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.

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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

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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.

The learning curve

If you are serious about tea, meaning that you are spending time thinking about the teas you’re drinking, learning about their nuances, and doing things like reading this blog, then chances are you have discovered that there’s a pretty steep learning curve to tea drinking in general, and puerh teas in particular. With any kind of tea this is hard enough – the different types of teas that exist, with different locations of origins, processing, and grades. The different ways to brew them, and what water to use with what, and the brewing parameters. There are so many moving parts that to say that you have “mastered” tea in any form is a claim that can serve as Exhibit A of human hubris. There’s always a learning process, and there’s always something you can discover about a tea you’ve already had many times before. This is what makes the hobby fun.

There are, however, ways to speed up the learning process and allow you to delve deeper into the art and science of tea appreciation on various levels. What triggered the writing of this particular post is a recent tea session I had at one of the stores in Hong Kong that sells puerh. Over the course of an afternoon, I drank, with some of my friends, about five or six teas. The youngest of the lot was from 1998, and the oldest was about 30 years old. The fact of the matter is, for tea drinking in general, and puerh in particular, it is important to sample a wide range before you really have a clear idea of what’s out there, and what’s possible given the complexity of teas. The tea aficionado is really building a mental library of teas that s/he can recall and compare against. In so doing, s/he is learning about the different teas and whether something is good, bad, or just different.

Likewise, for aging teas, it is crucial to know what you’re trying to get to before you even know what you’re aging for. I see people talking about building their young puerh collection hoping to age them into something great, except the only aged teas they have had may be some third rate 1990s teas that are, at best, poorly stored, or sometimes even none at all. This is not to poo-poo those who have not had the opportunity to try these things, but if you haven’t had a properly aged tea from a variety of storage conditions and starting points, how would you even know what you’re trying to get to? Is it a “wetter” taste that you’re after, or do you want a dry stored taste? Do you want something sweet, or something smokey? We had a brick from 1997 that was still, even as I drank it with the friends a few days ago, extremely powerful. It was strong, smokey, very active, and got us all tea drunk. It was, in other words, a very potent tea, but even now, 15 years after production, it is still too harsh to drink. Sure, it has great aging potential, but how many 15 years do you have that you can just hold on to these things forever? When new, the tea must have been extremely smokey and also super-strong – to the point where many might give up on it all together. Also, keep in mind that this brick has been aged 15 years in Hong Kong, a pretty hot and humid condition. If it’s aged in, say, Chicago, how long would it take to just get the tea to its current condition as I tried it? More than 15 years, I can guarantee you. Then what?

The same can be said of aged oolongs. Many aged oolongs I’ve seen for sale, both in Asia and online, are really terrible teas that have been roasted to death. They are not so much aged but charcoalized. They’re sweet and nice, sure, but they’re also not what I’d consider a great aged oolong, which should be fragrant, active, and isn’t one dimensional. For example, how much sourness is acceptable, and how much is too much? Sure, individual taste plays a part in this, but there’s also some basis for a universal yardstick. Alas, unless you’ve walked through Taipei and tried dozens of aged oolongs from different stores, ranging from the amazing to the terrible, it is impossible to say with any kind of certainty “this is a great aged oolong”.

What I want to say is that while it may be very tempting to just drink lots and lots of new teas and read other people’s blogs, books, and magazines to learn about tea, there’s nothing that will prepare you for a lot of these deeper questions except personal experience. One could theorize all they want with regards to aging potential, durability, etc, but a crucial question is – what will it age into? Is it going to be soft and sweet? Harsh and smokey? Fragrant and floral, or woody and deep? There are many possible endpoints (unknown) in addition to the infinite starting points (known). Unless you have tried many potential endpoints, how, if at all, can you determine which start points link up with which endpoints?

So the life of the foreign tea aficionado is made considerably harder by the lack of availability of good, aged teas, which are distinctly absent from the market. For example, how many versions of Menghai factory (not some other imitation) 7542s from 2000 or before are there on the market? In what condition? How about 8582? Or 7582, of which I bought one cake while shopping, and which one of my friends said “this will be an interesting reference piece”? Or how about Xiaguan’s 8653 from the 80s and 90s? Here you can find them ranging from dry to very wet, with different batches (which all taste somewhat different, if you pay attention) and with varying quality. I certainly haven’t figured it all out – not by a long stretch, but I feel at least I am lucky to have access to things like this, through stores that sell them and friends who have them. It greatly flattens the learning curve of figuring out aging of tea and what not. When your access to old tea is limited to second string products and, in many cases, discards from the Asian market, what does that mean for your learning of how to age teas?

Alas, I don’t think there’s much to be done in the way of solving this problem. This post is, unfortunately, a negative one – I don’t have any solutions to propose, other than to try more tea, except that the availability of old teas is such that this is not really possible as an option. I can count on one hand the outfits that offer aged teas for sale, and of these, I think only one or two are actually worth bothering with. So, until then, I’d advise travel to parts of Asia with good, aged teas, as a temporary remedy. There really aren’t many other ways, unfortunately.

A good tea trip

Being close to Taiwan is probably one of the biggest perks of being in Hong Kong, at least from the perspective of a tea lover. I count aged oolongs as the tea that I can drink day in, day out, and Taiwan is probably the best place to find such things. Even though MadameN and I only went there for three days this time, it did not disappoint.

The Candy Store is of course my first stop, and I returned to find that the laobanniang still remembers me and that I was a seeker of aged oolongs. I spent a few hours sitting there, drinking tea and digging through big metal cans with her, and among the teas I tasted there were two or three that seemed quite decent. One, the last one I tried that day, was very similar to The One That Got Away, and I dare not make the same mistake twice. So I ended up taking home the whole bag of tea that she had, all 2kg of it.

There were smaller successes too, as I went from shop to shop in Taipei looking for things. I replenished my supply of aged oolong, which, while not exactly running low, is low enough for me to have withheld consumption of aged oolongs for a while, opting instead to drink teas that are more readily available. Now, I am sitting in my office sipping an inexpensive aged tieguanyin that I bought on this trip that has the right mix of aged taste, sweetness, and throatiness. Yum.

Having then punctuated the trip with a visit to the magnificent Taroko park, we returned to Taipei and picked up the tea I wanted. On the last day, before our departure, I met up with a dear tea friend from Japan who is both knowledgeable and incredibly generous, and together we visited a tea lover/maker/seller who brewed a series of quite interesting, younger puerhs, some of which are the best young puerh I have had in a while. That’s the other thing about Taiwan – in addition to lots of shops, it has a high number of people who are very keen on tea and who spend a lot of time thinking about it, drinking it, and in some cases, making it. Others are then attracted to Taiwan and visit, therefore further exchanging ideas and teas. It’s a very fertile environment in which to advance one’s own tea appreciation, and I can’t think of a better place for tea than that.

With our bellies full of good tea, our tea companion took us to the airport and sent us off. Four days is far too short for a trip, but it was an invigorating one. I’ll be back for more, and soon.

The one that got away

Today’s tea is probably my last, seriously brewed tea I’ll have in the United States for quite some time.  Tomorrow the movers will be coming to pack my things up and send them on their merry way to Hong Kong.  So, to commemorate the occasion, I thought I should drink something different, something interesting.  After some dithering and going over the many teas I have, I settled on one that has special meaning to me, because it’s the one that got away.

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Back in 2007 when I was still in Taiwan, I was a frequent visitor to the various old teashops in Taipei to look for aged oolong.  At that point I don’t think many people were selling aged oolongs online, aside from a handful at Houde, and there was very little information on such things.  I hunted high and low for these things, good, bad, and everything in between.  It was a fun experience, and I learned a lot just by tasting the different teas and talking to different people who sell them.  One store in particular, as my old-time readers will remember, I affectionately called the “Candy Store” because buying things from there made me felt like a kid in a candy store – lots of goodies, and the thrill of having to hunt them down.

Late in my stay in Taipei, perhaps a week or two before I had to leave, I went to the Candy Store again and found a few things that looked interesting.  One of them was a small, perhaps 2-3kg bag of rolled oolong with a label that said it was from the 80s, a Dongding competition tea.  I only got to try the tea after I left Taiwan, because I had no time to do it before flying out.  By the second or third time I tried the tea, it became obvious that this tea is really good, and I wanted the whole bag.  However, it was too late, and when I asked a friend to visit the store again for this tea, it was all gone.

This is what spurred me to buy in bulk whenever I like a tea now – I think back in the day I felt less confident in my ability to tell good from bad apart, and tended to buy in smaller quantities because of it.  These days, I’m more sure of what I like and don’t like and also my ability in telling good from bad, so when I find something that I think checks all the boxes, I tend to buy in bulk – a few kilos at a time, so that the misfortune of not having a good tea when I want it is no longer there.

What I drank today is the very last bit of this tea, the last of the 4oz that I bought when I first visited the Candy Store.  Drinking it today, there’s still that nice, peachy taste to it, but it had also gotten a darker taste, a more aged flavour, if you will, that wasn’t there when I bought it.

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The tea looks a lot darker, although I think at least part of it is because there was a lot of dust in the bag, and that the cup is much deeper than the one in the original photo from three years ago.  Nevertheless, this is still a great tea, with depth, fullness, and qi.  I wish I have more, but I don’t.  It was one of the first teas I drank after coming back to the US from my long sojourn in Asia during 2006-7, and it is the last serious tea I’m drinking before I fly back to Asia, ending almost fifteen years in North America.  The next two days I’ll have to subsist on grandpa style teas, and then, back to home base.  See you on the other side.

Graduation

In 2004 I bought myself a box of Dahongpao from the Best Tea House.  I told myself that this was going to be a tea that I will keep for the duration of my graduate studies, and that, when done, I’ll celebrate by opening it and drinking it.  The original plan was that I will leave it sealed until then, aging it for five or six years, and have something nice to drink at the end of it.  Since my school’s official colour is crimson, I thought it’s the most fitting tea, in many ways.  I ended up opening the box for MadameN‘s graduation two years ago, but finally, after many years of sweat and toil, I have a reason of my own to do so.

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Now, owing to administrative silliness, I actually got my degree in November last year, but since it’s rather impractical to have three occasions a year that has people dressed in large, crimson coloured bags, everyone does it in May.

Likewise, the actual tea drinking didn’t happen the day of the ceremony.  Rather, it took place two days later, when I was in New York visiting the Mandarin’s Tearoom and friends.  It’s been two years since I took this tea out, and even when I was opening it, I was quite aware that I no longer hold this tea in as high regard as I used to – I don’t think it is that great anymore, certainly not for the price.  Whereas many years ago, when I bought it, it was something that I thought was truly good, now the tea seems merely decent.  The brewing confirmed it.  The tea still has nice qi, I think, which warms, but the mouthfeel is a little flat, and the taste slightly muted.  While I didn’t pack the pot to the hilt, it was enough leaves to make a decent cup.  Yet what came out seemed a little flat.

This, then, is also a graduation of some sort.  We all have moments like this at some point in our tea drinking career.  Teas that, when we were younger, we thought were great, full, and flavourful will almost always appear less interesting, less full over the years.  Some of us got started drinking flavoured teas but have long since swore off such things.  Others may occasionally return to the qingxiang oolongs or green teas that got us into tea in the first place, but find far more pleasure drinking different types.  Still others will turn to cooked puerh from time to time, but would much prefer aged teas, even though cooked puerh may very well have been the “gateway drug.”  The same can be said of vendors too.  Vendors who, early on, seem to offer great selections would often, upon closer inspection and more experience, look like overpriced teas for mediocre quality.  Drinking this dahongpao this time, some of these thoughts definitely crossed my mind.

While I don’t think I will buy another box of this dahongpao from the Best Tea House anymore, it doesn’t mean I will toss this tea — certainly not.  It’s still good tea, just not great, and factoring in the price, there are better options.  There is one more calculation involved though.  Even though it may not be the best tea, it was what I wanted myself to have all those years ago as a graduation celebration.  I have kept it all these years, hauling it around with me while I moved from place to place, and that sentimental value is not something that a far better dahongpao can replace.  Perhaps I’m overly sentimental, but even if someone offers me some dahongpao from the original three trees in exchange of what’s left in this box, I don’t think I’ll take that trade.  This is why many of us, even when we already have shelves full of teas of dubious quality aging, still have a hard time parting with them.  They are pieces of personal history and memory that, once gone, can never truly be replaced.

Mingcong aged oolong

A very generous friend, S, from Malaysia sent me a bunch of teas recently, and among the samples (and a full cake too) is this, a little gem from the past.  I’m not entirely sure how old this is, but from the packaging it looks to be at least 20 years or more.  It’s a small packet of Wuyi tea.

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The name on the front is Mingcong (famous bush) while on the back it just says, very helpfully, China oolong tea.  The bag is very stained from the years of rest it’s taken.  When I opened it up, I can clearly smell the aged-ness of the tea — slightly sour, with that distinctive aged oolong fragrance that can’t be faked.

The dry leaves are quite broken.  The tea was well roasted when it came out.

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From the taste of the tea, it seems like it’s some sort of shuixian.  The initial two infusions are slightly sour, but not enough to make it unpleasant.  The sourness, as it should, goes away, and a nice, deep aged Wuyi taste lingers.  This is pretty decent tea.  Just judging by the looks, it looks like some dark cooked puerh.

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Stuff like this are always a treat, as they are mellow and easy to drink.  I’m a big fan of good aged oolong for a reason; they are tasty and don’t cost nearly as much as aged puerh does these days.  They also last quite a while, if the tea is good.  I wonder how much this tea was.

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The leaves are dark, but still flexible.  Good tea — thanks S!

Tea with friends

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It seems almost frivolous to talk about tea when Japan has suffered one of the biggest earthquake in recorded history.  I was on my way from LAX to Hong Kong while it happened, and when it struck I think I just got in the air, eventually flying through Tohoku, completely unaware that 35,000 ft below me was death and destruction on a scale that is hardly imaginable.

Traveling with me was some teaware.  I have virtually nothing here in Hong Kong to make tea with, and so I transported a few things so that it will be possible for me to host a few friends for some tea.  It is always difficult to devise a course of teas for people who have varying levels of experience.  In the group of five (not counting me) was one MadameN, a serious tea friend, and three relative novices.  Left to our own devices, the serious tea friend and I will probably drink a parade of young and old puerh.  MadameN normally humours my habit, to a reasonable limit.  Then you have the novices, who may or may not react well to any or all of the teas, and it’s always a bit of a crapshoot because of that uncertainty.  I settled on a menu of a green tieguanyin, a slightly aged baozhong, traditionally stored Guangyungong bits, and in the end, an impromptu Golden Needle White Lotus, courtesy of said tea friend.

It is always fun to drink tea with people you’ve never done so before, especially if they’re encountering something for the first time, or have very little experience with what they’re drinking, because all of a sudden you hear all sorts of new perspective on the drink that you’re so familiar with, and end up learning more about it in the process.  The green tieguanyin is the most familiar to all, I believe, and goes over as well as one would expect such things to do.  The aged baozhong received mixed reviews, not least because the tea itself is odd — aged, but not too much so, and the liquor was a nice reddish colour.  It is slightly sour, with that vaguely chemical smell that sometimes accompanies aged oolongs.  It was likened to paint thinners as well as meicai (preserved Chinese vegetables), which is quite apt, I think.

The Guangyungong bits elicited some interesting comments, ranging from a certain hollowness, to varying responses on the bitter/sweet balance in the tea, and the earthiness of the brew.  Some were very attuned to the aftertaste that both the baozhong and the GYG present, while others were less aware of their existence.  What I always find most interesting though is that what tea drinkers see as good tea is often not necessarily considered good by others.  Sometimes there’s a lot of navel gazing when tea drinkers talk to each other about teas, and forget that for most people, none of the teas we drink are actually good (i.e. taste good, in a juicy, flavourful way), but perhaps merely interesting.  The Golden Needle White Lotus, for example, does well up front, but when stressed to a slightly longer (1.5 minutes) steep alongside the GYG, it’s obvious that the GYG is sweeter and better.

What’s most important though is that everyone had, I think, a good time.  Tea is best drunk with friends, and if I could, I would do this every day.

Thinking about oolongs, part two

Although the natural environment in which teas grow obviously affect how they taste, processing, for oolongs at least, is king.  The sheer number of variables is astounding, and the range of tastes that are possible, from the really light and floral baozhongs to the really dark and heavy wuyis are what make oolongs so much fun (and why so many people drink them).

I’ll try to proceed in the order in which these things happen in the production process: oxidation, rolling, roasting, aging.

Oxidation is the first step in oolong production that makes it distinct from green teas, and it really happens immediately after the tea leaves are plucked.  When leaves get harvested, they usually go through a withering stage, and then they are bruised so that the cell structure breaks down, so that the enzymes can get to work and oxidation can begin. How much bruising, how much time for oxidation, under what conditions, etc, are the kinds of things that create particular flavours in a tea and are also the domain of a master tea maker. I suspect, for example, that darjeeling oolongs have generally turned out to be similar to their first flush is because they haven’t quite gotten the hang of the oxidation process yet, so everything still taste sort of vaguely similar.  I have talked to folks who tell me that they have to control for everything from weather, to time of day, to moisture level in the air, etc, and they know when to stop the oxidation process and start the kill-green by the way the leaves look and smell.  That’s stuff that I think I will only be able to learn if I become a tea farmer and work on it for thirty years.

The kill-green stops the oxidation process, and then you have to roll the tea — literally rolling them in the old days, in cloth bags with the farmer’s feet doing the rolling.  These days, that’s more often than not done with a rolling machine.  The purpose of rolling here is more or less like the purpose of rolling for puerh — squeezing out liquids, and basically allowing a lot of the dissolvable materials to stick on the surface of the leaves rather than remaining inside.  The rolling process can take a while, and depending on the area in which this is happening, rolling will also determine, to a large extent, the final shape in which the tea takes.  Just look at any dancong and compare it to a Taiwanese gaoshan oolong and you’ll know what I mean.

The drying and roasting process is then the step in which tea becomes tea — drinkable, brewable leaves.  This can be done in different ways, but generally speaking, this is mostly done through machines again.  At what temperature and for how long is really a matter of the craft of the teamaker again, because the retained moisture at the end of this process affects how the tea will taste by the time it gets to you.  Even though leaves look dry, there’s always some moisture in them, and the amount of drying/roasting that it goes through affects this value, which then changes the way it keeps and the way it ages through time.  That’s why, for example, vacuum sealed packs of somewhat wet leaves don’t keep too long and need to be left alone in the fridge — they go bad, fast.

Generally speaking, the drier the leaves, the longer/better they keep.  Roasting is a process through which moisture gets taken out of the leaves, and re-roasting, which was done often, was something that tea merchants would routinely do themselves in order to refresh a stock of leaves — reigniting (and changing) the aromas of a tea, and to take out excess moisture that usually ends up imparting a sour flavour on the leaves.  Oolongs can go from virtually no roasting to really heavy, pitch black roasting, and the skill of the roaster in handling this again has a direct and immediate effect on the way the teas come out.  There is also a regional preference here, with Wuyi teas generally being of higher roast, for example, and modern day tieguanyin from the mainland are increasingly little to no roast — nuclear green, in other words, which I personally find terrible to drink. There’s literally something for everyone here, depending on one’s likes and dislikes.

Then there’s the question of aging, which I have written plenty about before.  I don’t think all oolongs will age well — only a select few do.  Badly aged oolongs are usually sour and pretty disgusting, and sometimes re-roasting them will fix the problem.  However, there are lots of fake aged oolongs out there that are simply heavily roasted teas pretending to be aged teas.  They can be nice, but they’re not necessarily very old.  I personally find aged teas to be most fascinating, and since I don’t drink nearly as fast as I buy tea, I end up having some teas that I age myself without really having intended to do so — such as the cup of 2006 Beidou that I’m drinking right now.  Over time, a properly aged oolong should have a reddish appearance in both the leaves and especially the liquor, and the taste should be sweet and aromatic.  Then they eventually acquire the type of taste that all aged teas get — hard to explain, but you know one when you see one.

The interesting thing here is that the permutations of various factors – location, processing, aging – combine to form all types of flavours and aromas that you can get from oolongs.  I can safely say that almost no two oolongs are the same, and every time I go to a store in China that specialize in some type of oolong or another, each batch that I try are going to be different in some way or another.  Because so much of it also depends on post-processing and storage, even after the same batch of tea left the factory, the ultimate result in your cup may still differ.  I suppose that’s what makes it fun.

Thinking about oolongs

Of all the families of teas out there, oolongs are probably by far the most versatile and varied in appearance, aroma, and taste.  Situated between green and black, oolongs, by definition, are semi-oxidized teas that can be almost as green as green teas (very light baozhongs come to mind) or very dark, almost black tea like (oriental beauty).  By virtue of the variations possible, oolongs are complex and interesting teas that often bear little resemblance to each other, but offer the drinkers a wide range of possibilities.  Making sense of all this can be difficult; I’m going to try to at least systematically lay out what these various issues are, and what I have learned so far.

There are I think three different factors that go into the growth of oolongs that we, as consumers, need to consider.  Those are, in no particular order, terroir, varietal, and season.  Then, in the processing from raw leaf to the finish product, there are additional variables that a tea farmer/maker can manipulate to change how the tea comes out, and those variables can include oxidation, rolling, roasting, and in some cases, aging.  I’m going to just try to talk about the first set of things and worry about the second set later.

When dealing with terroir, to borrow a wine term, we are really talking about the soil, climate, and other environmental factors that go into the growth of the tea, which in this case would also include altitude.  I think we can talk roughly about large geographic areas, but also small microclimates.  For example, teas from Taiwan tend to share a similar set of taste profiles, especially in the aftertaste of the tea.  They could be from different varietals, using different techniques, and grown in different areas of Taiwan, but many Taiwanese teas end up tasting similar in some fashion, and are often easily identifiable as Taiwanese.  Likewise, Wuyi yancha can (and to many, should) have a similar taste, especially that fabled yanyun, which roughly translates into “rock aftertaste”.  Even when Taiwanese tea farmers make teas using Wuyi varietal and methods, they can’t achieve the same results.  That’s terroir for you.

Location matters though, so whether or not the tea you’re having is from a hilly slope or flat ground, high up or down low, moist or dry, well lit or not, and shaded or otherwise all have to do with how the tea comes out in the end.  So while we can talk about large swathes of land when discussing tea, we can also talk about smaller areas.  Anxi tieguanyin costs more than teas from nearby counties, and not all Dongding teas are created equal, as anyone who’s tried a number of them can tell you.  Things like that are hard to control, and often for the end buyer, relatively meaningless, because we rarely know exactly which farm a particular tea came from.  When we can find out, however, it often tells you something about what you’re drinking, and accumulating experiences in telling apart various kinds of growing conditions is a true mark of a tea expert.

Varietals obviously also play a role here, and the most famous of these is perhaps tieguanyin and all its imitators.  A maoxie or huangjingui might look and taste somewhat like a tieguanyin, but it never is one, and those who drink a lot of tieguanyin can generally tell you right away if the stuff is real or not.  Likewise, we all know the story of the original dahongpao, and all the generations that the originals have spawned.  Varietal matters, and also changes the way the tea taste in a fundamental way.  Unlike terroir, for the consumer, varietal is difficult; it requires a great deal of experience to be able to tell apart different kinds of oolong trees and their leaves.  Whether that is a jinxuan or a siji or a ruanzi or a taicha #18, is not something that a tea novice can do easily.  If you don’t drink it often, chances are you are entirely at the mercy of the vendor, who is often at the mercy of the maker.  I think this is why finding reliable and trustworthy vendors is so important — not only that you can trust them to not lie to you, but you need to be able to rely on the vendors to do the due diligence and basically fact check the maker of the tea.  There are many out there who merely parrot the story told to them when they bought the tea — that’s sometimes a recipe for disaster.

The season in which the tea is picked is the final big variable for those of us trying to drink oolong.  A spring tea is inevitably different from a fall tea, and mostly on Taiwan, you often see a winter crop as well that is yet again different.  In my personal experience, spring teas tend to be floral while fall teas often have more body, and winter teas have a unique fragrance and sweetness that is quite distinctive.  You rarely see anyone advertising summer tea, and there’s a good reason for it — slower growing tea tend to be better tea, and summer is usually when the tree undergoes a growth spurt, leaving relatively thin and uninteresting leaves for you to consume.

Already, we’re dealing with a dizzying array of possibilities that can significantly impact the teas we drink.  Puerh-heads spend a lot of time worrying about these issues all the time — where the tea’s from, what season it’s picked in, etc, but oolong drinkers tend to obsess a little less about these.  I think a big reason for this is simple: the lack of clear and obvious ways to tell different sorts of teas apart, and the importance of post-processing that creates the final tea.  Those are serious mitigating factors to everything I’ve just talked about, and can change the tea in drastic ways.  Not having an easy way to tell apart different kinds of teas sold under different names is obviously a difficult issue as well.  Just witness the number of teas out there that are advertised as tieguanyin or dahongpao — surely, they can’t be making that much of these teas.  Something obviously has to give, which means that there is a fair amount of false advertising out there.  Since it is virtually impossible for the regular consumer to compare two of the same sorts of teas from two vendors easily, it is all the more important to at least educate ourselves with regards to what may be out there, and in doing so, become a more discerning drinker.

To be continued…

Too much tea

A universal problem among my tea friends, if it’s a problem at all, is the issue of having too much tea.  Everyone I know has a lot of tea — varying from a few kilos of ready supply, to having half a ton of tea sitting at home (BBB, I’m looking in your general direction).  Now, this is not terribly surprising in and of itself, since we tend to buy teas we like, and we almost always tend to buy tea in larger quantities than we can realistically consume.  I’ve done the math before, and if I drink daily, by my normal drinking parameters, then I would only drink about 1.5 tongs of tea a year, if even.  That’s about 4-5kg of tea a year, max.  Not all that much at all.

A less obvious problem though, at least in my case, is that sometimes even though I have lots of tea (and yes, I have lots of tea) it doesn’t actually mean I want to drink them.  So sometimes, on certain days, I might have the peculiar problem of having a lot of tea, yet nothing to drink.

There are really three reasons for this, and generally speaking they are mutually exclusive

1) I don’t want to drink X yet — this usually applies to puerh or oolongs that are meant for aging.  If I only have a few bings of a tea, then I might not want to consume it all now, hoping that I can consume them later at a better stage

2) I don’t want to drink X because it’s too precious — this applies to a lot of things, varying from rare oddities that friends have given me in the past, tea with particular memories, or, in some cases, just really expensive stuff like longjing, which, in my case at least, invariably go bad before I actually get around to drinking them.  Two years old aged longjing aren’t so good.

3) I don’t want to drink X because it’s terrible — this happens more than you think, and sometimes can be masked with reason 1 or 2 (more often than not, 1).

The end result of all this is that oftentimes teas are actually consumed very slowly, and some things don’t move at all for years and years.  Today I just finished a bag of aged shuixian I bought from Beijing about four years ago.  When I bought it it was already aged four or five years, so this is really now an eight to ten years old tea.  I packed my pot with what’s left of it, and am drinking it right now — giving me a comfortable caffeine buzz and a nice, full mouthfeel, despite its humble origins.  It’s got the beginning of an aged tea feel — not quite the sweet taste you might find in some aged shuixian yet, but it’s getting there.

I also opened a “new” bag of roasted Taiwanese oolong a few days ago, which I also bought from Beijing in 2006.  That was one of my first purchases from Beijing when I arrived, and has been sitting around ever since.  It was vacuum packed when I bought it, but the vacuum lost its seal a few years ago, and has been that way ever since.

Trying the tea — very pleased, aged a little, lost all the roasty/charcoal flavour, but retaining the spiciness.  Why didn’t I open this sooner?

This gets me back to my original point though — it’s easy to forget some of the old oddities you have stored up, and once consumed, they’re gone forever.  That makes me not want to drink some of these things, because they are little pieces of memory.  However, I learned my lesson — I now buy in bulk when I meet a tea that I like.  One or two kilos is a small purchase, a few kilos is a larger one.  That is the only remedy to “I don’t want to drink this now”

Which, of course, leads to even more tea.