Friday, May 25, 2012


Do you ever wonder:  where's the tea amidst the roast?

Why do some aged oolongs resemble carbonized fragments left in the wake of a fire?

Dominic Point Fire, July 2010
It is my understanding that many folks periodically re-roast old oolongs to keep moisture out of the leaves.  If oolong sits around exposed to humidity, bad things can happen.  I've never experimented with long-term oolong storage, but I have soured my share of teas because I could not drink them fast enough and failed to protect them from the air.  Where does the sourness come from?  And why does this not happen with puerh which seems to require a modicum of humidity and air to age properly?

Some old, roasted oolongs retain something of their original essence and are quite complex and soothing like this 1994 Muzha Tie Guan Yin:



Time has been good to this tea.   I'm not sure if it was roasted more than once, but it was obviously handled well.  The roast is mildly noticeable and the tea is still intact.

On the other hand, this 1996 Ali Shan has been eclipsed by the roaster's hand.  The leaves hardly open, even after many infusions:


I am curious.  Why do some aged teas get over-roasted?  Is it because they were not very good to begin with and a heavy roast is an attempt to mitigate their mediocrity?  Did the roaster over-do it on accident?  Do some people like tea that tastes like charcoal?  Am I sometimes drinking teas that have been too recently re-roasted and which have not had time to settle?  My guess is that most of these hold true.  But my suspicion is that the primary issue is that it takes great care to age oolong in such a way that multiple roastings are not required.  Such oolongs, those that were high quality to begin with and that have been stored carefully and roasted with restraint, tend to be difficult and expensive to acquire.  One gets lucky now and again.  My guess is that a lot of the great tea from the past that was put aside for storage was kept for personal consumption and never sold.  

I welcome comments and thoughts about this phenomenon.  


  1. Good questions Israel. I know some people who like those burnt-to-a-crisp, shiny-looking, burnt-coal-flavored oolongs. I can't handle them. There's a big difference between that stuff and a nice, delicious, darkly-roasted oolong tea.

    I believe, as you mentioned, that it all comes back to how good the tea was when it was new and how well it was stored.

    1. Thanks, Brett. I agree. I love a roasted tea, but if I wanted charcoal I'd grind up some briquettes.

      I'm interested to hear from the folks you mention who enjoy extremely roasted oolongs.

  2. The carbonized remains of tea that are sometimes sold as aged oolongs are, essentially, faked. Consider them the equivalent of shu puerh.

    1. Thanks for visiting, MarshalN. I hadn't thought of it that way, but it makes a lot of sense. Force-"aging" or fake-aging.

      Like shu puerh to well-aged sheng pu, these burnt offerings hardly resemble aged oolong. As a westerner with minimal access to tea stores in Taiwan, it's tough to acquire the real stuff without emptying the old billfold. It sounds as though it takes some determination to find affordable aged oolong in Taiwan itself. It also sounds as if your perseverance paid-off on your last trip. Enjoy! The stuff I managed to find over there was either carbonized or soured and overpriced. But then, I was severely handicapped by my basically non-existent familiarity with Mandarin.