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.
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.
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.
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.
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