How long will my tea keep?
As with many of the particulars concerning the production of traditional foods and beverages, the how’s and why’s of tea production, storage, and drinking are not universally black and white.
As we at Tea Trekker continue to explore the vast detail and nuance that comprise the fascinating world of tea, we now know that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ bits of information that those of us selling tea in the 1970’s learned from our tea suppliers was only a small, European-slanted facet of what we know today about tea cultivation and manufacture.
Formerly, it was believed that all tea should be drunk fresh and young or that tea ‘keeps indefinitely.’ In truth, each of these statements is appropriate for some tea and not for others.
So let’s explore some of the tea-keeping knowledge that we have learned from our tea masters on our tea sourcing trips to Asia:
- Some teas are meant to be drunk right away when they are fresh and young
- Some teas are better rested for a month or so before drinking
- Still other teas are more highly prized after they have been rested for a year or more
- The most prized teas are those that have been carefully stored and aged
Understanding when a tea is best drunk will greatly enhance your tea drinking pleasure. Young tea kept too long will no longer be a ‘rose in bloom’ while an aged oolong can introduce tea drinkers to new levels of flavor complexity, refinement and style.
It is important that tea enthusiasts think about tea in the same way that we think about the details of other beverages such as beer, wine, whiskies, brandies, etc. Serious tea enthusiasts ought to know three important questions about every tea they purchase:
- when was the tea manufactured?
- when it was purchased ( or, how long has it been in storage )?
- when will this tea be best to drink?
What is new or young tea?
Tea that is manufactured in a new season of each year is ‘new’ tea for awhile. New tea from spring, such as most green tea, white, and yellow tea, are best drunk young and fresh. These teas are prized for their fresh, youthful vigor and sweetness or grassy, vegetal astringency. New tea from autumnal or winter harvests will show greater maturity and high aroma in the cup than spring tea.
What is rested tea ?
Rested tea is tea that has been kept in storage for several months to a year or more to mellow any rough edges in the flavor or to allow the tea to become richer and deeper in flavor and character. 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.
Many Asian tea connoisseurs prefer to ‘rest’ certain newly-harvested teas before drinking them, such as some green, white, and oolong teas. A short resting period, if it is deemed appropriate, allows the flavor elements to ‘come together’ with more harmonious appeal. Oolongs progress through a long rested stage before they are considered ‘aged.’
New harvest Japanese green tea powder – matcha – is a good case in point. Many matcha producers blend new matcha with tea from the previous year that has been kept in storage. This is to allow a careful transitioning of flavor from the previous season to the new that will maintain a consistent flavor in the matcha. Additionally, some Chanoyu teachers store new tea until the fall before using it to allow the tea to develop additional richness and character.
What is aged tea?
In Asia, aged tea used to be relatively easy to find, albeit proportionate in cost to its age. The focus of this interest in East Asia has always been on Pu-erh and Oolong. However, there was a huge burst in interest, and therefore purchasing, of aged tea within China, and also Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore starting in about 2015; particularly black and white tea. This has made availability shrink and prices skyrocket for all tea that ages well. We do always keep an eye out for already-aged tea when it is favorably-priced, but more commonly we mention when a particular younger tea will age well, so that you will know that you do not need to drink it up quickly!
There are no hard and fast rules as to how old tea must be to be considered ‘aged,’ but what we have seen for sale in Asia suggests that tea needs to be 5 years of age or older before it qualifies as ‘aged.’ Aged teas can be 20, 30, 40 and more years of age. These rare beauties must be stored under good preservation conditions so that the tea can rest, change, and become more complex and astonishing in flavor with time. For instance, the ceramic vessel shown here is excellent for aging an oolong.
Do not confuse aged tea with ‘old tea.’ Old tea is just that – tea that is old, past-its-prime, lifeless, flavorless and not worth drinking. Not every tea can age well: most oolongs, Pu-erh and some black teas, assuming that they are good quality tea to begin with, will age successfully, although, for instance, oolongs age differently and require different storage conditions than sheng Pu-erh (discussed below).
Tea for aging is chosen based on qualities that the tea possesses when it is young. Aging tea is about future potential, and the young tea must show signs that it is able to fulfill the promise that it will mature and develop into something even more wonderful. This is similar to the judgement that a wine aficionado makes when evaluating which young bottles of wine will age best after a decade or so of rest in a wine cellar. As with wine, tea that is of poor quality or that is disappointing in flavor when young will not improve with age.
Here are a few brief guidelines organized by class of tea:
- Black tea – different black teas can be drunk young or aged. Black tea is able to retain its flavor and aroma for many years, particularly orthodox black tea, when kept in storage containers in a cool environment. Some black teas, made from full, long leaves, can age and transform into a more flavorful and rich cup after being kept in good storage conditions. (This does not mean that a package of supermarket black tea that has been hiding in the back of your pantry for years will still be tasty! ) This applies to exquisite full-leaf black teas from the mountains of Yunnan, the Wuyi, etc.
- Oolong – oolong teas represent the highest art of tea making, and the topic of oolong tea is vast. This includes the choice of young versus aged oolong. In essence, different oolongs can be drunk young, rested or aged. Aging is a tool that allows the tea to mature, mellow, and develop complexity and finesse in taste (similarly to aging fine wine). To be successfully aged the tea must be stored dry and sealed, away from humidity. Depending on the style of oolong ( semiball-rolled, leafy, or strip style ) some new teas are very ‘green’ in style and offer fresh, bright flavors and intense, sweet and floral aromatics. Other oolongs are more subdued, but reveal rich fruity flavors and aromas. The degree of roasting ( none, light, medium, or heavy) will vary with the style of oolong.Medium-roast teas are usually drunk right away or can be rested for 1-2 years. Heavy roast oolongs are often rested for 2+ years before drinking, as the flavor of the roast can overwhelm the flavor of the leaf in newly made tea. Oolongs can age for 40 and more years under good storage and with proper periodic re-roasting to eliminate any moisture build-up in the leaf. Some tea connoisseurs believe the ‘older the better’ with oolongs (and Pu-erh). Aged oolongs may lose some of their floral and fruity ‘high note’ aromas as they age, but the reward is an increase in flavor depth and complexity, and a fine, smooth finish.
- Pu-erh ( sheng & shou ) –
– sheng: the aging and transformational changes of sheng Pu-erh tea are different from that of oolong tea, and the requirements of storage are different. Individual Pu-erh cakes or tuo-chas are purchased loosely wrapped in thin paper, which allows the tea cakes to ‘breathe.’ Successful aging of sheng Pu-erh is the result of continued microbial activity in the presence of humidity in ambient temperature environments. The timeframe for maturing sheng Pu-erh is longer because it is a slow and steady process that requires years before the tea is ‘ready’ to drink. Sheng Pu-erh is generally considered ‘young’ up to 15 years of age and ‘aged’ after 15 years, although the longer the tea is aged the more delicious it will be. Sheng Pu-erh (naturally fermented) can be drunk either young or aged. When young, the tea is sweet, woodsy, and clean tasting, and filled with youthful vigor, but many consider this tea too ‘newborn’ to drink. When aged, sheng Pu-erh becomes rich, beefy, earthy and substantial, and then, and only then, does it truly express the wonderful and delicious nature of this naturally post-fermentated tea.
– shou: shou Pu-erh comes to the marketplace ready to drink and needs no further aging. But it can be successfully kept and aged – over time, shou Puerh will also mature and mellow, but it will not undergo the tremendous internal changes that sheng Pu-erh will.
- Green tea (spring harvest) – The sub-category of green tea that are known collectively as Spring Green Tea are considered premium green teas, and are made just once each year. These teas are prized for their fresh, youthful vigor and sweetness, or in some cases, pleasant, vegetal astringency. Many green teas, especially the early spring harvest green teas, are at their sweetest, most tender and tastiest when drunk within the year that they are manufactured. Depending on many factors, some spring green teas will lose their fresh taste before spring arrives the following year. Other spring harvest green teas hold-up and drink well into and sometimes past the next spring season (these are often referred to as Country Green Tea.
But in general, green tea is ready to drink when released and there is no good reason to wait to drink most of them. There are a few green teas that benefit from a resting period of 3 to 9 months. This rest will alter the aromatics, increase body, reduce astringency or make similar positive changes. If you acquire a new-harvest green tea that is either:
has too much charcoal-fired taste,
is too vegetal, etc,
put the tea in a fairly open container for about a week, then store it in a tightly-sealed container and let it rest for several months. When you steep it again, you should be pleasantly surprised at how it has changed.
- White tea – bud-style white tea such as Yin Zhen can be drunk new or can benefit from being rested, or aged. It is your choice as to how you prefer your white tea – fresh, new and bright; or smooth, mouth-filling and softly mature. Leaf-style white tea, such as Bai Mudan, because of its highly exposed surface area, should generally be drunk within a year of manufacture (although with careful storage many tea enthusiasts in Asia are now keeping the leafy whites for a ‘resting’ period of up to several years).
- Yellow tea – best drunk new, but a bud-only yellow tea such as Mengding Mt Huang Ya ( Mengding Mt. Snow Buds) may show well after being rested. Careful storage is critical.
- Scented Tea – one wouldn’t necessarily think that scented tea would age well. It might be safe to assume that the scenting will ‘go off’ and what will be left will be tea leaves that have a diminished scenting held in the pores of the leaf, or no scent left at all, or even an ‘off’ taste that might be quite negative. Any of these potentialities can occur, of course, but also the mellowing of a well-scented Jasmine tea can smooth out and mature over several decades. Mary Lou and I once tasted a 100-year-old Jasmine tea that had been stored for perpetuity in Hong Kong. We steeped it, newly-opened-from-its-tin-container, with tea-enthusiast friends in southern China who expected very little from it. We were less negative going into it, yet all of us were shocked at how delicious and wonderful it was, although it did not have any of the pungent, fresh Jasmine aromatic notes that we are used to with contemporary Jasmine tea. It was rich, and sinewy, and unctuous, not words normally associated with Jasmine tea… So one never knows, and most anything is worth exploring!