Tuesday, May 07, 2019

The aged tea event at PSU

A tea box from Hong Kong from the 1930s
2 weeks ago, Teaparker and I returned a 6th time to Penn State in order to teach tea to a student organization created by Jason Cohen in 2010. After Oolong, Puerh, Chaozhou gongfu cha, Yixing teapots, Porcelain, this year's theme was Aged Teas.

The concept of 'aged tea' is actually rather new. For a long time, tea was considered best young and fresh. In the 1980s, very few people appreciated aged puerh or aged Oolong. Then, Teaparker recalls paying 40 USD for a red mark cake of puerh from the 1950s, which now costs well over 100,000 USD! This was just a little bit more expensive than good Taiwanese Dong Ding Oolong, but it was already much more than a new cake (1 or 2 USD at the time). This shows that the rare merchants and lovers of aged puerh already recognized the value these teas 40 years ago.
In recent years, tea auctions in Hong Kong and Shanghai have helped popularize aged puerh. Record prices make for great headlines and have grabbed the imagination of tea collectors all around Asia. A Song Pin Hao tong (= 7 cakes) from the 1920s set a record of 13.3 million HKD or 1.7 million USD! That's over 700 USD per gram (vs 41 USD for gold)!
A Qing dynasty pewter caddy for Da Hong Pao from Tian Xin
The craze for aged teas doesn't stop at puerh anymore. Oolongs, white teas, even green teas can age well under the right circumstances, as Teaparker demonstrated with a 40 years old Shi Feng Longjing green tea from his collection.
But not everything that is old is gold! The wine market is a good example: only very fine wines see the price of their past vintages increase consistently. Common, every day wines don't see their value or their price increase.
The main thing to understand is the value, the quality of the tea. What is the difference between a tea that is aged and valuable, and one that is old, past its prime?
This was probably the major benefit of attending this 4 days event: the tea students at PSU got the opportunity to smell and taste some marvelous aged teas. A 1950s red mark puerh, a scented Baozhong from the 1960s, a 1975 7542, a Wuyi Yan Cha from the 1980s, a Dong Ding Oolong from spring 1982, a TGY from 1990...
What are the common traits of all these well aged teas? They are very clean in terms of scents and appearance. The brew is shiny, not foggy. The dry scents are light.
The taste is pure, smooth and has a long aftertaste. It doesn't feel old, but exhales an energy that can be felt in your body.
This kind of aged tea is very different from an old, tired, flawed tea. It's a little bit like the difference when a professional pianist plays these versions of 'Twinkle, twinkle little star' and when a young child (that is not yours!) plays the same first notes. On the one hand you have art, perfection, beauty and on the other you have something very rough and uncomfortable for your ears!
For music, it's usually quite easy to tell which is art and which is beginner's level. For tea, this can be much more tricky, especially if the environment is beautiful, the people nice, the story well told... And if you have never had a great cup of aged tea! That's why it was important to let them experience good aged teas.
This education is extremely valuable for at least 2 reasons. First, it will prevent these students from making simple purchasing mistakes. The very high prices of aged tea have created lots of incentives to sellers to offer expensive teas that are fake or simply old and bad, or that exaggerate their age.
Second, it gives these tea drinkers a glimpse into the world of the most refined teas. I didn't see anybody not liking these teas. But, of course, how much one likes (and values) these teas is very personal and varies from one person to another. This is a good motivator to start your tea collection early, so that you don't have to your house in order to enjoy a 90 years old Song Pin Hao!
There are several strategies to build your own tea collection:
1. start small and experiment with different teas, jars to get a feel how different teas evolve with time.
2. choose young teas that have a good reputation and a good potential to age well. The best candidates are sheng gushu puerh and medium roasted Oolongs. When it comes to aging, quality is more important than quantity. 1 kg of roasted SiJiChun won't age as nicely as 100 gr of Hung Shui Oolong from Dong Ding or Alishan. Better age 1 excellent puerh cake than 1 tong of plantation puerh.
3. If, like me, you are much closer to 50 than 20 or 30, then you may also consider teas that are 10 to 20 years old and that show the right aging potential and reasonable prices. This 1999 7542 or this 1998 Hung Shui Oolong from Lishan would give you a good head start at a reasonable premium.
My own conclusion from this aged tea event is that aged teas don't taste old, but elegant and extremely smooth. They linger on the palate and their pleasure is both long lasting and very unique. The lesson is that their beauty has less to do with their age than with their intrinsic qualities. These teas don't become excellent by miracle, but because they had this potential in their leaves from the very beginning. Appreciating aged teas also helps us better define what is a good young tea.
Remember the perfection of these aged masterpieces and share your tea happiness!
Note: Looking again at these pictures, I get to see the concentration, interest and passion of these students. Even with more than 20 students at a time, they'd manage to focus all their attention on the subject of tea. This made teaching and learning so easy! Thanks to all who attended the classes.

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