Opinion | Zen and tasting time with aged tea
Smoked in bamboo barrels or pressed and fermented, these teas qualify for a mid-morning meditation ritual
Tea, like most foods, has a shelf life. Yet, some are prized for their age. Connoisseurs sometimes choose to “rest" a tea for weeks or months, to allow the flavours to develop. But aged tea? That’s a world unto itself, as I found out.
One plausible story links the origins of aged tea to the time tea was transported on animal back to far corners of China and beyond. For ease of carrying, the tea leaves were compressed into bricks. The tea would ferment and age during the journey. The resulting flavour was very well received, becoming the tea of choice.
It’s the exquisite fermented pu-erh tea that popularized aged teas in modern times, giving rise to a collector’s market for vintage tea, not unlike aged wine or whisky.
However, not all pu-erh is aged, and not all aged teas are pu-erh. In India, we have the uber smoky falap, a tea made by the Singpho in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. It is made from wild tea leaves that are pan-fried and sun-dried before being stuffed tightly into bamboo tubes. These are then placed above the stove and allowed to age. This increases its shelf life, says Upamanyu Borkakoty, who works with niche tea farmers for his brand, The Tea Leaf Theory. Falap, he adds, is best enjoyed after it’s aged. While Borkakoty chooses four-year-old falap for his company, he has come across falap as old as 10 years.
When you think of tea as an aromatic energizing beverage, old sounds odd. In Bengaluru, Susmit Pratik, an aged-tea connoisseur, makes pu-erh-style Indian tea for his store, Ketlee. Says Pratik: “When you age tea, it mellows it down. It gets sweeter with time and the bitterness reduces." Pratik chooses teas made from mature plants and experiments with a variety (blacks, whites, oolongs) from different harvest seasons.
He sends some for me to try. These are not fully aged yet, which means their true character will emerge three-four years later. I try the year-old first flush black tea and instead of a souring staleness, I get a surprising sweetness. “Ageing balances the astringency and sweetness," says Pratik. The sheng cake, a tea that has been prepped and pressed into a cake form for ageing, feels dry but breaks easily. Pratik recommends the gongfu style of steeping—multiple infusions in short steeps in a gaiwan (essentially a cup with a lid that also doubles up as a strainer). The sheng cake lasts for six infusions, flavours unravelling with each.
Can you attempt to age tea at home? The method—of pressing, steaming, sun-drying, storing, airing—seems both absorbing and tedious. However, the process of steeping, pouring, reflecting with all your senses focused on a single thing, is Zen in practice.
Pu-erh-style aged teas and locally-made gaiwan are available on Ketlee.in. Bamboo-aged, smoky falap is available on Tealeaftheory.com.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.