Recently, a friend came to us and shared a story of how he visited a local tea store and found a 13-year-old Wuyi oolong (Yancha) still in its original package. He was so thrilled and bought it immediately.
Of course, the tea he bought wasn’t a good tea at all. In fact, this particular tea had long been spoiled. It was simply a tea product that’s past the expiration date. Even in 13 years ago, it wasn’t a good tea at all. That’s probably why it’s still in the store after 13 years.
My friend and I had a good laugh about it. However, as a tea producer, I understand why my friend made such a comical mistake. In his opinion, any old tea is aged tea, and any aged tea must be good tea.
Naturally, this is a misunderstanding. In the world of tea, an old tea is different from an aged tea. Not all old teas are aged, and not all aged teas are good.
“Old” is only a time reference, but an aged tea takes years of careful management.
On one hand, the aging process is a strictly regulated task. It takes light, humidity/water content, temperature and foreign smells into consideration. A tea might take years before it’s considered as aged. Just because a tea is old doesn’t mean it’s aged. Just as we cannot buy a piece of cheese and let it sit for 10 years, then calling it a “10-year aged cheese”.
On the other hand, not all tea categories can be aged. For example, if stored correctly, good quality white tea and dark tea (e.g. Pu’er) generally develop new aromas and tastes with aging. However, green tea values freshness, and it cannot be stored for more than a couple months. Thus, green tea cannot be aged.
Usually, all green tea, oolong tea and black tea have a “best before date”. Depends on the tea, the quality can last from a few months (green tea, Tie Guan Yin) to a few years (Wuyi oolong, black tea).
For some tea categories, there is a concept of “old tea”.
For example, some Wuyi oolong cultivars are famous for the unique mouthfeel and tastes when they’re old (typically after 1-2 years). Although they’re not aged, the storage requirement for “old tea” is the same. Only those good quality Wuyi oolong stored in a dry, cool and odorless environment can become “old tea”.
One of the most iconic old tea is a Wuyi oolong cultivar called “Ai Jiao Oolong” (Chinese: 矮脚乌龙). An old Ai Jiao Oolong’s has its tastes and aromas embedded in the tea soup. Compared to many fresh tea, whose aromas are emitted into the air, an old tea’ aromas are more introvert. Old tea’s thicker tea soup leads to a seemingly endless aftertaste.
An old Wuyi oolong is more precious than an aged tea. Aging can be considered as a tea-making process. If we want to, almost all dark teas, regardless the quality, can be aged. But only premium quality Wuyi oolong can become an old tea with time.
An old Wuyi oolong must fit 3 criteria.
First, rich nutrient contents. A tea’s nutrient content level directly affects how long a tea can last. The nutrient content is like a battery. Larger the battery, longer the useable life. A tea that’s low on nutrient content will have no good tastes left after sitting for years.
Second, a thorough roast. A strong roast is the best way to get rid of the water content. A Wuyi oolong with insufficient roast can easily go bad after a year.
Third, it must be a single-variety cultivar. Famous Wuyi oolong single-variety cultivars such as Rou Gui, Shui Xian, Ai Jiao Oolong are all excellent for heavy charcoal roast. Grafted tea plants such as Huang Guan Yin, Golden Peony have a stronger aroma but a weaker roast tolerance. By comparison, single-variety cultivars are better than grafted cultivars when they become old tea because of the heavier roast.
A good quality old tea is often the result of deliberate efforts. It rarely appears on the market. Most “old tea” on the market are simply leftovers from unsold inventory.
When you find a tea that’s produced from years ago. Don’t assume it’s a better tea because it’s old. We’ve seen pictures of tea lovers sharing a decade-old green tea. We can only imagine what an awful experience it’d be. We hope this blog can help you better understand the difference between an old tea and an aged tea, as well as why not all old/aged teas are good.
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