Some Reasons You Should Consider Aging More Oolong & Less Pu’erh

Sometimes when I’m sipping a particularly delicious aged oolong, I’ll glance over at my tea fridge and then to my wine cooler and get some major self doubt. I enjoy drinking pu’erh and happen to own enough that I’ll be aging it for a very long time. But I I also really do enjoy aged oolong… And for partly inexplicable reasons have hardly even a pu’erh cake worth of oolong put away for the long haul.

Tin & Aged Oolong

Tin & Some Aged Oolong.

Why Does Pu’erh Get All the Attention?

In my opinion, the largest reason why people choose to age pu’erh over oolong is largely a marketing and imaging issue. Pu’erh is a drink, but it is quite hip. In addition to being drinkable it is a collectible, complete with wrapper, ticket (neifei). This is often featured in sales copy or by vendors specialized in selling pu’erh. It’s also marketed as something with an alluring history of aging and appreciation of value. Oolong is just some dried leaves that most people drink up within a few months..

I think another reason we don’t see more people aging oolong is the lack of knowledge of the aging process. Most people have consumed fresh oolong and a few folks have consumed aged oolong (>20 years). There isn’t hardly any semi-aged oolong (say 7-10 years) that isn’t roasted to hell being sold, whereas it is very easy to find pu’erh in this age range. This makes it feel like a 20 years or bust deal. There’s also a lot of misinformation from vendors who say “oolong can’t be aged” when there’s plenty of examples that contradict this.

  • Sidenote Speculation on an Awkward Phase in Aging Oolongs. I suspect there is an awkward stage for oolong, similar but different from pu’erh, where it has lost its sharper, fresher notes but has yet to develop any aged taste. My guess is that the tea starts to become more appealing around 15 years or so.

Reasons to Consider Oolong

I think aging oolong should be a consideration in the west for hobbyists. Here are some quick notes on why you may want to consider aging oolong.

Aging Pu’erh is More Complicated

Aging pu’erh involves fermenting a tea. When done well this is great. But this isn’t always easy and straightforward and aging pu’erh should not be taken as a given. I’ve tasted a handful of decade done US storage and the majority have turned out mediocre or worst.. Many of our climates are very different from places in Asia where tea has a history of aging well.

Oolong on the other hand can be quite simple. Buy tea and store it in a tin.

Western Climates are well-suited for Aging Oolong

Aging oolongs main enemy is moisture. Oolongs can turn tart or sour if they’ve picked up too much humidity in their leaves. Most of the west is considerably drier than Taiwan (a place where a lot of oolong has been aged). Climates like Taiwan can age pu’erh much faster, but for oolong, people in a drier climate have less to worry about.

You Do Not Need to Re-roast It

There is a myth that aging oolongs involves re-roasting the oolong every few years. This isn’t necessary and is used more as a correction course in case the tea has picked up too much moisture..

You Just Need a Few Tins & Don’t Need to Buy a Pumidor

People rightly put a lot of consideration into a device to store their pu’erh. In Taiwan, some vendors will have massive plastic bags which they’ll stuff in giant canisters. You can do that if you want or you could just buy a few relatively sturdy tins.

You’re Not Messing with Cake Shapes

In order to check the progress of oolong, you don’t have to ruin the shape of that pristine new tea cake. Just take a little bit out of your tin.

You Don’t Need to Go Overboard

Having a huge collection of pu’erh can be an advantage for storing, provided you have the space. You probably want at least a certain threshold of tea for it to be even worth considering aging. Not necessary for oolong. You can buy anywhere from 37.5grams to several kilos each year and set it aside.

With oolong you’re also not locked into even a 357 gram cake. You can buy as much or as little as you’d like.

Oolong Storage

Storing oolong is simple & easy.

Rolled Oolongs Don’t Take Up a Ton of Space

One advantage of pu’erh is it is compressed. Same deal with rolled oolongs.

Price is Often Favorable Compared to Boutique Young Pu’erh

Buying some functional roasted Dongding from a place like Teahome costs about ($0.15/g) $42/300g +shipping. This puts it beneath the median price of most boutique pu’erh being sold by western vendors. There’s of course cheaper pu’erh options out there (i.e. many factory pu’erhs), but I’m not complaining much about a price around $0.15/g ($53.55/357g for pu-heads incapable of math).

Aged Oolong Does Pretty Well at The Non-Gender Specific Mom Test

Pu’erh and aged pu’erh can be a bit of an acquired taste for a lot of reasons. In many ways, I think aged oolongs are really friendly. They’re smooth, sweet, often plummy, and have good huigan. Good for experienced tea drinkers and good for new ones.

Both Aging Pu’erh & Aging Oolong are Long-Term Projects

One complaint may be that aging oolong takes a long-time. I’d recommend 15-20 years at a minimum. But let’s also consider pu’erh. Most home storage setups in western climates are much more aligned with dry-storage than wet ones. Five years may make you make a pu’erh veteran in the western world, but it is hardly anytime in the life span of aging pu’erh.. Aging both types of tea are long-term projects.

Why Not Oolong?

I actually got into aged oolongs before pu’erh. I also used to converse regularly with a vendor that was confused why westerners were so obsessed with aging pu’erh, when oolong was much easier to age. In my opinion, many of the reasons why people go so heavily for pu’erh over oolong are bad ones, based on marketing and the mythology of aged pu’erh. As someone who identifies as a drinker and not a collector, my stash tells me that I’ve frankly fallen pretty hard for this mentality. I’ll look at correcting that just a little sometime in 2018.

This entry was posted in Aged Pu'erh, Article, High-Mountain Oolong, Low-Elevation Oolong, Oolong, Raw Pu'erh, Ripe Pu'erh, Taiwanese Oolong. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Some Reasons You Should Consider Aging More Oolong & Less Pu’erh

  1. shah8 says:

    Speaking as that proverbial hard-bitten veteran, who isn’t a huge fan of aged oolongs in the first place, a few comments:

    1) Anything that can be said for oolong, can be said for hongcha and baicha. In my experience, hongcha is a better age-performer as a whole. Ie, my home aged hongcha is much tastier than my home aged oolong, for me.

    2) Twenty years is not a realistic view of a hobbyist’ perspective of time. Not for puerh, not for wulong.

    3) Initial quality matters. As a practical matter, given that aging rich and bitter/astringent puerh makes it more drinkable, you can start with somewhat lower quality and end up with better tea. Aging seems to erode an oolong’s harsh qualities much slower than it does for properly processed sheng. I have not enjoyed some 70’s yancha because of this. Which leads to the next point…

    4) For me, age-worthy oolongs have only gotten in rough comparison to puerh within about the last four years. Cheaper yancha is much better processed than it used to be. And puerh is much more expensive than it used to be. I do not typically like aged oolongs much because they tend to be very one-dimensional, and if I want mellow, then I want high quality shu, usually. If one is going to age anything on purpose, it’s best to buy a kilo+ of the highest quality yancha/balled oolong you can afford. Otherwise, just out of the tea buying habit, you’ll have plenty of tea that you’ve bought and forgotten over the years. Seriously. I have some really good stuff bought from Houde a long time ago, and they are, today, much nicer than cheaper aged oolong, in the aged tea qualities…

    • Nug says:

      I would push back on the second point just a bit. 20 years is not a realistic view for some, but it doesn’t restrict others from doing so. Since it’s a hobby, I don’t know that “realistic” applies to many aspects of any given hobby. Buyer’s discretion dictates the choice.

      Though I do not have 20 years experience aging oolongs, those I have spoken to with that experience seem to select their oolongs for aging just as carefully as they would pu’er. Buying high quality certainly makes sense, but there are many more factors to consider for what tea makes for a suitable aging candidate. Style, oxidation, roast, region, seem to be very critical in what oolongs post-processing might be more favorable for long-run endeavors. I could buy high-quality boutique productions of pu’er that may not necessarily hold up to the test of time, despite their material inarguably being of upper-end quality.

      By the way, I have really enjoyed reading your notes in the SOTD thread, thank you so much for those contributions!

    • James says:

      Hi shah,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree and disagree with some.

      1) Maybe, maybe not. I’ve had enough aged oolongs to be convinced that at least there’s some decent stuff made 20 or 30 years ago and if the tea approximates that even somewhat I think it’s a good place. My experience with whites and blacks is much more limited. The whites I’ve had are mainly younger than aged oolongs I’ve tried and seem to be doing OK, but have a pretty different profile. Is there very much aged black tea out there? I’ve had a couple, but the impression I got from trying these is that they’re strange oddities.

      2) Yes, I mainly agree.. 20 years is certainly a lot of time for a hobbyist and anyone wanting age it should think hard about timelines. While you can make the case that pu’erh ages faster, we should probably do this more for pu’erh too. If people have the desire to put time and effort into these things that there is a case to be made for oolong.

      3) Initial quality of course matters. I think it’s more than just eroding the harsher qualities. The basic profile of the tea changes from young to older age.

      4) I’d almost say the reverse of aged oolongs and shu, with shu being more one-dimensional for me, although there’s still plenty of room in my tea diet to drink it. For me the above average aged oolongs I’ve tried far surpass the above average ripe. I’d also say that they are very different teas.

      After having gotten a bit of feedback from people after the video and this article, my reaction is that people just don’t have very much experience with good aged oolong. If I hadn’t had a few lucky breaks early on, I’d probably be in a more similar boat. Better versions just aren’t readily available which in my opinion is a shame.

      Cheers,
      -James

      • shah8 says:

        1) I should qualify that a bit. Your *average* oolong isn’t that likely to be better, older, than your *average* Chinese black (so far, all experience with aged Indian is that they age and hollow out and simplify). I am also talking about home storage in the five-ten year range, and not really twenty years tea dug up by some random shop. I remember the stuff you did, and I don’t think those black teas are interesting. OTOH, five years old cheap Qimen from Upton was still a touch floral, still has some wine, and is much more plummy in a nice way. Seven-eight year Taiwanes Dayeh varietal blacks was spectacular. Younger oolongs like Houde’s ’07 Milan was actually not that badly aging when I finished it off. OTOH, one of TeaHabitat’s dancong, the more expensive isn’t doing that well, but the cheaper autumn Jasmine varietal is. And of course, the ’05 LCSX from Houde is spectacular now, with lots of additional almond sweetness as is the ’09 special grade Muzha TGY. Never mind what you could get from The Mandarin’s Tea House of similarly aged oolongs to what I’ve stored at home (never mind the ’60s Tim offered). In contrast, truly great aged 20 years plus balled oolong, wuyi, blacks aren’t common at all, at least not great to my standards. I’ve had a few. I’m still going to take that ’50s thousand taels tea over any of the early ’90s and older aged oolongs I’ve had, including a putative ’20s oolong, and I’ve had some good privately sourced from family farm aged oolongs. Those are indeed good tea experiences. Just not super awesome to me.

        2) Understood, James. I’ve bought a kilo of LCSX for just this purpose. One caution is that oolong is probably quite a bit less liquid. At least it’s easy for you to send out samples, though, if you need to sell. WRT puerh, of course, in a small sense, aging puerh was always marketing bullshit, particularly dry storing sheng, because it let people off the hook for making actually good tea. Of course, today, that doesn’t actually fly anymore. Frankly, I’m learning a lot more about how tea ages from my personal stash than I ever did reading english and chinese blogs in the early teens.

        3) To me, I don’t think anything really changes as much as puerh does. What Bada and Bulang teas does from 0-10, even dry stored, is pretty radical. As for oolongs, I don’t think wulong really does all that much. They can collect some aged plum or honey or almond character in the mid term, but it’s within a framework. Moreover, I’ve never had an aged oolong that’s as gloriously extroverted as a 70’s qingbing. Wulongs are nursing home teas, while puerhs does that spry, run a marathon in their 80’s, bull. I’m going for fresh air and movement, rather than stuffy smelly dark rooms no matter how comfy they are. Being out of breath and with achy joints is worth it.

        4) The big thing about high quality shu, for me, is that they tend to have better aroma, stronger sweet finishes/aftertastes, and much more, better qi than (your average 20+year) aged wulong. If you’re talking taste, yes, they tend to be more one dimensional in the cup. If you’re talking whole sessions–the best shu are considerably more dynamic than aged wulong. If I were headed to a desert island, I would quite quickly take my An Xiang shu over *any* of very old aged oolong I’ve had. Different matter for oolongs I’ve had, made 2005 and later.

        Lastly, seriously, James, I simply don’t think there is that much really good aged oolong at there, “really good” per my preferences. If you ran into a lot of money and decided to become a teashop owner, do you really think you can reliably acquire worthwhile quantities (say, 2-5kg) of any individual tea and sell there in TW/EA or here with profit?

        • James says:

          Shorter time-frames (5-10 years) I’m not too familiar with. The few I’ve tried from vendors around the 10 year mark have been unremarkable.. I do have a few oolongs that I’ve set aside that are around 5 or 6 years old now. A couple were intentionally bought and another was somewhat accidental. I should try them. For me, I’ve certainly accumulated a lot of pu’erh, but oolong hasn’t really happened naturally.

          I agree that oolongs are definitely less liquid/resellable so you’re probably stuck with it once you make the leap.

          Your point is well-taken as far as the supply of these things go. I did not have a difficult time finding aged oolong in Taipei. Even when I randomly hit up shops the hit rate for something halfway decent was still acceptable. From Origin Tea and his random leftovers, it seemed like there was quite a few aged oolongs from multiple sources that were at least somewhat worthwhile. But I’ll also readily admit that I do not at all have a great feel for the overall market and what kind of supply is out there. For various reasons (volume, anti-commercial prickliness) the best shops I went to, would not be good sources for a vendor. I suspect despite being well connected this is one reason never openly sold aged oolongs, except off the shelf.

  2. Richard says:

    Hi James,

    This is a good article. I think you are right that people in the west should at least consider aging oolong for their own consumption, seeing as that as a value proposition it is likely going to see a good return.

    I wonder how, or even if, we can solve the problem of not having good examples of aged oolong available in the west. Were it not for the regrettably short lived Origin Tea and the kindness of some colleagues, I wouldn’t have any idea what good aged oolong can offer.

    • James says:

      Thanks and agreed Richard. I have similar feelings myself and struggle to come up with recommendations when pushed..

  3. Jeff says:

    I had the good fortune of getting a generous sample of 1980’s Hualien from Camellia Sinensis via Liquid Proust. It was a great experience. As James points out, it was more than just development of flavors and rounding out of harsher elements – there was a certain depth to the whole experience that you just won’t find with young tea, and that would certainly include some 15-year old pu’erh.

    Over the years, I had become more and more skeptical of the “older is better” mantra, but this oolong convinced me that there is something to be gained through proper aging. But, this thing was also 35 years old. I think it really is going to be a matter of personal preference and resources as to whether aging teas (or purchasing them) is worth it. Personally, I’m on the fence as to whether the experience is worth the price tag or the time investment.

    I guess it’s worth socking away a few odds and ends of my favorite oolongs and hong chas, just to see what happens to them. It is at least worth experimenting on a small scale.

    • James says:

      Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for the comment and glad to hear it. I had similar revelations with aged oolongs four or five years back. Those CS aged oolongs are just the tip of the iceberg for this kind of thing, but unfortunately in the western world they are some of the only ones. I’d be optimistic that Dongdings or other TW oolongs should surpass those Hualiens with ease.

      Cheers,
      -James

  4. Peter Lista says:

    Hi James,

    The other major barrier to aged oolong in the west is a lack of reliably good aged oolong from western-facing vendors. While I’m waiting 20 years for my own oolongs to age, I need to buy (and drink) 20 years worth of already aged teas. Not only that, but before I ever start aging my own oolong, I want to have tried enough good aged oolong to know that I even like it. While there are a number of vendors where I can pick up a dozen samples of aged puerh (or better yet, samples from a puerh evangelist like LiquidProust), that’s just not available for aged oolong. At least not yet.

    Peter

    • James says:

      Hi Peter,

      I agree that there’s an access issue here. But I do think that there are major access issues for both aged pu’erh and aged oolong. I also think there’s a lot more available than you may think.

      From a few very quick google searches..
      Floating Leaves has a 1980s Miaoli and a 1966 Beipu. Both around $0.50/g.
      Everlasting Teas has a couple aged Baozhongs.
      TU has a 1985 Dongding.
      CS has five available aged oolongs. Two of them are 10 years old, two more are 20+ years old, and the last is supposedly from 1963.
      Taiwan Tea Crafts has five available.
      There are seven currently available on Teamasters Boutique (I did not include the 7 year old).
      Farmer Chen and Emmett also both have at least one. LP probably also still likely has access to some.

      These are all filtered through western vendors and undoubtedly don’t match the quality and value you can find in say Taiwan. But that’s true of a lot of things. Here’s 20 or so different aged oolongs that should at least give you a basic idea of the tea genre.

      -James

  5. Cwyn says:

    Very interesting to read the article and comments. I so look forward to James’ Saturday postings!

    In addition to oolong, one can explore other heicha as an alternative to sheng. But I fear the problem of finding something as an alternative to puerh ends up in the same problem area: plenty of “drinker” quality teas, not much in the “ahhh” better-than-drinker category. Like sheng, to bump up from drinker is still needle in a haystack, with high prices, or else knowing someone willing to sell/share. When reaching for examples of a good tea, people mention things bought in the past, unavailable to new people starting out who have a budget wallet and don’t know anyone. Good oolong, sheng/shou are gonna cost the wallet.

    • James says:

      Thanks Cwyn. I recognize that my experiences for this category of tea aren’t necessarily typical for a westerner. For my palate, there have been a good number of aged oolongs that surpass the “drinker” category and that I enjoy just as much as most all of my pu’erh. Are they available in the west? Unfortunately not. Unhelpful, I know.

      -James

      I did list a few options in my comment to Peter above that may be of some interest to drinkers.

  6. Fabian says:

    Echoing what James and others have pointed out, I think one big reason aging oolong isn’t more popular in the West is simply because most of the aged oolong sold by western facing vendors is fairly unexciting (or overpriced, or both), so some folks simply don’t know what they’re missing out on. For those who are willing to buy from Yahoo Auctions Taiwan, there is a vendor called Yu Ren Tang Tea Company whom I think of as something of an aged oolong specialist (their puerh is also decent). They have a huge variety of aged oolong and while not all of their cheaper offerings are necessarily worth trying, lots of their teas are very nice. For example, this one:

    https://tw.bid.yahoo.com/item/100042112964

    is an excellent aged Dong Ding with a sweet, plummy profile, but it also has a lot more complexity to it flavor wise then any similar western facing tea I’ve tried (in addition to plum I get notes of fig, honey, nectarines, some caramel, and more). Or even better is this tea:

    https://tw.bid.yahoo.com/item/100041329989

    which reminds me of a tastier, more complex take on some of the more pleasant old liuans I’ve had. The flavor from the roast reminds me strongly of the smell of roasted coffee beans, and when combined with the very medicinal/ginseng flavors makes for one of the most enjoyable teas I’ve tried.

    Now with all that said, while aged oolongs can differ a ton in terms of the variety of flavors you can experience from them (more so than puerh), I agree with shah that you won’t really get the qi or especially the dynamism (from steep-to-steep) that you will get from good puerh. How much that will matter to you depends on the individual, but it is very much something to be aware of if you are planning on aging the stuff for yourself over the long term.

  7. TJM says:

    Finding quality aged oolong in the west is quite a challenge. With a few exceptions, most that I have tried have ranged from mediocre to horrible. The worst tea I have ever had was an aged oolong that was extremely sour from spoilage and burnt to a crisp in vain efforts to save it.

    James and Denny have reviewed a few aged oolongs from Everlasting Tea. I see that a couple of them are still available. I liked their 1981 BaoZhong pretty well, but was particularly taken with their 1989. It lasts many steeps and exhibits the plumminess for which aged oolongs are known, with little in the way of tartness or overroasting intrusions. I have a low tolerance for tartness and reroasted flavors. If your tolerance is a bit higher for these characteristics, a wider spectrum of teas may meet your own inclinations.

    For those more knowledgeable on aged oolongs, I would be interested in the merits and characteristics of various types for aging—Wuyi, Dan Cong, Dong Ding, Tie Guan Yin, etc.

    • James says:

      If I recall, I had the same impression in regards to the Everlasting Tea Aged Baozhongs.

      The uncertainty is a big part to the idea of aging teas (both pu’erh and oolong). I’m also curious how different sorts of oolongs would turn out, and frankly am far too uninformed to know.

  8. Jonny山内 says:

    I think the lighter roasted oolongs tend to go through that “awkward” stage more in aging, I suspect it may have something to do with the way roasting perhaps “fixes” some of the phytochemicals that lead to the character and flavour of the tea. Certainly there may be an argument for this around the charcoal roasted oolongs.
    Equally it is arguable that the less oxidized an oolong makes it more susceptible to changes that are not always easy to control and hence one day you may sample an oolong that you are aging and it tastes like something more resembling the bottom of your Nan’s handbag than that delightful leaf you spent so long choosing over for the process.

    My advice is to persevere, 5 years is too small of a figure in aging oolong to make any difference and +5 to 10 years may result in a few awkward moments. I would definitely aim for the +10 year mark if you can but I appreciate the previous comments on timelines and patience, therefore I wouldn’t “over-think” it and put some away and forget about it if you can, just don’t forget where you stashed it!!

    Another point I would make is pushing back a bit against the notion of quality. From experience the best oolong to drink now might not make the best for aging. I have taken some quite mediocre daily drinking oolongs and found that over time they develop a level of brilliance that makes the process well worth trying, to the point I have almost kicked myself that I hadn’t aged more!!

    One final point that I feel is a bit of a white elephant in the room is around storage vessels. I have yet to establish what is best for aging oolongs and would look forward to anyone’s views on this. Personally I opt instinctively for wooden or bamboo vessels.

    • James says:

      Thanks for the comment Jonny. Some food for thought. I think there’s a lot of unknowns in the whole idea of aging oolongs (and pu’erh) in the west. It causes me to be a bit tentative, but highly intrigued by the possibilities.

  9. MattCha says:

    Don’t have enough experience with aging oolong but these comments are so true about puerh:

    “In my opinion, the largest reason why people choose to age pu’erh over oolong is largely a marketing and imaging issue.”. -James

    “I don’t think anything really changes as much as puerh does.” -Shah8

    Thanks for bringing more attention to the topic of aging oolongs.

    Peace

  10. Toby says:

    Now you’ve made me want to age more oolong, yet another reason to buy too much tea…

    But more seriously, I’m wondering what you think about the idea of using a dehumidifier in place of periodic roasting. I’d worry with the roasting that you could stuff it up and ruin the tea. But a food dehydrator shouldn’t get hot enough to do any serious damage (at least I’d assume). Then you get the advantage of avoiding too much humidity but without the danger of roasting.

    Also, I’m interested in how much bitterness will reduce in oolong given that it is aged so dry? In particular I bought some already aged (15+ years) oolong (I won’t name the vendor) that is very bitter still, and I’m interested in whether this is an indication of things to come or if it is just low quality to begin with.

    • Jonny山內 says:

      Personally I had the same thought myself and tried a food dehydrator which reaches the top temperature of 70 degrees. I have to say its not to be repeated as although scenting my room nicely with oolong aroma it does not quite hit the mark compared to a roaster, and did little to affect the tea. Keeping the air out with aging is something that will always mediate the need to roast.

      However , I think if you are going to age oolong in big amounts investing in a roaster might yet be a good thing and one can be obtained from Taiwan Sourcing (here’s always hoping for a bit of commission! JOKE!).

      As far as the bitterness goes, there could be many reasons. Check your brewing technique. If its still bitter with flash gaiwan brewing and 95 degrees water, it might well be to do with the source material. Roasting may just sort this out a little. It might be worth asking the vendor how many times it has been roasted during its storage. Another thing is trying some similar aged tea from a different vendor to see if this experience is repeated.

      • James says:

        Toby & Jonny,

        I guess I’d push back on the notion that there’s any need at all to re-roast if the oolong is selected and stored properly.. This is part of my thesis on why aging oolongs might be a lot easier than aging pu’erh in the west.

        -James

        • Jonny山內 says:

          I don’t disagree somewhat, I suspect the rock oolongs perform better than the Taiwanese/Guandong oolongs without the need of re-roasting as long as you follow a good process in storage. This is purely anecdotal and based on assumptions from growing conditions, soil and environment. It would however be interesting to test this thesis but given this might be a long term venture I’ll respond back in about another 5 years or so Ha ! Ha!

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