A recent trend these days is aged teas. Not to be confused with fermented (pu-erh) teas. Or should they be? These days it can be tough to sort fact from fiction, tall tales from truth, scams from rare deals. So I did some digging to get these things sorted. But things didn’t get necessarily any clearer.
1 – Other terms used for “aged teas”
Several terms showed up when I started searching for more info here. They include:
- Fermented – a chemical process in tea that does not produce alcoholic substances
- Old – been around awhile (a year, 2 years, maybe more)
- Rested – stored for awhile to induce chemical changes in the leaves
- Ripened – wo dui, a method of speeding up fermentation developed by the Menghai and Xiaguan tea factories in China
- Vintage – seems the same as old or rested
Another muddle for you tea lovers. And reading through the descriptions doesn’t always help.
2 – Activity is a factor in “aged tea”
In looking up the various teas being called “aged” (and yes we sell one on our store), I came across an article about someone finding an “aged” oolong in a teashop. From the description, however, it was clear that this was just a package (300g) of tea that had not sold and was lost on the back of the shelf of the shop (purchased in the spirit of adventure).
Aging something, however, seems to involve purposeful effort, not just sitting unsold tea on a shelf, like that can of pimentos you bought once upon a time and are now wondering if they’re still safe to eat. The teas have to be stored in the proper conditions (air flow or not, temperature setting, humidity level, light limited, etc.) and rotated every so often for evenness. If you’re doing a true fermentation, you may just have the tea leaves in a big pile that you stir up at regular intervals. You may even need some additional humidity or heat.
My tip to tea vendors:
Be sure your description shows your “aged tea” isn’t just old, unsold tea.
3 – Chemical change is a factor in “aged tea”
In both the aging process and the fermenting process, chemical changes occur in the tea leaves. So, it may be legitimate to use the terms interchangeably. Or better yet just call the tea “fermented” (which is not the same as “oxidized”). Of course, you then have to be clear that this is a non-alcoholic style of fermentation. However, you could argue that an aged tea is one that has been formed and possibly packaged and then set aside for a few months or so, making it different from some fermentation processing and not resulting in the same chemical change. That leads us to rested tea…
Rested tea is basically tea stored for a few months or even as long as a year. This is supposed to produce a chemical change that will “mellow any rough edges in the flavor or to allow the tea to become richer and deeper in flavor and character.” One tea blogger claims this is different from “aged tea.” But frankly, it seems the same and possibly just old tea that has sat on a shelf and had the flavors change as a natural process, not as part of some activity.
Rested tea is not the same thing as aged tea, but simply tea that has been put aside to gain positive value from a little maturing.
4 – Not all aged teas are created equal
Most aged teas on the market are pu-erh. More and more, oolongs, green, and white teas are being marketed as “aged.” This is the puzzle. When you look at how a green tea and a white tea are processed, the whole concept of “aging” seems quite inappropriate, especially for white teas which are noted for their lack of any extensive processing beyond the “green kill.” It’s what has me wondering if this is tea left over from a previous year’s harvest, stored well, but even so got a bit past it’s prime, and is being marketed (cleverly and confusingly) as “aged.” In addition, the flavoring process for teas is now being called “aging” (as in a certain vendor’s trademarked tea that is just a version of a classic flavored tea but processed like every other of it’s kind and let sit longer than the usual day or two – a few weeks, though, not months or years like for pu-erhs).
Oolongs labeled as old, aged, or vintage seem to be ones that have simply been stored awhile. They may or may not need to undergo further roasting to dry out excess moisture built up during that period of storage.
5 – No exact description of what “aging” is
When the hunting online was done, it turned out that there was no exact description of “aging” for teas. Things were pretty general, like these descriptions we saw online:
- “Aging teas is a special skill that takes a lot of experimentation and practice.”
- “Aging tea requires more than just experience and technique.” [They go on to say it requires starting with a good tea base.]
- “…started by aging [tea] for one year. At the end of the year, the leaves were steamed to make them pliable and then pressed into cakes. These cakes were then stored at about 40-60% humidity to encourage the good bacteria to slowly ferment the fresh tea leaves.”
- “Similar to wine, high quality white teas can be naturally aged and have enhanced flavor when stored correctly.” [Quite frankly, I would no longer classify this as a white tea.]
These do, however, all seem to bear out my theory that some activity is needed beyond just letting the tea sit on a shelf.
This whole sudden appearance on the tea market of a wide variety of teas being called “aged” (especially whites and greens) seems a 180-swing from the trend toward those teas being touted as at their best when “fresh.” It leaves me wondering if the former is a result of the latter, that is, lots of those “fresh” teas not selling and then being stored and trotted out later as “aged.” Just a thought.