Recently, Char (Oolong Owl) joined me for an inbetweenisode to discuss aging and aged white tea. Aged whites have become a topic of increasing interest in the west, and while Denny and I have brought a few onto the show it has not been a principal area of interest for us. Here’s a few of the big points and takeaways I had from that conversation with her. I highly recommend checking out Oolong Owl’s blog and reading up on white teas. She’s written as extensively as any English-language blogger on different aged whites. I recommend watching the original video for those interested in this topic. This is my summation and interpretation of much of the material discussed in the video.
Aging Whites & Aged Whites is a New Thing Compared With Pu’erh
Dry aging and home aging pu’erh dryly is relatively new. The most famous example of pu’erh dry storage, the 1988 Qing Bing, is now around 30 years old. Aging whites is much newer than home-stored pu’erh.
When I started drinking tea seriously in 2012, pu’erh was definitely a thing and its own category of tea. You could find pressed or slightly aged whites, but most of the western scene saw them as a mildly interesting oddity. Aged whites didn’t have much hype and to me it seemed like kind of an afterthought. At that time aged oolongs were even bigger. Fast forward to today and aged whites are very much a thing. By my casual estimations, it’s several times bigger than it was in 2012 and is much more accessible and discussed than even just a few years ago.
We Don’t Know That Much & There are Fakes
Partly because its so new, we don’t know that much about the best way to age white tea. We definitely haven’t figured out optimal pu’erh aging in the west yet, and we’re much further with whites. Many of the aged white teas that have turned out well were happy accidents.
Complicating matters for the curious, buying aged white tea isn’t easy. There’s an incentive to obfuscate the age, which makes getting reference points for aged white difficult. There’s now a significant demand for aged white teas and since not many vendors were actually aging whites until recently, 20 year old whites are a relatively scarce product. Most of the purported 10+ year old aged whites that have been available, are hard to truly verify. Stuff that is said to be 20 years old, may be half or a third of the age. As with pu’erh, it’s best to take aged claims with a grain of salt.
I asked Char for what she would specifically recommend for storage, and she immediately demurred and said that she wasn’t really sure and that her own storage preference may change. This is telling about the current school of thought on aging whites. There are certainly things we do know and certain best practices but we have a ways to go before we really know what is best or optimal.
Most Types of White Tea Ages Fine. The Grade Impacts Its Aged Profile
In Char’s experience, most types of white tea age fine. The higher-grade teas like Silver Needle which are heavy on buds and start out lighter/floral tend to change into a honeyish profile. Lower-grade teas (Gongmei, Shoumei) will start out more oxidized and darker and will transform more towards a darker, date profile as they age. Her observation is also that this transformation for darker white teas seems to occur more quickly.
Grades of white tea. The highest grade is Baihao Yinzhen.
- Baihao Yinzhen (Silver Needle)
- In pu’erh, leaf grades also age differently but are more frequently blended together. I will be curious if we’ll see more blending of white tea grades in the future to allow a little more dynamism and variety to combat potential monotone aged productions.
Characteristics for Aging: Compression is Good & Astringency isn’t Necessary
One attribute Char mentioned positively towards aging is the compression. Most white teas weren’t compressed until around 2007, and she notes that compressed versions tend to hold the aroma, and taste of the tea better. They should also theoretically be more robust when put in varied conditions. White tea also tends to be very fluffy and take a lot of space. Compressing it into a cake helps with this.
In pu’erh I think of some sheng’s astringency as fuel for aging that will hopefully age into something. This appears to be less of the case for whites. They don’t tend to be terribly astringent or strong teas in the way that pu’erh does. Being extra oxidized to start also seems to be OK in a way that could be seen as a warning sign for pu’erh.
In the video, the stages were broken down by Char as:
- 0-1 year. Fresh.
- 1-3 years is awkward.
- 3-5 is a good stage to drink again. More honey.
- 7-10 starts to develop deeper, darker flavors.
It’s hard to get reliably older teas, but they tend to continue to get darker and develop strong date flavors. The longer the tea has been stored, the more possible it is that it’ll pickup storage flavors along the way.
One interesting thing to me is the awkward stage. I hadn’t previously considered the possibility of one here, but it makes sense. In pu’erh we tend to see this stage between years 2-7, and in aged oolongs, maybe 2-10 years. For these types of teas the concept is the same: The tea has lost the fresher, higher-notes that made it nice to drink young, but has yet to develop the complexities it acquires with age. In this stage, it’s important to wait it out and not lose patience.
If we’re to take this timetable seriously, white teas age pretty fast when put in comparison with pu’erh, which given western dry aging takes a very long time to develop different flavors that seem to develop within a decade of aging for white tea.
The Aging Process is Probably More Oxidation Rather Than Fermentation
Probably the most common comparison made with aged and aging whites is towards pu’erh. They’re both often pressed into cakes and are sold by many of the same vendors. Pu’erh ages via fermentation and microbial action. The process requires some moisture. What about whites?
The aging process of oxidation vs. fermentation is something not covered in the video, but was posed to us by Nick in the YouTube comments.
My question is, does aged white tea contain any of the microbial fermentation that Puerh has? In essence, does all of the age with white teas come from oxidation and absolutely none from fermentation, or does it age through fermentation like Puerh… My current guess would be that it’s either totally aged through oxidation exactly as aged oolong, and has zero microbial fermentation, or is mostly oxidation and partially fermentation!
Char ended up weighing in, leaning towards the oxidation side. I agree and lean towards thinking about the process as more similar to aging oolong rather than pu’erh. Aging oolong isn’t usually thought to involve microbials and doesn’t require the humidity that aging pu’erh does. In oolongs case, the tea should be stored dryly to prevent it from picking up sour notes from excess humidity.
Whites have Historically Been Stored in Fujian, followed by Guangdong and Kunming
The most famous Chinese growing area for white teas is Fujian. This is also where many of the more aged examples have been stored. Storing white tea has also become more popular in Guangdong and Kunming (white tea is also grown in Yunnan). Char estimates that the more aged examples have been stored in rudimentary, convenient methods. Giant tins, bags, some airtight, and for the pressed cakes like pu’erh in boxes and shelves.
The Storage Location May Not Matter as Pu’erh
With pu’erh, the location is frequently cited to give some idea of storage. There’s some indication that this isn’t as important as the methodology is for white teas. Char has not really noticed a consistent or definitive theme for the storage locations (Fujian, Guangdong, Kunming) as there are in pu’erh.
One telling example is Kunming vs. Guangdong. Kunming is the poster child of dry pu’erh storage (both Fujian and Guangdong are comparatively hot and humid). White teas stored in Kunming have not aged as noticeably slower as pu’erh when put in comparison with Fujian or Guangdong.
The consensus is that you should store the tea away from other odors and in a dark place. Storing it away from odors in this case should include storing it separate from other teas, as it can easily pick up aromas.
The current schools of thought on storage methodology are well summed up by Peter Lista in this twitter post.
Last time I did a deep dive on this, there were three camps: (a) aged whites are for suckers, (b) treat them like puerh, or (c) treat them like oolong (sealed w/out added humidity and kept cool).
There’s some active debate between camps (b) and (c). Char tends to fall more towards camp (c). In scenario (c), humidity and airflow are kept lower than (b).
Some of The Most Common Storage Errors are Excess Humidity & Airflow
Char cited a couple teas that had gone awry, potentially due to storage. One was stored in her pumidor with sheng and picked up a lot of unpleasant sheng notes including sourness. She also cited some Guangdong-stored teas that have become sour. This might be associated with too much humidity (like aged oolongs).
The other problematic tea was stored in a crock where the tea had gone stale and aged into nothing. Char attributes this storage error to excess airflow. The thought is that too much air can sweep away the aroma and the taste of tea, causing it to taste stale. Excess airflow is something people should be especially wary of if they decide to store it on a shelf.
What I Would Do
My highest priorities would be: (a) effective aging and (b) simplicity. To me, the easiest path based off the current conventional wisdom is to air out some mylar bags and then seal the white tea cakes away. I would not bother adding humidity until we know if it is necessary. The most common pitfalls seem to be excessive airflow and humidity. I also don’t see a great reason to opt for something more elaborate that offers more humidity control (i.e. a pumidor-like container).