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.