A (not so) recent question by David asked me what attributes to look for in a tea (pu-erh) so that it will improve as it ages. I focus on pu-erh, because it may be too difficult for consumers to take proper care of oolong over a long period of time (as it requires regular roasting).
One important answer David knew already: bad young tea will become bad old tea.
There are three other questions one should ask:
1. How good you want the tea to become?
The higher your future expectations, the higher the quality of the original leaves you'll need to get there. If you like old pu-er in general and even cooked pu-er, then you may not need to go after the best quality.
2. How long are you willing to wait?
Aging pu-er takes time, lots of time. In Taiwan, the tropical heat and humidity during summer gives aging a natural boost. Even so, the serious merchants in Taipei often wait 15 years until the tea has reached sufficient maturity before selling those teas. The longer you are willing (and able) to wait, the more it makes sense to age pu-erh yourself, as prices rise exponentially over time. Buying very young for the very long term is the riskiest strategy as it's most difficult to tell how a pu erh ages when it's very young. An alternative strategy, suited if you aim at very old, is to purchase compressed pu-er (loose leaves don't age so old) when it's already 10 to 15 years old and still reasonably affordable. My Menghai district Fang Cha Zhuan of 1990 (wrapped 3 bricks at a time) falls into this category.
3. Do you have a proper storage environment?
It should be a clean and without bad or strong odors. High temperature and natural humidity are good. And best is to store more than just a cake or 2, so that you build a critical mass that creates its own smell barrier. Best is to purchase a qizi bing (7 cakes in their original bamboo wrapper).
I was reflecting on what attributes the pu-erh should have while sipping from my cup on the left last Sunday. Teaparker brought an unopened 30+ year pu-erh to celebrate the Chinese Lamp Festival. We first brewed it in our Cha Ren Ya Xin zhuni teapot, but didn't use sufficient leaves. This one needs to be concentrated like an expresso. A second try with more leaves in a gaibei gave much better results. Very smooth and dry. There was the earthy smell, but also like an absence of smell similar to sharks' fin. Like a cloud. It must have been one of the oldest pu-ers I've had so far.
What attributes to look for:
1. You may remember the 3 techniques to dry pu-erh leaves:
- Under the sun: this is the standard traditional technique. Such pu-erh has then the best potential to age well if the drying was well done.
- Frying the leaves on a big wok: this gives the leaves a smoky smell. This smell will gradually disappear over time. While not as good as the sun, for aging it shouldn't have such a big impact.
- Baking the leaves in an oven. This technique doesn't give the pu-er the smoky smell, but it destroys some of its aging properties. It makes for a very fragrant young pu-er, but this kind of pu-er will not improve, just decline over time, like lightly fermented oolong. To recognize such pu-erh, watch for a more reddish brew.
2. A normal ratio of white tips:
There is a fad in the current marketplace to sell very fragrant (baked) pu-erh. Because of this, some are even producing pu-ers with white tips only or a very large numbers of white tips. This is especially typical of plantation pu-er, since their leaves are regularly harvested in their young stage. I have also seen some cakes with pu-er flowers on top of them. The problem is that such leaves contain too much water and this creates acidity over time.
3. Strong, wild leaves have the best potential
The ratio of white tips for wild pu-er should be lower than for plantation pu-er. But they should not have disappeared completely either, otherwise it may be that the cake is made up of only old leaves. The very best pu-erh I have encountered are wild. They have the strength and potential for the longest and best aging. And if you like them young, then you should love them as they grow old.
Here is one of my best young raw wild puerh. The picture is from last year, but it gives you an idea what it should look like in terms of white tips or sharpness of the veins.