Back in December, we wrote about aged white tea cakes, a recent innovation out of Fujian, China that has slowly been gaining popularity here in the United States. Like puerh, aging white tea can give it a whole new array of flavors and complexities. But puerhs and whites aren’t the only teas that can benefit from aging. Unknown to many Western tea drinkers, the tradition of aging oolongs in Taiwan and China is nearly as old as oolong tea itself.
Much like white tea (and in contrast to puerh), aged oolongs do not require fermentation to kick off their processing. Instead, they are traditionally baked or roasted over charcoal and carefully kept sealed from light and moisture. Too much moisture will produce a distinct tartness or sourness that can overpower the delicate complexities acquired in aging. Some producers of aged oolongs will re-roast their teas every few years to ensure a proper dryness. But this step is not always needed so long as the tea is stored properly and in the right environment.
Generally, an aged oolong is not considered ready for consumption until it is six to eight years old – although some connoisseurs argue that oolongs should wait until they are at least thirty to lose their “greenness”. Regardless, a well-stored oolong will continue to age and improve for many decades. The resulting flavor is both mellow and complex, and can contain notes of honey sweetness or cooling herbs. Superior aged oolongs have a soft and silky mouthfeel and a pronounced smoothness.
Like puerh and aged white teas, not every oolong is considered suitable for aging. The leaves must be of a high-enough quality, and the plucking and processing done with special care, so that the aging tea will be able to acquire the prized complexities and flavors and not merely taste stale. Traditionally, high-mountain Taiwanese oolongs, like Dark Roast Alishan, with a moderate to heavy roast are considered very suitable, as well as “rocky” teas from mountainous regions like Wuyi in the Chinese mainland. The flavors that are already naturally imparted through these high-elevation, mineral-rich terroirs are perfect for development through aging.
Although still a relative rarity in the U.S., aged oolongs are slowly coming into the western market, mostly through specialty tea houses. Some are sold loose, in their semi-balled form, while others are compressed into cakes of varying shapes and sizes. Here at Dominion Tea, we are excited to now be offering 2009 Aged Oolong Cakes, which are available for both online orders and in-store pickup. Whether you’re new to aged teas or a seasoned veteran, aged oolongs are a wonderful way to explore a corner of the tea world not often noticed in the West.
By: Jen Coate