Aging Tea at Home

Ceramic tea jar for aging tea.

As we’ve covered in previous posts, the world of aged teas is incredibly diverse. In addition to puerh, the most famous of the aged teas, certain white and oolong teas can also be left to mature to delightful effect.

If you’re new to the world of aged tea, you may be wondering how to begin. The truth is, no two teas age exactly the same. Aging tea at home requires a little bit of experimentation and a whole lot of patience. But for anyone just starting out, there are a few key principles to keep in mind: quality, airflow, humidity, and time.

Tea Quality

Aging tea does change its character, but maturation isn’t magic. Just as time can’t fix a bad wine, attempting to improve the flavor of a cheap tea through aging will only result in stale leaves. Set yourself up for success with a quality tea that has a proven reputation for aging well, like a sheng puerh or a high-elevation oolong.

Airflow

How much airflow should you allow your teas when you store them? The answer varies depending on type. For puerh teas, which are fermented, some airflow is essential for the microbial processes that give them their flavor. Thus, puerh storage can be as simple as keeping the tea wrapped in the paper packaging it came in.

But for white and oolong teas, oxygen is the enemy. These teas need to be kept airtight. A simple, if less elegant, approach, is to keep it in a zip-top bag. Clay or ceramic crockery can also be effective, provided that the vessels have sealed lids. This approach is similar to traditional storage methods in China and Taiwan, where the tea would be sealed into clay jars with wax to prevent airflow.

Regardless of type, aging teas should be kept in separate containers from other teas, and away from anything that may produce a strong odor, to prevent them from picking up unwanted flavor notes.

Humidity

When it comes to aged teas, humidity is a tricky business. Too dry and cold an environment can flatten flavor development. On the other hand, too much moisture may cause your teas to taste sour, or even start to mildew.

For puerh teas, a humidity anywhere between 60 – 85% should suffice. For drier climates, a moisture pouch button, such as those sold to maintain tobacco freshness, can be stored alongside the tea. White and oolong teas, however, should generally be kept away from excess moisture.

Time

No exact formula exists to say how long a tea needs to mature, and how long it will last before the flavor starts to degrade. Type, cultivar, growing region, and leaf grade can all have an impact on how long tea should be aged. Generally speaking, during their first couple years of aging most teas will still taste relatively fresh and young. An awkward “middle period” can be expected from years two to five, and from five to seven years onward most will begin to develop their richer, more complex flavors. White teas usually begin to mature fastest, followed by oolongs, and then puerhs. If stored properly, all three types can last for decades before they begin to lose flavor.

Have you had any experience aging tea at home? How do you like to store your teas? Drop a line in our Facebook comments to let us know!

By: Jen Coate

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Compressed Tea

Compressed tea is tea formed into a solid shape, usually after it has been taken through the traditional steps of processing. Over history these shapes have taken various forms, from flat discs (also referred to as cakes) to bricks, birds’ nests, melons, mushrooms, and hearts. Such shapes also include decorative panels meant for display instead of drinking. While compressed tea is often made of puerh there is plenty of experimentation with other types of tea.

History of Compressed Tea

The origin of compressed tea is unclear. Written documentation mentioning the consumption of compressed tea dates back to the Jin Dynasty (266-420 CE) in China. The documentation points to the increased popularity of compressed tea at the royal court and in the wealthy merchant class. Up to this point, in northern China, tea was drunk as loose leaf lightly dried in the sun or over fire, similar to what we now call green tea. Southern China, however, was another story.

The Silk Road has been in operation since 65 CE as a tea trading route from the Yunnan province. It is believed that tea was compressed as bricks and discs for such trading purposes, as loose tea takes up too much room for transportation on horseback or by foot for long distances. And since this journey took many months in the heat and humidity a kind of natural fermentation occurred resulting in a new type of tea; puerh. Given the Silk Road began long before the Jin Dynasty, it is much more likely that compressed tea was in circulation a lot earlier than appears in written documentation.

How Tea Was Compressed

In the Yunnan province, home to puerh, tea was compressed by hand until the Ming Dynasty, when clay and pottery allowed for the making of standardized molds to evenly compress the tea. The melon and mushroom shapes came as creative tea merchants sought favor from their Emperors through tribute gifts.

Today, the tea is pressed and steamed in metal models to ensure no transfer of flavor or unwanted bacteria between batches of tea. However, you can still occasionally find the hand pressed cakes.

Modern Compressed Tea

Compressed tea has made a huge comeback in China due to the focus of the Communist Party on Chinese history and traditions, which are thought to bring strength to the country as it undergoes rapid change and modernization. This focus on history brought puerh and puerh tea cakes to the top of the tea market. Not to lose ground, manufacturers of white and oolong teas began producing their own aged cakes to compete  for the attention of the newly born middle class Chinese consumer. Using much the same technology as the puerh makers, these manufacturers are charting new territories in tea production, while still using the traditional methods.Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwitterpinterestrss

Aged White Tea History

Aged White Peony Tea Cake

If you’re a more adventurous tea drinker, you may already be familiar with compressed tea, which is tea that has been processed and pressed into a brick or a cake. Durable, shelf-stable, and easy to store, these cakes are typically Chinese puerh teas that are fermented and designed to improve with age. In recent years, however, a new type of compressed tea has been moving into the market: white tea cakes, first innovated during the early 2000s in Fuding, Fujian Province.

To better appreciate the role that white tea cakes have come to play in the aged tea market, we must first step back for a look at contemporary Chinese history. In the late 1970s, after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping assumed leadership of the People’s Republic of China and began a series of sweeping economic reforms designed to modernize the country. To provide a sense of stability and cultural connection amidst such changes, Deng and the Chinese government encouraged citizens to consider the values and doctrine of classical Chinese thinkers. Ancient literary and philosophical masters such as Confucius and Lu Yu (see Notable People in the History of Tea), previously condemned by the Communist party, were looked to as a source of stability and national identity. With this change in ideology came a renewed appreciation for all things traditional, historical, and aged – classical texts, classical education, classical tea.

Aged White Tea Manufacturing in Fuding

Aged White Tea Manufacturing in Fuding

The next few decades saw a surge in demand for compressed puerh. Savvy merchants emphasized the value inherent to aged dark tea or thousand-year old cultivars, and puerh cakes sold briskly in both domestic and foreign markets. Inspired by the ongoing trend, white tea growers began to experiment as well. Their hope was to produce a tea that, while not fermented, could withstand aging and even improve in flavor over time. By the early 2010s, Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) tea cakes had begun to sell across China and were moving into Western markets. As it turned out, the floral and delicate characteristics of this white tea matured beautifully over time, gaining a woody complexity and sweet, muscatel finish. What had begun as a gamble to take advantage of market trends had actually produced a complex and high-quality tea unlike anything that had been seen before.

As the world of white tea cakes continues to expand, more and more varieties are appearing in Western tea stores. In addition to Bai Mu Dan, Bai Hao Silver Needle and many other white teas are beginning to become available in aged cake form. As tea producers look to history to inspire new innovations, many cite an ancient Fujian proverb: “One year a tea, three years a medicine; seven years, a treasure!”

Here at Dominion Tea, we are excited to currently be carrying 2014 Bai Mu Dan tea cakes, 2019 Moonlight White cakes, and perfectly travel-sized aged White Tea Buttons. Stop by today to explore this new and innovative corner of the tea world yourself!

By Jen CoateFollow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwitterpinterestrss

3 Popular Tea Gifts

Gifts for Tea Lovers - Chinese Gaiwan

Stunning Glass Gaiwan with Dragonwell

Admittedly, buying gifts for a tea snob can be very hard. Beyond figuring out what they like to drink, there is all the equipment, which they may already own. So we like to turn to the experts at giving tea gifts, the Chinese, to find the right tea with the right meaning for our favorite tea snobs. Below are the 3 popular gifts for tea lovers in China and the stories behind why they are so popular.

  1. Ti Kuan Yin – This beautiful oolong named after the Iron Goddess of Mercy is prized for its beautiful flavor and story about its creation. It is also one of the oldest oolongs produced in China, having been created sometime during the 18th century. Giving the gift that came from the Iron Goddess of Mercy shows the gift receiver that you wish them health and prosperity well into their future.
  2. Puerh from Yunnan Provence – Given for its health benefits, Puerh tea is thought of as the fine wine of tea. It only gets better with age. This fermented tea is over 2,000 years old and can be made with a black, green or white tea base. The bacteria that is added to allow for the fermentation creates a naturally sweet and smooth tea with lots of complex flavors. This tea is usually purchased in cakes or bricks and is broken apart to make a cup of tea.
  3. Bai Hao Silver Needle Organic - Classic Chinese Tea Gifts

    Bai Hao Silver Needle – Exquisite first pluck of the newest growth of the tea plant.

    Bai Hao Silver Needle – This prized white tea has been under production during the Song Dynasty (969-1269 C.E.) but did not enter the European literature until the 1800’s. Its soft and floral flavor as well as the silver hairs on the tea leaves are distinctive characteristics that cannot be found in other teas. This is a more expensive tea as it can really only be plucked during the first harvest of the season. This tea was often given as a gift to the reigning Emperor as it was the first tea of the season.

There are a few characteristics these teas share, each one has been manufactured for centuries, given as gifts to Chinese Emperors to bring them good health and luck, and have exquisite and complex flavors.Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwitterpinterestrss

Malawi Tea and Satemwa Estate

One of many flags of the world, in this case the flag of Malawi

Malawi Flag (Public Domain)

We’ve recently added three specialty teas from Malawi to our growing tea collection so it only felt right to provide a bit more background on this land locked African nation.

Profile of Malawi

The country of Malawi is located in Africa, south of the equator near Madagascar and is about on the same latitude as Brazil and the northern part of Australia. Given that it isn’t too far south of the equator it should come as no surprise that agriculture is a large part of the economy of Malawi. According to the CIA World Fact Book, this country which is about the size of Pennsylvania, exports tobacco, tea, sugar, cotton, coffee, and peanuts in decreasing order.  Indeed tobacco is the largest by far making up more than 50% of exports from the country.

As countries go, Malawi is relatively young. It was created as a British protectorate in 1891 and only became an independent nation in 1964. While it is a democracy now the people of the country experienced many strict laws under the one-time “President for Life” Hastings Banda.

Today Malawi continues to experience some challenges as it grows and develops including a poor reputation for environmental production, low education rates, and high rates of HIV/AIDS. As recently as January 2015, the country experienced severe flooding which left hundreds of families in the south of Malawi homeless in the southern part of the country including nearby Thyolo and Bvumbwe and Satemwa Estate. As recently as mid-February the area still recovering with 4,500 families impacted by the flooding.

Malawi Tea from Satemwa Estate

Satemwa estate is in Southern Malawi near Thyolo and Bvumbwe

Map of Malawi with insert of Southern Malawi and Thyolo.

Located in the southern tip of Malawi, Satemwa Estate has been producing tea and coffee since 1923, long before Malawi became an independent country. It produces a wide variety of tea products including specialty orthodox tea. The tea estate is located in the southern highlands of the country well south of Lake Malawi and a mere 35 minutes from the countries highest peak, Mt. Mulanje.  The Satemwa Estate actually has tea fields spread around the city of Thyolo extending up to Bvumbwe  including a field at higher elevations along the slopes of the Michiru Mountain Conservation Area.

The Satemwa Estate tea plantation employs a large number of people in the region. While Malawi struggles in many areas, the plantation features numerous programs to support the well being of its staff. Programs include a health clinic which provides medical care to all employees and their families along with students from the Satemwa Primary School. Its health efforts even include work with the United Nations International Labour Office (UN ILO) to increase awareness and protection around HIV/AIDS. It is supporting national efforts for community policing and even has sporting activities for its employees. Finally, the estate maintains a primary school to combat education challenges in the country, providing schooling for about 900 students.

Satemwa Estate is also committed to reducing its impact on climate change, protecting the environment, and sustainable farming demonstrated through training programs for workers and community members. It is Fair Trade Certified as well as holding certification by both UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance.

Dominion Tea’s Selection of Specialty Tea from Satemwa Estate

Dominion Tea offers three teas from Satemwa Estate:

  • Treasure Variety Satemwa Estate – This handmade black tea from Satemwa Estate in southern Malawi features caramel and floral notes. The beautiful large leaf unfurls when steeped to release a bright golden liquor. 
  • Puerh Leaf Satemwa Estate – Produced in the modern style (cooked vs aged), this leaf puerh produces a mild, earthy, and woody experience. Although China is known for its Puerh, this leaf puerh from Malawi shows that it can be done in other parts of the world.
  • Bvumbwe BSP Satemwa Estate – This white tea from Malawi features broken leaf of various sizes, shapes, and colors. Grown on a very specific field along the Michiru Mountain Conservation Area in southern Malawi, Bvumbwe BSP is named for a nearby village. The infusion yields a delicious brew with hints of caramel and an aroma that smells a bit of sweet bread and chocolate.

Sources Referenced

CIA World Fact Book, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mi.html

Satemwa Estate, http://www.satemwa.com/

Malawi: Heavy Rains Leave 700 Families Homeless in Thyolo, By Sungeni Nyoni, January 16, 2015, allAfrica.com, http://allafrica.com/stories/201501161479.html

Picking Tea and Condoms in Malawi, United Nations International Labour Office, http://data.unaids.org/pub/ExternalDocument/2009/20090402_ilomalawi_en.pdf

Thyolo-Thava MP Reaches Out to More Flood Victims, February 18, 2015, The Malawi Voice, http://malawivoice.com/2015/02/18/thyolo-thava-mp-reaches-out-to-more-flood-victims/Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwitterpinterestrss