Monday, January 22, 2018

Understanding and Appreciating the Qualities of Age Tea

Very old Guang Yun Gong teacake, 40+ years old

An increasing number of tea enthusiasts are interested in age tea and have started collections with the hope of nurturing and aging their own tea. Being a tea collector myself of almost 20 years I can attest that it is a wonderful and fulfilling hobby. In this article I would like to share my experience through what I have encountered with the process of aging and the qualities that are enjoyed in age tea.

The tea leaves have matured to the point whereby there will be no more significant changes to its overall profile. Storage will only serve the purpose of maintaining its present state and preventing decline from exposure to external elements. Airing out is not a good practice for old teas, unless there is an obvious problem with the tea and even then keep the exposure to a minimum.

The process of aging is a journey towards maturity. With regards to tea it is a development towards consistency, a softer and more rounded complexion, alongside greater stability and depth in the character of the tea. It is my belief that aging brings to the fore the inner beauty that reveals the true quality of a tea. For this reason good quality tea can age beautifully whilst bad tea turns ugly under the test of time.

It is important to note that the truest characteristics of tea are found in freshly picked and unprocessed tea leaves. Once man enters the equation, the raw ingredient gets processed, engineered by design to be shaped and transformed. The tea becomes what the Teamaster or producer intends for it to become. One significant observation I have made for puerh tea is when the processing is carried out in a way that complements and retains the intrinsic character of the tea it is more conducive towards it aging well. Unfortunately many new puerh today are too heavily engineered towards becoming instantaneously attractive by possessing approachable traits, not bitter, not astringent, and to project an appealing fragrance. Whilst some puerh categories/regions (ex. gushu Yiwu) are naturally more gentle, the majority of puerh teas have intrinsically rough and potent characteristics that make for harsh encounters when they are young. In short many puerh teas are manipulated to be something that they are not. From my experience it is my opinion that many modern style puerh tea will find it challenging to evolve or hold on to their cosmetic form well over the long term. Aging then reveals the flaws and damage in the leaves caused by a processing technique intended for the short term. Regardless of the fact that puerh tea is famed for being an aged tea not all puerh teas will age well and some will age better than others. Time can refine the qualities of a tea as well as ruin new creations.

As a tea age the top note that makeup the fragrance is the first to go. These airy scents can be mastery engineered by a skilled Teamaster or tea producer to make a tea more attractive. However these scents are fragile, unstable and short-lived. Age tea reverts back to the intrinsic and more substantial qualities in the leaf. These consist of elements that concentrate in the base notes. Subsequently as more years go by we begin to notice changes in the taste. The green bitterness and astringency that is naturally found in raw tea evolves to become sweeter, taking on a darker complexion. The color of the brew also begins to darken with time progressing from yellow to orange, then red and eventually dark brown. The texture of the brew softens and thickens taking on an oily sheen as the age tea leaves allows more substance and compounds to be released during steeps. The process of aging gives way to substance over flashy and unstable characteristics. The energy of an age tea increasingly becomes concentrated in its brew. A very old tea does not project a strong aroma, nor does it possess strong flavors in the mouth. An old tea that has reached a certain point in maturity will not agitate nor stimulate your senses in a way that you feel buzzed and leave you feeling uncomfortable or jittery after. The energy of a matured tea is accumulated in its dark brew, deep and substantial like the undercurrents found beneath an ocean (see more on The Energy of Old Teas). This energy is gentle, powerful and nurturing, possessing an expansive and grounding nature that can blanket you in a cover of calm and tranquility.

The dark and calming brew of the Guang Yun Gong. Relaxing and deeply grounding.

Alongside the evolving tea, the tea drinker also evolves. The changes in age tea takes place on a deeper level and this can influence how we appreciate tea. The priority to which we relate and connect our senses to tea becomes rearranged. How a tea makes us feel progressively takes more precedence over the fleeting aspects of taste and aroma. The appreciation of age tea can guide us towards focusing deeper and more on the feeling and effects of the tea. It is a more profound appreciation that requires you to observe and connect more with your own body through increasing self-awareness. Some Teamasters and tea devotees will dedicate themselves through changing their lifestyle to cultivate their sensitivity to Cha Qi to better appreciate and enjoy this profound aspect of old tea. These changes will often lend itself towards a healthier existence, increasing our well-being and sensitivity, and instilling greater appreciation and pleasure of life.

Drinking age tea over a prolonged period has helped me to appreciate tea beyond the sensory of my nose and mouth and that means learning to embrace tea with my entire body. The Chinese term “Cha Qi” is used in reference to tea energy and a tea that can trigger the flow of Qi in the body is highly valued in the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine for treating ailments and discomfort. Cha qi is a revered term that is associated with very special teas (many coming from the category of age tea) that possess or can trigger a deep flow of energy that connects to the body’s meridian system. This can result in feelings of warmth and tinkling sensations, feelings of relaxation and calm, and even initiate unexpected bouts of laughter and momentary bliss. An old and famous Chinese poem “Seven Cups of Tea” written by Lu Tong (775-835 AD) during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) attempts to capture the magic of Cha Qi in words.

The more you come to appreciate the qualities of age tea the more you will feel fulfilled with your tea collection. Entering into the world of age tea I have come to embrace and value the journey, and the many facets that surface. Each tea session provides to us an insight into the development and character of the respective tea at a moment in time. The journey of age tea will take us through many transitions. The changes from each stage can be exciting and reveal new characteristics in the tea. Each time you enjoy an age tea from your collection rejoice in the fruits of your labor and dedication. As you imbibe in the dark brew, take a moment and open yourself to its warm embrace.

4 comments:

  1. Hello Varat,

    Interesting article, thank you for writing it.

    I read elsewhere that most puerh made from 2004 and on were made to be drunk immediately and not aged. That seems unfortunate to me, as I enjoy well-aged teas and it sounds like they will not be available. I also would like to age teas and enjoy them years down the road. I suppose the questions I am left with are:
    -Are there any suppliers/factories/products that continued to be created for the purpose of aging?
    -Where do you buy teas from that you intend to age for some years?
    -Should I focus more on buying older puerh (2004 and before), or should I begin to accept and try to enjoy the fresher teas as they are much more readily available?
    -What do people do with the current ready-to-drink cakes that they have after 3 years, since after their awkward phase (after 8 years) it sounds like they would be quite boring to drink?

    Thank for the time. I will continue to check this page as I am just commenting anonymously, and will not receive notification when you reply.

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    1. Hello,

      Buying tea is the easy part. It is empowering yourself with the knowledge and understanding to build a meaningful and valued puerh tea collection that is the challenge for all of us. My advice to you is that you should make your own decisions regardless of whether they are right or wrong. Nobody gets it 100% right all the time. When you empower someone else to make decisions for you without understanding it yourself things often goes awry and it can cause resentment. Your tea collection is a very personal thing and you need to consider and decide on it for yourself. If you don’t have clear goals then perhaps you have not explored and drunk widely enough to know your direction.

      People have different drinking habits and these will translate to different levels of insight and understanding. Flash experiences are fun and exciting, allowing us to cast the net wide but our level of comprehension is loose and shallow. Attaining deep knowledge and understanding to specific areas in tea takes time, repetition and purposeful action and exploration.

      If you are interested in the older production my suggestion would be to get a few good teacakes from 2004 and before and study them well. To start you may want to consider one gushu and one plantation from Menghai TF from a reliable source. Once you understand their profiles you develop a sense of their value for yourself. Furthermore you now have the ability to assess and select teas with traits belonging to this era that can be used to assess newer productions. I have the 2005 Gan En Nannuo and 2003 Purple Dayi MTF that can serve this purpose. If you wish to acquire these teas just send me an email. It is important to have genuine and reliable references. Drink them, compare them to the newer productions and others, assess their differences, try to get a feel for them and understand them intimately. Some people have this mentality that you drink something once and all the answers fall on your lap. This may be the case if you are an expert but for most of us, we are likely to have only grasped 20-30% of that tea. Building up a familiarity that evolves to deeper understanding takes time. It starts by pushing the tea through different brewing parameters to see how it performs, observing your body’s well-being and reaction when you drink and in varying amounts, practicing comparative side by side tastings with other teas to observe the swing of dominant notes and differences in cha qi. These are keys to attaining a deep understanding and also building a marker for assessing value.

      Much of my tea was bought a long time ago and collected over a span of almost 2 decades. Over the course of that time I have learnt that it is important to be patient but know when to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.

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  2. Thank you for the detailed response.

    I have only recently(8 months or so) been getting in to the world of puerh. I have been a bit scattershot in my buying so as to try many different things. I've bought around 18 cakes of varying years that I will try to age. I've mostly scoured lists of teas that are supposedly very good for their low price ($40-$110 cakes) and bought the ones that sounded tasty to me.

    I am only able to get in 2-3 sessions per week, so the learning process is slow going for me. I am planning on drinking a full cake next (rather than from different samples) as I've heard that is a very good way to gain knowledge and understand the tea better.

    I would write you an email, but I was unable to find your email address. I was unable to sign in my with Google account when replying on this site, unfortunately.

    I would like to try the teas you recommended but I just bought a house, so many will be tight until for a little while. I will certainly keep the recommendations in mind in the future.

    As you said, I cast a wide net and my understanding is probably a bit shallow and loose. But it is a journey, and one I am enjoying greatly!

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    1. Well, there are good and bad points with both approaches. It would be logical at the beginning to cast the net wide. Then you explore and dig deeper when it’s worthwhile. Having a tea collection as I’ve mentioned is challenging and to get the most from it you need to approach tea with purpose. The effort that is put into learning the intricacies of puerh and how well you understand it is the difference between owning a valued tea collection in future years as oppose to sitting on a lot of duds and subpar tea. The mark of success for tea lovers would be to own tea that can excite and captivate us and not see a pile of dreary leaves collecting dust because you don’t want to drink it.

      Good luck.

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