What is time to a roast? Tasting time with roasted oolongs

Intro

“This tea is well rested and ready to drink.” Raise your cup and take a drink if you’ve heard that while tea shopping. Two drinks if you’ve thought, “Wait, tea gets sleepy?”

Ok, that second thing might just be me. Coming from a Japanese tea background, the idea of roasting a tea and then letting it sit around was foreign to me until last year. Since then, I’ve tried a number of roasted teas, but had yet to grasp concretely what a “rested” roast offered over a fresh one.

Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to find roasted teas from the same garden produced in different years. This minimizes the variance between teas, leaving the age of the roast (and underlying tea) as the key factor in differing taste profiles.

While I eventually would like to take the deep dive into the chemistry behind how roasts change over time (a quick search in English reveals nothing on the topic!), let’s begin simply – with a blind tasting.

To compare the effect roast age has on tea, I’ll be blind tasting two roasted oolong teas simultaneously. The teas are the 2017 and 2018 Qi Lan from Old Ways Tea.

I’ve designed this page so that you can follow along step-by-step with my tasting notes (represented graphically) and make your own conclusions about which tea is which. Certainly nothing beats trying and tasting for yourself, but I’d like to think this is the next best thing!

Meet the Teas

Before conducting the blind tasting, I inspect the dry leaves. Is there a difference in the appearance of the teas? Is the scent of the roast stronger in the 2018 or 2017 tea?

Most noticeably, the 2018 tea appears more intact. It contains mostly full leaf pieces, whereas the 2017 has more leaf fragments. This could have been due to a processing issue, or it may simply be an effect of an extra year’s bumps and bruises.

The colors are indistinguishable. Each seems to contain roughly the same small amount of huangpian – older, rougher, yellow leaves. 

So far, these seem like the same tea. But the nose knows – the 2017 alternates with aromas of berries and a sweet roasty scent. The charcoal roast scent is predominant in the 2018, and it lacks the sweetness in the 2017. The scent of berries is pushed to the background.

The scents are the hint – a year seems to take the scorch out of the aroma, letting the underlying character of the tea itself come through. Now to see if this hint holds true through a blind tasting.

The Test

I’ve designed this page so that you can follow along with the tasting using pictures and graphics to represent aspects of each tea. Some graphics have extra information in a drop down box underneath. You’ll have to trust my judgement when it comes to relaying this information correctly. But even with that caveat, I hope there’s enough information that you can form your own opinion.

The parameters for this tasting were:

– 2.5g of each tea in an identical 100ml porcelain tasting set. The tasting sets were marked on the bottom with the name of the tea, and the tea was placed into the corresponding set. These sets were blindly mixed and filled with water, and then marked with a letter on top. The tea liquor was poured out into a cup marked with the same letter.

– each tea steeped six minutes in 98C reverse osmosis water with pink rock salt added (TDS of 61 ppm)

The objective is to decide which tea is the 2017, and which is the 2018.  My guesses and the answers are in a couple of drop down boxes near the bottom of this page.

LIQUOR

A

oolong roast comparison A liquor

 Scent from the liquor is the roast.

B

oolong roast comparison B liquor

One shade darker than A. Also a roast scent here.

AROMA

A

roast charcoal raspberry cinnamon aroma

Light roast/charcoal aroma hits first. Progresses to a raspberry/cinnamon spice aroma that lingers long into the aftertaste. This fruit aroma is more distinct than in B.

B

charcoal_green_wood_raspberries_aroma

Much stronger flavor up front. Roast, coffee-like punch and roundness. Tingling on tongue like a dry spice, and then a hint of dry fruit hidden under a green wood aroma. Aftertaste is more green wood.

FLAVOR

A

sour then sweet

Tinge of sourness at first, but less upfront, less strong than in B. Sweetness is more rounded.

B

sour then sweet

Hints of sourness. Some sweetness returns in the aftertaste.

TEXTURE

A

dry cooling texture

Drying and heavy in the throat. Cooling aftertaste.

B

sappy dry texture

Green and sappy. Ends with drying and heaviness in the throat.

BODY

A

medium body

B

medium full body

BALANCE

A

Well-balanced.

B

Balance here shifts towards that green sappy aroma, overwhelming some other elements.

The Reveal

Spoiler alert! Don’t click the buttons below until you have finalized your guesses about which tea is which.

A – 2017.  Has a good balance between fruit and spice flavors with a pleasant amount of sweetness. Although the roast scent is there, it has submerged and allowed these other flavors to rise to the surface.

B – 2018. There’s a fresh green wood bite not at all present in A. As the tea cools, this aroma becomes dominant and begins to overpower even the coffee-like roast scent. Less well balanced than A, overly dependent on the roast.

A – 2017

B – 2018

Conclusion

Unlike last month’s tasting, I found these two teas rather easy to differentiate.

Tea B, the 2018, was overwhelmed by the roast in comparison to the much better balanced tea A, the 2017. Interestingly, the 2018 tea showed hints of the aromas of the 2017, but only when it was hot. As the 2018 cooled, these finer aromas dissipated. Only the punchy roast aromas remained (and I’m assuming that green sappy wood aroma comes from the roast). In contrast, even after the 2017 had cooled the fruity/spice aromas remained in the cup.

For someone like me who prefers complexity of aroma to strength in tea, the message is clear – let the roasted teas sleep. If your preferences are of the opposite sort, wake up those young teas with some boiling water!

The spent leaves from the two teas appear similar.

Addendum - What is more time to a roast?

 While this tasting answered one simple question concerning time – How does a year affect a roasted tea? – it leaves many more unanswered:
 
How does more time change a roasted tea? Does the scent of the roast ever disappear completely? At what point does the complexity of the tea degrade, rather than improve over time? How do the storage conditions affect the aging process? and my favorite, What are the chemical changes, if any, occurring in the leaf as it ages?
 
I hope to pursue these questions and more in future tastings (although the last question would be hard to answer without lab equipment). Have you performed your own experiments with roasted teas? If so, what did you learn? Feel free to share in the comments section.

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