Wise Old Tea: A 1960s Aged Oolong
A chill in the air deafened the heat in NY the last three days. Thank goodness. My room was getting pretty muggy at night. It’s the signaling of the changing seasons and is a wonderful opportunity to try new teas or rediscover old ones.
So when Theresa Wong phoned me asking to join her for a tasting of an aged oolong, I grabbed my bag and darted off to TSHOP immediately. Teas like this are hard to come by in the Western world. A proper tea maker at the helm doing the brewing is even more sparse. It’s quite a rare thing to have aged oolongs. Especially since I was expecting 30 years of age at most, not 55 years.
The leaves are long and twisted. With 55 years of age, I was expecting the leaves to have a bit more crunch to them. However, they’re not brittle and are pretty pliable. Unless you took a whiff of it, you wouldn’t expect it to be aged, maybe highly roasted.
The smell is what really tips it off as a beautifully old specimen. The unmistakable hay and straw that appears in the initial dry leaf aroma is strong and potent. I set the leaves down before picking it back up (as one is compelled to do with rare teas). I was greeted by something different this time, something more characteristically medicinal but clean.
The first steeping was a deep red, more crimson than a nicely roasted Shui Tsien, but less murky brown than a similar vintage puerh. From the moment this tea hit my tongue, I began salivating. I think I know what my cat felt like when I open a can of the premium stuff she longs for. I could taste the roast, thick, and full-bodied. Although not as fragrant as a modern oolong, the star-like, twinkling and cloudy texture is something not reproducible without a definite aging.
From the second steeping forwards, my stomach was home to a gentle and warming candle. Certainly a warming tea, but the warmth from this was soothing, like a nice whiskey on a cold night. With the changing seasons, it was the perfect time to have this tea. Theresa confessed that it is this kind of weather that makes her yearn for aged oolongs. Warming for chilly nights but it primes the body to be comfortable on relatively hot days with cooling breezes. Which is great, especially after a summer that won’t quit shouting about how hot it is. This tea garners an attention to the seasons and makes my body aware of minute changes in the air.
Much of good aged teas, in my experience, share this innate quality of re-positioning the self to be in the moment. This 1960s Dong Ding centers and focuses the drinker to the present. And the tea itself has a longevity matched only by its years. It lasted for upwards of 20 infusions and had it not been for the couple showing up late in the afternoon, I’m sure Theresa and I would be having that tea from noon ‘til night.
Having this tea earlier in the summer though, may not have commanded such adoration. For those of us sitting on more tea than we can reasonably drink in a season, we might turn to more cooling, greener teas for hot weather. It’s a response to balance our bodies. Hot tea can have a warming sensation or cooling sensation, an idea that isn’t very widespread in the western world but makes a crucial difference in how the two spheres approach tea as a beverage.
But every now and then, it’s nice to listen refocus, re-position and listen wise words from an old tea singing with the wind.