Different aging for different oolongs

What I’m about to say I have no basis other than my own drinking experience — a mere conjecture, more than anything else.

I think Taiwanese oolong age faster than mainland ones.

To clarify, I should say that Taiwanese oolongs age more markedly than mainland ones.

What I mean is that I think there’s a larger discernable difference between an older and a younger Taiwanese oolong. The difference is not only more obvious, but more qualitative. Mainland oolongs, by comparison, age slower — they retain more of their original character despite long age. I have yet to taste an aged Taiwanese oolong that really remind me of their original taste, but with mainland oolongs (and here I mostly have tieguanyin in mind) I find that I can easily tell it was not only an original tieguanyin, but have some basic idea of how the tea was, back in the day.

I have a feeling this might have to do with processing. I currently have no idea if this is indeed true, or if it’s just my small sample size playing tricks on me. I also don’t know if it’s because of the type of tea that I have found so far leading me down this road, but things like storage condition and such have large parts to play in this process.

Anyway, food for thought. Meanwhile, I take one last sip from my aged tieguanyin (mainland) before I go to bed 🙂

Having tea outside

It was nice having tea outside yesterday. The weather was perfect — not too cold, not too hot, not too sunny. Having a way of making water while outside frees you from electrical outlets and lets you make tea anywhere you want…. that’s always a plus.

The first tea we had was a tieguanyin I got from Beijing about three years ago.

You can tell it’s not that fresh anymore, and now that I’m tasting it, I don’t think it was very very good to begin with. Very average stuff, in fact, and probably not even tieguanyin — maybe this is benshan.

For the purpose though, it worked well enough. It was a tea that’s light and not too hard to make. Easy going enough.

The colours are pretty

We then had a beidou #1, also from Beijing. It’s interesting what two or three years of drinking does to you — stuff that you used to think is good no longer seems so good. The beidou is only ok — then again, it’s quite cheap. Compared to the rougui I had two days ago… it’s no match.

What was nice though was to drink outside at all — listen to birds, watching the deer walk by, etc. It’s just not the same.

Rougui from Taiwan

Moving away a little from my aged oolongs a bit, I pulled out something else I hunted down in Taiwan — a rougui, oddly enough. This was a shop that I specifically went to before I discovered the treasure trove that is the candy store (and other stores around it). I remember this being a tiny place, and I went there quite late in the day, almost getting dark. It was a long walk from the subway to the shop, and I passed through, among other things, the big computer shopping area as well as an open farmer’s market where they were also selling tea. When I finally found this place, I was drenched in sweat — a hot, Taiwanese summer evening.

The shop was only occupied by the owner and his daughter, who was probably around five or six. She was doing her homework, and the shop owner seemed to have been making dinner or some such. I thought I was interrupting, but he asked me to go in. I poked around, as usual, and looked through a bunch of teas, mostly puerh. At that point I was still in puerh hunting mode. I did, however, notice that he had a lot of tea canisters on the wall — and all of them were Wuyi teas. I asked about it, and he said this, not puerh, was his specialty. Puerh was there just to appease people who are in the fad.

Ok, Wuyi tea. I like them just as well, so we sat down and tasted a few of these. You can probably hunt down my entry for this visit if you really feel like it somewhere on this blog (probably August 07). I remember they were all quite expensive, and I only walked away from the shop with a cake of puerh and a can of this rougui. I still have most of both.

Opening the can again today, a rush of Wuyi tea aroma immediately rushed up. It was pretty obvious and pretty strong. I like teas that announce their presence, even when dry.

I rarely get the cinnamon taste that is supposed in rougui, but today, I did. Is it the tetsubin? It’s not the pot, because it’s the same pot I’ve been using for two years now for Wuyi teas. I know I’ve been singing the tetsubin song for quite a while now, but I really do think that whatever it is, it is doing something to my water and helping me make my tea better.

Strong, cinnamony, dark, yet a bit fruity with a good aftertaste…. solid Wuyi tea. Yet, I find myself missing that sweet sensation that I get from aged oolongs. This tea is brasher, obviously younger, and less refined. Maybe I’ve gotten used to the aged oolongs, but they do have a unique calming quality that most other teas don’t. Old puerh certainly do, but only if well aged. Adolescent or younger puerh simply can’t do that kind of thing.

I brewed the tea until there’s basically nothing left in it, which took maybe 20 infusions. I realized that my definition of “nothing” is probably much lower than most other people’s… I am quite willing to go to extreme lengths to get another cup out of a tea. At least this tea is up to the task.

I wonder if I should buy more of this stuff when I go to Taipei again, and store it for myself. I think this tea should do well with age.

Chinese vs Taiwan aged oolongs

One of the things I’ve learned from my intensive drinking of aged oolongs is that the Taiwanese and mainland oolongs age differently.

Broadly speaking, mainland oolongs, which tend to be most likely tieguanyin, are going to be sweet, very sweet, when aged. They are not often necessarily very fragrant when aged. The fragrance is often subdued, coming in the form of an intense aftertaste rather than an up front kind of way. The aftertaste though, when the tea itself is good, can be very strong and very long lasting. This might partly be because tieguanyin from some years ago tend to be better than the ones we drink now…

Taiwanese oolongs, on the other hand, tend to have very strong up front fragrance. This is especially true for the stuff that haven’t been reroasted, which tend to be more fragrant than others. They don’t, however, have that deep aftertaste that tend to come with the mainland stuff. This is a common complaint from my friends in Hong Kong who like to drink oolongs — that Taiwanese teas are shallower, and mainland teas are deeper. It’s not that obvious these days, I think, because there has been a gradual convergence in style, I think. You can really tell, however, with the older stuff — they are very different beasts.

2006 Dahongpao

One of the best things to result from my reorganization of my tea closet is that, finally, I can actually find a tea I want to drink without having to rummage through piles of bags, mostly unmarked. I separated everything into different categories, and the categories all have their own shelf. Now when I want to drink something specific, such as the dahongpao I bought from very early on in 2006 during one of my earliest trips to Maliandao, I can actually find it.

If I remembered correctly, this tea is actually not cheap, although not too expensive either. The tea is, supposedly, used by one of the national banquet halls as a tea that they use to treat foreign dignitaries. My understanding is that the shop owner (who is also the person who owns the factory in Wuyishan) has some guanxi with somebody who is connected to the banquet hall, and got the tea in there. It’s a nice marketing tool though, and ensures higher prices.

Is the tea any good?

I remember when I first tried it, it was decent. The price wasn’t so high that it would deter me from buying any. I don’t, however, remember it to be spectacular. It was merely very solid, very representative of a dahongpao, and quite nice overall. When I brewed it today, I had very few expectations, since I haven’t really tried this tea since late 2006 (or, for that matter, haven’t had a Wuyi tea for at least a month). When I first sipped it, a rather pleasant rush of flavours flowed into my mouth, as if enveloping it entirely and then made its way down my throat. It is a nice surprise, since the tea seems much better than I remembered. Wuyi teas, or roasted teas in general, should be rested for at least a few months after roasting before you drink it. I seem to remember the roasting taste was much stronger when I bought this tea, but right now, I can’t taste any of it. Instead, it was a very pleasant “rock” aftertaste that lingers for a long time in the mouth, staying around and delivering that flavour and feeling that you look for in a good Wuyi tea. I think it is things like aftertaste that really help me determine whether or not a tea is superior or merely good, and this tea is, I think, superior.

As a side note, I just realized, looking at my album of tea pictures, that for the most part the stuff I’m drinking these days all look rather similar, especially in terms of liquor colour. I wonder if it’s sort of pointless to post such pictures anymore. Originally I had intended such things for record keeping purposes, but maybe it’s not even worth keeping such records.

Before I decide to ditch such things, however, I will continue with things like this

Which is not quite like the other stuff I’ve been drinking, since it is notably greener, I think, than my usual fare these days. Despite its colour, the taste is hardly green. I probably should’ve gotten a little more of it, but then, I already have too much if I am only going to drink it once every two years.

Home stored tea

As I said yesterday, I was going to use the bigger tea caddy for a tieguanyin that I’ve been meaning to open for a while. Well, the day is today. This tea is something I bought maybe three or four years ago in Hong Kong. It’s been in its bag ever since I got it.

I bought it at the time having tried it at the store and knowing it was already aged for about 10 years. I checked again today, and the tea is actually 13 years old this year. The bag doesn’t look too good, although the leaves are still surprisingly intact.


(sorry, shaky hands today for some reason, maybe too excited)

The 150g bag of tea fit just right into the tea caddy with just a little room to spare. I then put it back in the box and left it. I don’t think I’ll want to drink this tea much — I’d rather let it age a little more. I do, however, intend on tasting it now that my ability to judge a tea has, I think, improved a little over the past three or four years.

This tea is not highly roasted. In fact, I’d say that when it was young, it was probably quite lightly roasted. The leaves are still green, even when dry (the lighting was a bit funny today too). When tasted, it yields a very orthodox tieguanyin flavour, with a strong yinyun (tieguanyin aftertaste, basically) and a very strong qi. I don’t think I’ve had tea with this strong a qi for a while, but it was a pleasant qi, not something that is particularly overpowering or uncomfortable. Rather, it was the sort that kept you buzzing a little, with a definite sensation of energy moving around your body that leaves you sweating a bit. If anybody ever asks me what a tea with qi feels like, I might just have to pull this one out.

The tea is definitely still youngish, but shows signs of aging in that there’s a hint of fruitiness showing through that is different from the floral fragrance of a young tieguanyin. Bitterness has also receeded, but it’s still there. I don’t think the tea is quite ready to drink yet, in the sense that it is a bit neither here nor there. If it were reroasted over time, it would taste older, but I think it would have also lost some of that power. It does taste a bit similar to the tea that Toki sent me, at least in its very core. That makes sense, because both these teas are tieguanyin, although their level of roast make them very different on the surface. The aftertaste, however, are quite similar, which I find to be a fairly remarkable thing.

The spent leaves are thick and solid, yet soft. I think I now have at least a little idea of how to properly identify a good tieguanyin, versus stuff that are mixed with all sorts of lower grade teas.

Sample C

More samples from Will.

Sample C, it says. Looks like dancong, smells like dancong, it’s probably a dancong, so I used my dancong pot.

Trying a new set up here, without using a tray and instead have a bowl to catch all the run off water with a wooden tray holding everything — which is just the bowl and the cup, as you can see here…

And then using a separate bowl to hold all the useless water (picture maybe tomorrow?). Maybe I can water plants with the run off tea.

How’s the tea though?

When I wrote to Will after drinking the tea, asking him what it is, I commented “seems rather bland — nothing too exciting”, and I think that basically captures what I think about the tea. It’s a dancong all right. Fragrant, not much bitterness unless you overbrew it (a plus), and overall decent, but it didn’t really stay in my mouth, nor did it give me a lingering sense of sweetness or throatiness. It’s basically a taste, and then it’s gone. That’s fine for a regular cup of tea, but I will get bored of such things quite quickly. It needed longish steeps quite soon to get more out of it, as I discovered. That’s fine, as it had a reasonable amount to give. That’s one good thing about this tea that’s obvious — it lasts quite a while and yields many steeps.

What surprised me was that this tea is one of the most expensive dancongs on offer at Tea Habitat at a whooping $75/oz. I was thinking to myself that this price seems rather high for not much tea, and not a terribly impressive one at that. Good teas cost money, there’s no doubt about that, but I also believe that truly good teas should not be too tempermental to make, as Will suggested this tea could be. I personally don’t really want to spend $25 or $50 just trying to figure out how to make this tea right. Per gram, it’s on par with some 20 years old puerh. For $75 I can buy half a kilo of some of my aged oolongs, and those are not tempermental to brew and fairly consistent. Half a kilo versus 28g…. I’m not sure if there’s much competition there.

I still remember going through my dancong phase once upon a time, early during the life of this blog actually. Then I quickly burned out, because after a while, they tend to taste sort of similar. I remember buying the second best dancong at the Best Tea House, and not the best one, because the best one cost double and the marginal difference between the two was slight. I think the same law should apply here — the marginal benefits of this tea is probably not enough to cover the marginal cost. Maybe there’s too much of the economist left in me, but as we all know, money talks.

Jing teashop 1983 tieguanyin

I picked up a sample of Jing’s 1983 aged tieguanyin on my swing to Boston — one of the persons I met gave me a session’s worth of tea.

The leaves look like an old tieguanyin — not rolled tightly, dark, a bit brittle. Smells somewhat sour.

The colour of the tea, when brewed, is also consistent with an aged oolong

The taste…. this is always the test, isn’t it? The tea is not too bad, with a nice throatiness and good sweetness. One problem though — it’s sour. I don’t know whether or not this is a product of the storage that it went through in my friend’s house, or whether it came like this or not, but since they mentioned “slightly acid aftertaste” in the product description, I’m going to guess that it was at least partly present already when it came.

Sourness, unfortunately, is the bane of aged oolongs, and sometimes it can thoroughly ruin a tea. I think there’s always going to be a hint of sourness in an aged oolong, but it’s a matter of how heavy and how presistent it is. There’s a certain tradeoff in having a sour tea and a heavily roasted one. The heavier the roast, the less likely it is going to be sour (especially when re-roasted). However, when reroasting there is inevitably something that is changed in the tea. The very best aged oolongs I’ve had to date are obviously very lightly or not at all reroasted over time. They give me the most complexity and flavour, and to boot, are only very slightly tart. They are rare.

The sour stuff… you can reroast them and they get less sour, but they develop in a different way over time, and I’m personally not sure if I like that stuff more. Some will tell you that that’s the only way to age oolongs; I beg to differ.

Still, for $21/100g, the tea isn’t too expensive. I do think they might actually be able to re-roast it again and hope it will improve a little more. Then again, trying to keep a tea like this under control in a place like Guangzhou is going to be an uphill battle all the way.

Sample H

Sample H today

This tea was a little hard to identify. Looking at the dry leaves, I thought it could be some dancong, because of the long leaves and the relative greenness of it. Brewing it though

Revealed a yancha taste. So, yancha it is, but…. what kind? It might’ve been shuixian, one of the lighter roasted kinds. But then, shuixian is typically a little weaker than this — this tea was fairly strong, with a good amount of yanyun and a nice, full body, but a taste that I couldn’t quite identify. It was roasted right — not too little, and dare I say it, not too much. I am usually not a great fan of the lower roastings of Wuyi tea, because I tend to find them a little too green, but this one was enough so that the nasty greenness was gone and preserving a nice honey taste.

Talking to Will, I found out that this tea is actually called Changqingteng, literally evergreen cane. Never heard of it. Googling reveals nothing. My guess is this is a newfangled invention of the tea maker whom he got it from. Not a bad tea, I must say. Not something for everyday, but I think this tea can probably age well.

One interesting thing is that the leaves are extremely large — suggesting, perhaps, that it uses older leaves for the tea. I wonder if that’s what gives it the rather unique flavour.

Benshan

As promised…

Benshan, otherwise known as fake tieguanyin, or at least, it’s often mixed into tieguanyin and sold as such. It’s very cheap — my 100g bag cost 10 RMB, which comes to around $1.20. And this is the good stuff — there’s stuff that’s about half the price.

I used my tieguanyin pot to make it

Yum

It’s really quite interesting. The tea isn’t terrible. It’s got a familiar taste — I KNOW I’ve had this tea before, or at least something quite similar. I recognize the aroma, and the aftertaste. It’s even got a nice aftertaste, although for all I know, it’s some chemical they sprayed onto the thing. I am quite confident that this can be sold easily as tieguanyin here for 30 cents a gram and nobody would notice. Mix in a little tieguanyin, and it’s probably even harder to notice.

That’s what they do in China, anyway, so a guy selling tieguanyin here might actually be selling you benshan, and he doesn’t even know it.

I really haven’t had tieguanyin often enough these days to discern all the minor differences between this tea and the real deal. All I can say is this was a little thin, the huigan and the yun a little slow in coming, and a little grassy at the end. All in all… acceptable, but since I don’t like drinking things like this anymore these days, it mattered little.

The wet leaves

Do they look familiar? I hope not. I was told that one way to tell Benshan is that the stem of the leaves tend to look a little like bamboo — with little indents on them. They also don’t tear apart cleanly — when you pull them apart, they don’t have a clean cut, whereas a tieguanyin would. Differences in stem structure, I suppose, although I have never tried verifying this for sure. Maybe somebody can do that test for me.