Aged Oolongs

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I recently reviewed two aged Taiwanese rolled oolongs; a bit out of normal context for those, being 6 years old (2014).  Aged oolong tends to typically relate to rolled oolong versions that are 15 years old or older.  It will be simpler to cover a few different paradigms here, since there is a notable exception related to that.

Slightly Aged Wuyi Yancha

Heavily roasted Wuyi Yancha, Fujian “rock oolongs” are often sold after only a year or two of aging to diminish the roast-flavor input.  Why not just roast them less?  One reason is because for some starting points, going with an upper-medium-level roast and then resting the tea can be seen as an optimum preparation – getting the best results.  A second reason is less positive: This category of oolongs is often over-roasted to cover up flaws (e.g. off-flavors resulting from incorrect processing).

Photo of two gaiwan, each with some dry aged oolong leaves in the bottom.

Ali Shan left, Dong Ding right (slightly more roasted)

Usually these aren’t sold as decade-plus-aged teas, but further changes are seen as positive in the range of 5 to 7 years, and older versions would be in demand related to novelty.  There is a parallel style of well-roasted, rolled Tie Guan Yin (Anxi, China rolled oolong), but I suspect that’s also most often employed to cover flaws, for example to compensate for last year’s tea flattening a bit in flavor profile.

Medium-Level Rolled Oolong Aging

Photo of two gaiwan with damp aged oolong leaves, next to two cups of the tea made from them.

Alishan and Dong Ding, with roast or oxidation both darkening leaves and brewed tea

This isn’t commonly encountered, but since I just reviewed teas in this range I can describe the results.  Those teas lost their higher-end, “sharpest” flavor aspects, and picked up deeper, richer range and a smoother character.  I’m not sure I wouldn’t have liked both better as new teas (Ali Shan and Dong Ding versions), because those are quite approachable to begin with.  It was interesting, though.  I’ve tried seven-year-old Oriental Beauty before, and it just seemed a little different than they tend to be initially; but preferences vary enough that maybe others would experience an aspect difference that grounds a high level of appeal.

Well-Aged Rolled Oolongs

After 15 years or so of appropriate storage, rolled oolongs pick up a plum-like flavor aspect and, again, gain depth; with most pronounced “higher end” range having long since dropped out – light floral tones, for example.  Such tea can be interesting to experience, related to just being different.  Some people claim to pick up a lot of “feel aspect” cha-qi effect from different teas, and maybe that would be a valid positive change for these teas.  I reviewed 21- and 30-year-old versions in this post, and the mustiness in the older one–most likely due to storage condition problems–made it harder to appreciate.

It’s not only sheng pu’er and hei cha that are described as improving with age: Black and white teas are also mentioned as changing and improving.  Even green tea could potentially change in a way regarded as positive.  This post on other compressed tea forms might shed light on some of that. Even though the shape and form isn’t necessarily a closely connected input, as changing form mostly helps with making storage more convenient.  This post on shai hong (sun-dried Yunnan black tea) covers one main factor related to aging potential for black teas.  This shai hong version was 2 or 3 years old when I first tried it and is at least 5 now, and it was different and better when I last tried it a few months ago.  This review of four different white teas of different ages is a bit all over the map, but it may shed a little light on how character might change.  Or maybe not – you need to pin down variables better to get to that result.

It complicates things that many versions might go through phases where the changes are less positive, emerging to a different character range later on.  Also, tea drinkers tend to like what they expect to like, so just lacking that paradigm could throw off appreciation.

Close up photo of some dry leaves of aged oolong.

nine year old shou mei, at least supposedly.  it can darken faster than that.

Images provided and copyright held by author

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