multiple entries. So what happens is that a farmer can enter the same tea multiple times. This has a cost – when you submit 21 jin of tea, they only give you back 20 jin + 200 grams. They take a bit of the extra as a bit of profit, plus whatever entry fee they charged. Today someone told me that he entered a competition with ten entries, all with the exact same tea. Why? Because you never know. With just one entry, if you got unlucky and the 3g sample they picked out from your bag isn’t so great for whatever random reason, then you will get kicked out in a flash. If you were unlucky and got lined up (randomly) between two really good entries, then your tea is going to look bad in comparison. For his ten entries, he said three got rejected and the rest, some scored higher and some scored lower. It’s all a crapshoot to a certain extent. The top prize is going to be excellent, the top few levels are going to be pretty good, but there’s still a fair amount of randomness in there.

As a buyer, there’s definitely some value in these competitions – like I said, the quality of the tea that won a high level prize is going to be pretty good. You also need to pay through the roof for that – it’s going to be expensive, more than the normal stuff anyway. At the lower grades (three or two plum blossoms, for the Lugu competition) they are going to be comparably priced to the normal price for these teas. It’s a bit of an assurance, in some ways.

At the same time though, there are problems. First of all, you don’t really know exactly what you’re getting – unless you happen to be with the guy who made the tea, you’re not going to get to sample it. So you’re buying blind, really. There’s also that price premium, which for a normal drinker is really not worth paying – you can usually get good quality tea for less money if you know what you’re doing. Of course, since all oolongs look similar, it’s quite hard to do in practice, especially when it’s through multiple layers of middlemen and repackaging. People buy competition tea partly for this assurance. Partly though, it’s also for gifting – when you gift someone a box of unopened competition tea you’re basically telling them exactly how much you paid for the tea, since the prices are set.

There’s also the even more confusing competition for things like aged oolong. Here it’s really a crapshoot – you don’t even know what style of tea you’re getting. There are so many possible permutations – original roast level, age, area of origin, etc – none of which will be apparent to you (or anyone else, for that matter). It’s one thing to have aged competition tea from the past that are now old, it’s another to have a competition for aged tea. Unless you can sample from the source (that’s what the extra 200g is for) buying aged oolong competition tea is a fool’s errand.

The best $6 I’ve spent

Most of the time when buying unknown teas, the gamble doesn’t pay off – there’s more crap tea out there than good tea, so luck is rarely in your favour. Once in a while, especially if the setting is right, the gambles can turn out right.

In this particular case, I took a gamble with this one

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A bag of tea, really, nothing too fancy. You can see the bag is quite old. Few shops package teas this way now. I found this in the back of a cupboard of puerh in a local shop. It’s their only one. I asked how much, and the owner clearly has no idea, and just said “uh, whatever, 50?” That’s about $6 USD

I bought it because it’s got a pretty good chance of being an aged oolong. I can smell that aged taste through the bag. I’ve actually held on to this for a couple years now, and decided to open it yesterday when I was rearranging my tea closet.

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Aged oolong, all right. It’s somewhere between 20 and 30 years old. The fact that it’s a private company in Shantou that packaged it means that it couldn’t have been made earlier than maybe the mid 80s. The tea is not heavily rolled like new tieguanyin tend to be, and looks traditionally processed with high firing. It’s wrapped in two sheets of paper. Given that it’s been just sitting around in a cupboard, the tea is actually in pretty good shape.

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It’s got a nice, aged taste to it. It’s not the most full bodied or fragrant aged oolong I’ve had – open air storage probably has something to do with it. It’s only minimally sour, and is in very good shape. The only knock is that the tea is somewhat chopped up – probably because of repeated handling over the years. For $6, it’s a steal.

Drink your tea now, part 2

It was a busy weekend with a couple tea friends coming separately, one from Japan and one from Taiwan. Tea is an amazing thing that brings you friends, people who you otherwise would never meet and never interact with, if not for your shared interest in this particular variety of caffeine uptake. I’m always thankful for that.

I’m also reminded of something I only wrote about recently – drink your teas, don’t save them, because bad things happen to them, if not to you.

I have many bags of aged oolongs. Some I value more than others. There’s this 80s aged dongding that I have a few bags of that I love, and which I haven’t really drunk for at least a year now, because I feel that it’s too precious to drink. The only problem is, Hong Kong is really not a great place to store oolong, and if any sort of moisture got into the tea, it gets sour.

That’s what happened – I was hoping to serve this tea to my friend, and when I brewed it, something was obviously wrong. Yup… it’s turned sour. Funny enough, it was the most sour when I first reopened the bag that day. I’ve had the tea twice since then, and it’s not as bad. It didn’t help that the bag is quite full of broken leaves because it was near the bottom of the bag at the teashop where I bought it.

Thankfully, the other bags are not opened and should be ok, but a reminder to myself that it’s usually a good idea to just drink your tea, especially if it’s something that is somewhat perishable. Puerh is more immune to that, but oolongs and greens are not easily stored safely. Drink them, or lose them.

Playing with fire

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I’ve had this for a couple years now, but I haven’t tried using it until now. Living in an urban environment is not really conducive to using charcoal to boil stuff, especially in a hot place like Hong Kong where the weather is rarely cold enough for this sort of thing. There’s something wrong about lighting it up indoors when it’s 33 degrees outside.

Not having a yard or a barbeque at home, lighting up the charcoal means doing it right in the stove, which is a little harder than the tonnes of space you’re afforded in a barbeque. The easy way to do this is just to light it up in a charcoal chimney or some such, but without any of those tools, I was reduced to starting a fire in these stoves. Obviously, practice makes perfect, and since I don’t have practice, it took a few tries. Turns out, the trick is pretty simple – fan really hard once you’ve got a little fire going in there. Constructing the charcoal so that there’s good airflow is obviously important. Once started, all you have to do is to add enough fuel to make sure there’s enough heat coming off.

Using this setup really does change how you approach the tea. First of all, you don’t have a lot of water to work with, so you’ll economize. If you’re used to throwing water everywhere, well, if you do that with this setup, you’ll be out of water before you get your first brew. With my normal pot, I can get about 4 infusions out of this little kettle. It takes 15 minutes to bring cold water to a boil using this setup. So, obviously, you won’t waste water.

You also need to just sit there and not multitask, because multitasking is impossible. It’s quite easy to walk away from a tea session, attend to something, and then come back and continue if you have an electric setup. With this, you can’t easily do that. The water won’t wait, and will keep boiling, and the fuel also won’t wait. If you go away for 20 minutes, your water will probably boil dry, your kettle might crack, and your fuel might start running low. You don’t want to restart a fire. That’s hard work. There’s a reason in those paintings it’s always the servant boy doing that.

Now, does it actually make any real difference?

I don’t think so. I certainly don’t think any of those claims about “oh, charcoal boiled water is sweeter” or any such thing. Heat is heat, and while the charcoal does smell nice (I used longyan – or longan – wood charcoal), it doesn’t really do anything particular to the water. My normal kettle boils it just as hot, as far as I can tell. The biggest difference is probably atmospherics – you feel different doing this. There’s also probably some difference in the material of the kettle itself – iron, in my case, versus clay. I don’t think the source of heat makes any difference there.

You do, however, learn to love your tea towel, because you need it. For this kettle, the handle gets hot, so without a towel it’s untouchable. If I want to do this a lot, I might want to get a slightly bigger kettle, so that the handle won’t get as hot (but with a definite tradeoff in boiling time) or I can try to buy another kettle with a top handle made of something like rattan.

This sort of setup also forces you to drink certain kinds of tea – I’m not going to drink a puerh that will go on for many infusions, because it’s quite impractical to come back to the tea later on, and so you want to pick something that will be done in a few kettles of water, at most. With that in mind, I picked an older dahongpao. It came out beautifully.

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Not all old tea is good

We are always told that older teas are, somehow, better. Imagine if your old tea came from here though

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This is a tea display from a grocery shop not too far from my home. They sell some pretty dubious teas, not sourced from this little display, of course. Nevertheless, if you ever need convincing that storage environment matters, this is it – it’s exposed to the sun, probably really hot, and hasn’t been cleaned in decades. God forbid you end up with a cake from here.

Taking a break from brewing

No, not me. The tea.

Some of you already know this or have experienced this first hand. Sometimes when you are drinking a tea, you reach a point where you feel the tea is no longer capable of giving you much of anything. At this point, the instinctive thing to do is to dump it, and then start over, or just call it a day.

However, one way to deal with this is to actually let the tea rest – not for a few minutes, but for a few hours, or maybe even overnight. You can just leave it in your gaiwan or yixing. I’m not sure what the mechanism is, but it does seem to me sometimes a tea will get pushed and pushed, and it seems to run out of juice and you get nothing other than slightly sweet water. However, I suspect what’s going on is that as the leaves are still wet, something in the leaves break down during the resting time, and the tea therefore yields some more to you. Moreover, your tastebuds might be getting a rest too, so all of a sudden you’re fresher, and the tea, in some ways, also seems fresher.

I grandpa a lot of teas these days, as my workplace is not very gongfu friendly. I was drinking my usual aged tieguanyin the other day at work, and at the end of the day, drained the cup and left the leaves in there, lid open. The next morning, I came in, poured the cup full of hot water, put the lid on, and “baked” the tea for probably half an hour. The result was a pretty flavourful tea that was surprisingly interesting – even more than normal, with a good minty feeling that normally isn’t very obvious in this aged tieguanyin. I ended up having another cup of this tea before finally giving up on it and throwing the leaves out.

I’m not sure what happened, but I’m pretty certain the flavours I got the next morning was a little different from the usual, as I drink this tea pretty often. I suspect something happened overnight that made it taste a little different – possibly some kind of chemical breakdown, possibly the effect of it drying, or maybe the morning sun shining on the leaves did something. Regardless, something happened, so I got a different flavour profile than if I had just poured another cup. It’s as if I was drinking a different, but somewhat related tea.

I know others who do this too, but in different ways. Some will keep long-brewing the tea for hours, others will let the tea rest for a few hours and return to it half a day later. Regardless, resting the tea, somehow, seems to revive it a bit, just enough to give you a few more interesting cups. Of course, that may not necessarily be what you want all the time – a crappy tea isn’t going to magically transform into something amazing with this technique, but if you think a good tea is about to die on you, let it go and come back later. You could be surprised, though, I should caveat, not always pleasantly.

Flights of tea

I was recently in Vancouver and then Portland, Oregon to visit friends and family. One of the things I did was to arrange a tea meeting with ABX, whom I’ve met before when we visited Serenity Art together (the store has since closed and reopening is uncertain). I also contacted David Galli of the rather grandly named Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance, which is actually a tea space that’s shared with a wine tasting/education outfit and offers classes and tea meetings of various sorts. We ended up settling on drinking tea there.

I promised the two of them that I would bring some aged oolongs of various sorts for them to try, and I ended up taking with me about six different teas, all aged oolongs of one kind or another that I have gathered from one place or another. The result of the tasting, unbeknownst even to me at the time, was a comparison of different aged oolongs and their characteristics.


We ended up drinking seven teas, six of them aged oolongs and one a cooked/raw mixed brick from the 80s. Most of the aged oolongs, other than one, was tasted in a pot I brought along for the ride. I also ended up doing most of the brewing, so it turned out to be a pretty reasonable proxy for a controlled tasting of the teas.

I think there’s actually quite a bit of value in drinking teas this way. Comparing teas that are, ostensibly, in the same genre, it is quite possible to discern the more subtle differences in the teas by having them back to back. Whereas when drunk separately, they might each have their own strong or weak points, drinking them together, one by one, it is easier to say “this tea is better than that tea because…”. The same, of course, can be done through cupping, but cupping a tea is a lot less fun.

There are some general rules that I try to follow when constructing such tastings though. The first is that one should always start light and end heavy. Going the other way will seriously disrupt the tastebuds, and will often result in sub-optimal experiences. Drinking a green tea right after a heavy, pungent puerh is probably not a very good idea, especially in attempting to detect the high notes of the green tea. It’s generally a much better idea to go from the light and airy to the full bodied and deep teas. I suspect the same is true for wines.

Also, I think it is useful to taste things that share some similarity. Drinking, say, a sencha, then a white tea, then a young puerh, then an aged oolong, for example, can be fun, but I think there is less to be gained in the experience. Drinking the same kinds of tea over a short session, on the other hand, allows for more direct comparison. Differences in aroma, mouthfeel, longevity, and depth become very obvious.

There are also unexpected surprises. The puerh we had at the end, for example, seemed very sour. I think if we had tried that early on, it wouldn’t appear as sour, but because it came after a long line of aged oolongs that are mostly sweet, the sourness was magnified somehow. To me, the tea also tasted somewhat unpleasant overall – it’s hard to pinpoint what was wrong with it, but I know that if it weren’t preceded by the teas that it did, I probably would have liked the tea more.

It would’ve been nice though if I had more time to drink with the two of them. Alas, we only had a few hours, and so some of the teas were still drinkable when we abandoned them for other things. I do wish David good luck though in setting up this new space, and it’s Portland’s good fortune to have a number of locations to drink teas of different kinds.

A pile of aged oolong

I just came back from another trip to Taiwan, this time having a few days between work and tea hunting. Taiwan really is the island of teashops, and the kicker is, quite a few of them are very decent places, with good tea and run by good people. As one of my commenters mentioned, they don’t try to rip you off the way they do in the mainland.

While MadameN and I were a little early to our dinner destination for a meeting with some colleagues from grad school, we decided to take a quick stroll around the restaurant and look at the amazing coffeeshops that are in the vicinity of the restaurant. While doing that, we ran into a tea store that looked as terrible as you can imagine – old, slightly broken and very dirty shelves, lined with bags of tea that have been stacked into pyramids, a common feature of many community teashops in Taipei. On the far end of the shop are bags and bags of teas, and some puerh cakes lining the wall. I decided to try my luck and walked in, asking if they have any aged tea. The woman who was in the store said she has to ask her dad, who really runs the operation, and ten minutes later, the dad walked into the store.

I expected nothing when I walked in, since most of these stores have nothing other than reroasted-to-death “aged” oolong for sale. However, in the subsequent twenty minutes, which was all the time I had, he brought out about five different aged oolongs for me to taste, each one decent, some better than others. It was clear that my twenty minutes were not enough. I decided to go back the next day.

So the next afternoon, after meeting up with Action Jackson, I went back to the store. We tried many teas.


Aside from the rather obvious advantage of trying teas this way, which is that you can drink as much or as little as you want, while comparing them honestly without any interference with the brewing skills and parameters, it also allows you to literally throw away teas that are no good. What you’re seeing here is already after a few teas have been thrown out, with three young gaoshan oolongs, two aged oolongs, and one roasted one. More were tested before we stopped after having tasted a dozen or so teas.

The shop’s proprietor also showed us his rather unique way of roasting teas. It is an interesting use of what looks like an oven, because it’s not what it seems


Whereas the exterior of the oven looks like, well, an oven for maybe baking bread, once you open it up you can see that the heat is actually being provided by charcoal at the bottom of the oven, with pans of teas being roasted above it. It’s actually not a bad idea – this way, he can do charcoal roasting while keeping the room’s temperature to a reasonable level, and also limits the amount of charcoal he needs to use as well as being able to roasted a relatively small batch at a time. To the left of the oven is where he rests his recently roasted tea, and to the right, with the big white bags, are aged oolongs of one kind or another – no vacuum pack, no jars, nothing, just plain bags with good aged teas that are surprisingly not bitter at all. Nor does he re-roast the tea, ever, because, as he himself correctly states, once you reroast an aged tea it loses the aged flavour. I heartily agree.

In the end we all walked out of the store laden with tea, all sold at a very reasonable price. Having spent many days tea hunting in Taipei both on previous trips and this one, I can safely say that oftentimes the best shops for buying tea are also the ugliest looking, messiest, and dirtiest ones, with bags of teas piled everywhere, old, sometimes broken pots lining the shelves, and the most disorganized tea tables you’ve ever encountered. The shops that are neat, clean, with nice rows of boxed teas lit with mood lighting and packaged in designer bags are, more often than not, rather mediocre and rarely surprising. They might have a few things that are rare, interesting, or, better yet, sold with a story, but you have to pay a pretty penny for them, and I’m not sure if that’s worth the money, because what you can drink is the tea, and not the story.