In the western market, tea connoisseurs know the price of an adequately-aged pu-erh cake or white tea. However, when hearing about aged oolong, many might become perplexed. Taiwan has had the tradition of aging oolong for practically as long as oolong production itself has existed. But it never quite took off in the west the way that aged pu-erh did, perhaps because the production of aged oolongs remains pretty scarce and reserved for true enthusiasts of this tea type. So what is so special about aged oolong?
First, What Is Oolong Tea?
Oolong teas are semi-oxidized teas, falling between fully oxidized black teas and un-oxidized green teas. Only a few regions in the world know of the intricate production methods of oolong tea. Indeed, farmers make this tea only from certain types of tea bushes growing in specific geographical regions. Today, these main production areas are in Fujian, Guangdong, and Taiwan.
Unlike many other tea types, farmers make oolongs from the larger mature leaves. During the processing, farmers first shake the tea leaves for the edges of the leaves to "bruise". The edges of the leaves become a brown or red color. On the other hand, the middle of the leaves remains green. Finally, the resulting amount of oxidation will depend on the desired tea type. And, of course, the skill of the tea craftsmen. The result might be an oolong tea that is lightly oxidised and similar to a delicate-tasting green tea. Or one which is almost fully oxidised, tasting more like a dark and bold black tea.
To produce quality oolong tea, we need some of the most sophisticated and artisanal tea production skills. We often compare oolong tea artisans to boutique winemakers.
It's important to note: only a high-quality oolong will age will.
What Is Aged Oolong?
As the name suggests — aged oolong is an oolong tea that farmers left to age. We can only call the oolong aged if the producers aged it for three years or more. Although, we consider anywhere from 10-20 years as the "golden middle" of aged oolong tea.
Aged oolong teas are particularly rich in antioxidant polyphenols and have lower caffeine content than other tea types.
Of course, the longer the farmers age the tea — the more complex the flavors become. As they age, the tea leaves will begin to lose their freshness and turn a brown color.
Before farmers age the oolong, they always make sure to roast the tea leaves first. This is an essential step to rid the tea leaves of moisture and have them ready for aging. Tea masters then age the tea leaves in clay vessels, checking them every year and re-roasting them to deepen the flavors and remove excess moisture. Tea artisans, however, don't always follow the re-roasting step, especially if they are sure that the tea leaves don't have excess moisture.
How Does Aged Oolong Taste?
Many who have yet to try aged oolong might initially imagine the taste of an aged pu-erh. We must say, the two teas are very apart in terms of flavor profiles. Aged oolongs are incredibly sweet, mellow, and smooth. It doesn't possess the earthy, fermented taste of pu-erh. The taste is unique and complex — quite incomparable to other tea types. Many tea enthusiasts claim that aged oolong has a pronounced cha qi.
Aged Oolong vs Aged Pu-erh
Aged oolongs are vastly different from the more familiar aged pu-erh. First of all, farmers don't ferment oolong, which plays a huge role in its taste and aroma. Naturally, aged oolong won't have a strong earthy or fermented taste. It is far more smooth and sweet.
Farmers re-roast most aged oolong every few years. The roasting removes excess moisture that would otherwise give the tea an earthy quality. This delicate process requires the supervision of a tea master.
Aging Oolong At Home
Aging oolong at home is much easier than aging pu-erh. It's not a very picky tea and doesn't require as much care.
Since farmers ferment pu-erh and not oolong, that's already a significant reason that aging it becomes easier. Pu-erh needs a very particular temperature and climate to promote fermentation. One that might be more accessible in Asian countries, but perhaps not in the US. Oolong, on the other hand, doesn't require any particular climate for aging.
Oolong requires a relatively dry climate for aging, which puts western dwellers at an advantage. Farmers in Taiwan, where oolong is usually aged, indeed have a lot more on their plate when aging their oolongs, trying to keep the humidity at bay.
The most important thing is getting tea tins— metallic or ceramic ones, but not glass jars. The containers mustn't let in any light. Then put your oolong away somewhere in your tea drawer, and you can completely forget about it for 10 or 15 years.
Farmers in Taiwan usually re-roast the tea every year because there is too much moisture that the tea absorbs. If you live in a dry climate, this step is not crucial.
Checking the state of your aged oolong tea is simple — just take some of the loose leaf oolong from the tea jar and brew it.
Which Oolongs Are Best Aged?
The best aged oolongs are well-roasted ones. The initial roasting process rids the oolong leaves of any unnecessary moisture, making them perfect for aging.
Light, green oolongs, on the other hand, are usually not great for aging. When we keep these teas for over a year, they typically start tasting old and particularly sour. Furthermore, their taste doesn't improve. It's best to drink these greener types of oolongs as fresh as possible.
How To Make Aged Oolong Tea?
Brewing aged oolong tea is very easy. They are pretty forgiving of brewing conditions compared to other tea types. We can brew our aged oolong tea at a boiling water temperature. Of course, we recommend trying your aged oolong gong fu style. It will pair especially well with Yixing teaware.