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Tea lovers can debate all day about their particular tastes and preferences, but one thing that most tea drinkers will agree on is that there’s never enough room in the pantry for the vast tea selection that they’ve collected.
Now, the list of never-ending tea varieties to taste and adore has expanded with the growing popularity of aged tea. While Western food and drink connoisseurs have been aging things like wine, cheese, and liquor for centuries, the idea of aging tea is a relatively new concept. Although historical accounts attribute the production of aged teas to the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century, the most sought-after aged tea, pu’er from the Yunnan Province of China, didn’t see an expedited fermentation process until the second half of the 20th century.
What is Tea? What about Tisanes?
All teas come from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. And it's the processing, not the raw material, that determines the six types of teas: white tea, green tea, yellow tea, oolong, black tea, and dark tea (or fermented tea).
Many modern tea drinkers are surprised to hear this fact during our tea tastings. What about rooibos, yerba mate, chamomiles and other "teas"? They certainly look like they are from different plants. Indeed, they are from different plants. But they are technically tisanes, a French word for herbal infusion, not "tea.” The difference between tea vs. tisane is that simple! In fact, in Europe and many other countries, the word "tea" is legally regulated to only apply to Camellia sinensis.
Before diving further into a discussion of aged teas, it’s beneficial to understand a little more about these six types of teas derived from Camellia sinensis. While many different varieties of Camellia sinensis do exist, often leading to the unique variations that make tea-tasting so nuanced, the largest differences in teas are due to the way that tea leaves are processed.
Six types of teas from Camellia sinensis
1. White Tea
One could say that everything starts with white tea. White tea is harvested before the leaves and buds of Camellia sinensis are fully open, when the buds themselves are still coated with tiny white hairs. Afterward, there is little “manufacturing” necessary—the leaves and buds are withered and dried at low temperatures.
As the least processed tea, white tea has the highest levels of antioxidants from fresh tea leaves.
2. Green Tea
Green tea is an incredibly popular choice amongst both casual and more enthusiastic tea drinkers in the United States, likely due to numerous media outlets touting its health benefits. As green tea is immediately steamed in order to prevent oxidation, it contains high levels of antioxidants, polyphenols, and chlorophyll.
However, green tea leaves are picked when they are more mature, and they may be withered before steaming. During rolling and packing, the green tea leaves are subjected to repeated firing and little residual moisture, preventing the possibility of fermentation.
3. Yellow Tea
Yellow tea is a rarer variety of tea only recently gaining notoriety for its delectable mellow flavor and its numerous health benefits. While less common than other teas, the manufacturing process used to develop yellow tea is incredibly similar to the steps taken for green tea.
In addition to the processing steps used to make green tea, yellow tea undergoes “sealed yellowing,” which further increases oxidation and lessens the fresh, sometimes strong and astringent smell associated with green tea.
4. Oolong Tea
Oolong tea is both withered and rolled to promote oxidation. It makes sense that, visually, oolong is much darker than green tea—it’s the oxidation which is responsible for this change in color. However, oolong tea is only partially oxidized before drying, allowing some of its natural flavors to remain unchanged by processing. The precise level of oxidation allowed to occur is responsible for oolong’s flavor, which can vary widely.
In other words, oolong tea can be described as sitting somewhere between green tea and black tea on the spectrum of processing.
5. Black (Red) Tea
Black tea is the most consumed tea across the world; in the U.S., 86% of the tea enjoyed throughout 2017 was black tea. Whereas oolong tea undergoes only a short oxidation period after withering, black tea is allowed to oxidize entirely before it is dried. Otherwise, the steps taken to process oolong teas and black teas are nearly identical, though there are varying roasting techniques used to make oolong by tea makers.
6. Post-Fermented (Dark) Tea
Many assume that “dark” tea and “black” tea are the same, but there is actually a world of difference separating these two categories. It can be said that fermented teas, also called dark teas, have millions of little processing helpers. In fact, it is these microbial “helpers” which are responsible for the unique flavor of fermented teas.
Fermentation is sometimes stopped after only a few months, but some teas may benefit from years and years of microbial activity.
Actually, fermentation is the ideal way to transition from examining varying types of tea to learning more about what makes aged tea so special.
What’s in an Aged Tea?
Allowing tea to age can be considered just an additional processing step, added to the end of the manufacturing processes briefly discussed above. However, not all teas can be aged, somewhat narrowing the possibilities to only a select few varieties. Tea that can be aged well is usually:
- Of a fine enough quality to benefit from the aging process. A handful of years won’t magically turn the worst teas into prized, delicious varieties. Starting products are important; the same way that a terrible wine won’t improve with age, aging a low-quality tea will only result in a flavorless brew.
- In a stage of post-fermentation. Sound familiar? The microbes involved in fermentation are part of what makes aged tea so rich, nuanced, and unique. When these microscopic helpers have their way for years at a time, consumers are rewarded with flavors unlike anything from younger leaves.
- Protected from high-heat drying processes. More gently sun-dried teas tend to develop better while aging as high-heat drying processes bring out stronger but shorter-lasting flavors that disappear after a year or two. Carefully sun-dried white teas have higher aging potential for this reason.
Pu’er may be the most commonly-desired aged tea, but other types of teas can be enjoyed after aging, too. For example, it’s not hard to find aged tea of the following varieties:
1. Aged White Tea
Aging white tea imparts another dimension entirely to the delicate taste of unprocessed white teas. The Pearl White collection, for example, is an excellent introduction to aged white teas for those curious about comparing tasting notes. Despite the mild sweetness of white teas, their potential to age beautifully is greater than other teas that are dried with high heat.
2. Aged Green Tea
Raw pu’er isn’t exactly a green tea, but it does start out as one. More importantly, raw pu’er’s resemblance to green tea makes it an aged tea perfect for green tea aficionados. Our Jade Pu’er collection features young teas aged less than three years, meaning that they will more closely resemble green tea than mature varieties of raw pu’er.
3. Aged Oolong Tea
Oolong also tends to age well with periodic reroasting every few years, but this one is a bit trickier to discuss. The catch? Even experts aren’t exactly sure why oolong ages so nicely, and more research is needed to determine what sets oolong apart from other teas without aging potential. Aged oolong is also highly susceptible to the precise humidity and temperature storage conditions during the aging process.
4. Aged Post-Fermented Tea
Most of our aged tea collections fall under this category, precisely because fermentation is considered one of the most important processes responsible for making aged tea what it is (and because this is the category pu’er calls home). Pu’er is a great place to start for any tea drinker new to aged tea, precisely due to the number of types available straight from China’s Yunnan Province.
However, there’s more on the horizon for those who want to expand their tastes of aged and post-fermented teas beyond pu’er. Dark brick teas from the Hunan Province of China (like the Onyx Black collection) teleport tea drinkers back to a time when brick tea was actually used as currency in China, Mongolia, and Russia between the ninth and twentieth centuries. How’s that for value?
A Personalized Experience
Clearly, there’s still a lot to learn about aged tea, including the potential health benefits of pu’er. If you’re eager to join the movement and taste the difference for yourself, you’re probably already wondering where to buy aged tea or, more particularly, where to buy pu’er.
As a single-origin company specializing in aged teas, we’re eager to continue learning and experimenting to create the most delicious teas you’ve ever had the pleasure of sipping. The best way to start experiencing the complex, mellow flavors of these carefully considered teas is to try one of our curated sets or check out the collections we’ve mentioned throughout this discussion of aged tea.