My introduction to aged oolong tea was about six years ago when I first began drinking and appreciating tea. I moved to Taiwan to open a purchasing office / warehouse for a publications company and the Taiwanese owner of the main printing factory / supplier was a passionate tea connoisseur. He introduced me to many different oolong teas, but his favorite teas were aged oolongs. Appreciating my interest and enthusiasm in exploring the fascinating world of teas, he would sometimes take me to visit his tea friends in remote villages and regions of the country to experience great teas. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he was treating me to some of the finest quality, most expensive, and rare aged oolongs. Since that time I have learned to appreciate and enjoy many other tea varieties in my “tea journey.”
Recently, however, my main Taiwan tea farmer colleague has started promoting her own aged oolongs; two of her teas won gold and silver awards in the new Taiwan “aged oolong” tea awards section. As a result, we have been discussing aged oolongs quite a bit and how to promote them more internationally.
As with many Chinese teas, there are a lot of quality issues, conflicts of interest, and opinions regarding how to arrive at the best tea – and aged oolong probably has more variations than most. Aged oolong can refer to many different teas from the standard, ball-rolled oolong teas to many other oolong varieties, including Baozhong, Bai hao, Tieguanyin, Anxi, and Wuyi oolongs. The aging process can also vary considerably – ranging from a qualified tea master experimenting with high-quality teas and scientific aging processes to a “questionable” tea merchant who simply could not sell some of his oolong tea stock, allowing it to “age” on the shelves for a few years, adding 10 years to its real age, and marketing it as “aged oolong.”
The natural aging process takes about three years, during which the tea loses its fresh look and flavor. After this, the color of the leaf starts to turns from green to brown and the maturing, or aging, process is underway. Aged tea experts suggest six-eight years as an ideal minimum for aged oolong tea to be mature. Of course, if the tea continues to be stored properly, it will further mature and improve with age. Fifteen-to-twenty-year aged oolongs are best.
Older aged oolong (20 or more years old) were usually roasted (and often re-roasted) using the traditional charcoal methods. They were usually from Dayeh (large leaf) tea strains and grown organically, or in a pesticide-free environment. More recent, balled-rolled, aged oolongs are Dong Ding-processed teas harvested from Jinxuan or Four Seasons tea strains.
Most oolongs being prepared for storage are roasted to a degree initially to determine the acceptable moisture content level to start the storing process. The stored tea is then usually taken out and inspected every two-three years and carefully re-roasted to remove excess moisture and retain flavors. Storage is usually in large earthenware or stone containers.
For those who haven’t experienced aged oolongs, they usually have a unique and complex taste, which is often very smooth, mellow, and pleasantly sweet – not usually as rich or earthy as many pu-erh teas. The level of “Cha Qi” in aged oolongs is often expressed by Chinese and Taiwanese as being more noticeably present than in regular fresh oolongs.
Aged oolong demand is increasing significantly in the local Chinese markets, and as the international community continues to explore and experience more varieties of teas, there will likely be an increasing demand there as well.
PS: I just discovered I still had some aged oolong that my printer friend gave me six years ago – and it has matured wonderfully!