A topic that surfaces regularly when I discuss tea with friends is the way we are forced to construct a shared vocabulary, and the difficulties that brings. Appreciation of tea is already an exceptionally-subjective activity – mixing in the experiential isolation and vast variation in breadth of experience that often exists between pu-aficionados in the West only serves to further impede meaningful dialogue.
One of the best examples of how this manifests is in discussions of aging and storage of (primarily) sheng pu’er. One person’s “very-humid” is another’s golden mean, and your “delicious semi-aged” may be another’s “call-me-in-ten-years”.
The subject of what constitutes “wet” or “dry” storage has been covered extensively by those far-better-qualified than me to talk about tea, so I’ll simply say that I reserve “wet” to describe teas that have undergone accelerated moist storage (competent or otherwise, though the term “wet” carries negative connotations in China and “traditionally-stored” is preferred for competently-stored teas) and subdivide “dry” into the intensities “humid”, “moderate” and “very-dry” as follows (although temperature may prove to be as pivotal a variable as humidity).
Speaking purely as a matter of personal opinion:
- a humid production is one in which the storage imparts a clear non-cohesive element to the character of the tea. Mr Yang (of YQH)’s storage straddles the line between moderate and humid, imho (which is a very happy place for me).
- a moderately-stored production is one in which the storage intensity has been sufficient to transition a tea to initial maturity in 15-or-so years, where storage is detectable but forms a relatively-cohesive part of the tea’s character. The 2004 Xiaguan 8653-3+1 from GB4 is a good example of this, as is the (less-intensely-stored) 2007 Yexiangwang Naka from GB1.
- a very-dry-stored production is one on which ~15 years is insufficient to bring a tea to initial maturity, where preservation of a tea’s inherent character while time acts on the greener elements is the primary goal. Many Kunming-stored teas I’ve had would fall under this umbrella. If you need a touchstone for how slowly a tea can mature under conservative storage conditions, order any ~10yo sheng from Awazon Tea.
These labels are complicated by the fact that different productions will require more/less aging to reach various stages of maturity – teas may be produced differently so as to peak earlier or later, so even in the same storage two teas may possess dissimilar maturity– but I find it a good place to start when dealing with ’00s teas. But what is maturity?
Whatever the chemical and biological processes underlying the life of a tea, the process of maturation seems to be characterised by the loss of green or overly-youthful flavours only found in younger tea, the transformation of inherent flavours and development of age/storage-related flavours never found in young teas, and (in the presence of the holy trinity of quality material, adept processing and careful storage), a gradual transition toward a combination of the most-desirable aged traits which collectively form 陳韻 (chén yùn, or “aged charm”).
There is no consensus standard for definitions relating to maturity, at least in the West, but the following categories comprise the most coherent framework I’ve been able to come up with.
Tea which is enjoyable, characterised primarily by greener, youthful, floral, bright, fresh-fruit, and aromatic characteristics, of a similar profile to a green tea or fresh unroasted oolong. As a very rough guide, this period may persist from 6-12 months after pressing to 3-5 years of age. Some people differentiate between young and absolutely-fresh sheng (0-12 months, say), but that distinction lies beyond my ken.
Adolescence, aka “Awkward-Stage” Tea:
Tea which has begun to lose its positive youthful characteristics, but still possesses enough negative ones to mar enjoyment as a semi-aged tea, or has not developed sufficiently (in terms of acquisition of pleasant storage character, transformation of inherent flavours, settling of unpleasant astringency/acidity) to be enjoyed as a cohesive semi-aged tea.
(Initial) Maturity, aka “Middle-Aged” or “Semi-Aged” Tea:
Tea which has lost the youthful characteristics that are at odds with its newly-developed profile, has developed some notes typical of mature teas such as woods, incense, leather, stone, earth, or dried fruits, and is thus “ready to drink”, but presentation may still be bright. Significant further development is likely for quality teas. Some teas reach this stage yet lack the “potency” or strength of character to warrant further development.
Full Maturity, aka “Aged” Tea
Tea which has lost all youthful traits and is characterised by those desirable qualities exclusive to older teas. Collectively, these qualities may be called 陳韻 (chén yùn) or 陳香 (chén xiāng), a label which encompasses matured expression of a tea’s 樟香 (zhāng xiāng, the presence of camphorous aroma), as well as a medicinal or “TCM” character in many cases, elements of mouthfeel, and other tactile-sensual physical effects not easily described with words. I’ll leave deeper enumeration of these characteristics to teafriends with sufficient experience, but as such a friend aptly puts is “all things considered, the tea must be highly pleasurable and the effects to one’s body must be restorative. Tea, after all, is strong medicine.”
Further discussion of aged tea may be found in this article, which is taken from Taiwanese tea industry publication “The Art of Tea”.
As to why the definition of these stages is important, the labels “semi-aged” and “aged” are often applied to teas that have reached a certain nominal age (say, 10-15 and 20 years respectively), without regard for how mature they are, and to my mind that is the property of primary interest. If a tea is over ten years old but so immature as to drink like many three- to five-year-old teas, what does it mean to call it “middle-aged”? By describing teas according to their level of development by carefully considering explicit qualities, the description becomes that much more meaningful to the audience (though it is true that there is still a great deal of subjectivity to the assertion that a tea is or is-not enjoyable as a cohesive experience).
With so many geographically-isolated drinkers and small communities of pu’er fans, there will always be variance in how maturity is discussed, but it is my hope that the most logical and meaningful attempts at categorisation will take hold, and this is mine. If anyone feels that it could be improved, I’d love to hear from you, and will happily
steal adopt suggestions, as I have from an anonymous teafriend, without whose kind help the finer points of aged teas would be missing from this article.