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Currently, Wuyi Yancha, or rock tea, rock oolong, is gaining increasing popularity among tea lovers. However, despite its growing fame, there is still limited knowledge about a special type within this category, aged Yancha, among both many consumers and some tea professionals. Due to product scarcity in the market and misinformation, numerous misunderstandings arise, even leading to the extreme belief that Yancha is not suitable for aging. It is crucial for Yancha enthusiasts to delve into the world of aged Yancha to fully appreciate its richness of unique flavors and aromas, which only develop over time and under proper storage conditions. With greater understanding, one can truly enjoy the essence of aged Yancha.
1. Why age Yancha?
Aging is a natural process that occurs in all types of teas, although this transformation of flavors and aromas does not always lead the tea towards a pleasant outcome. For example, during aging, green tea loses its aroma, freshness, Umami, etc., which are precisely the characteristics we appreciate in green tea.
However, unlike green tea, Yancha is a type of tea that requires aging by nature, as it is not in its best condition when freshly produced. It is only after aging several weeks in the case of lightly toasted Yancha, and many months for others with medium or deeper toasting, when the smokiness and charcoal notes dissipate, that the depth of its flavors and aromas starts to emerge. After this initial aging phase, Yancha will continue the transformation, and under the proper storage conditions, the texture of the liquor will gradually soften and thicken, while the flavors develop greater complexity with intense and satisfying notes, although its aromas will go weakening.
Currently Aged Yancha is not very common in the market, so there is no official standard to define it now. In the industry, by custom, a Yancha that has exceeded the first three years stops being considered a “fresh tea” (新茶), becoming known as "mature tea" (陈茶) during the subsequent aging phase; and then starting from seven or eight years, it is referred to as "aged tea" (老茶).
2. Why is aged Yancha not very common in the market?
Although Yancha naturally requires some resting time in its freshly produced phase, and further aging can provide even more diverse flavors, aged Yancha is not commonly found in the market at present. The scarcity of this type of product has certain historical reasons.
Aged Yancha has always existed in the market, and connoisseurs have always appreciated it. However, the national standard published in 2002 (GB18745-2002 Wuyi rock-essence tea) stipulated that the expiration date should not exceed 18 months from the production date. Therefore, aged Yancha was considered expired tea. Later, this standard was updated in 2006 (GB/T18745-2006 Product of geographical indication - Wuyi rock-essence tea), nullifying the section on the expiration date, but without providing a clear definition. As a result, aged Yancha still lacked official recognition until the release of the latest standards in 2021: "T/CSTEA 00015-2021 Aged Wuyi rock-essence tea" and "T/CSTEA 00016-2021 Technical specification for aged Wuyi rock-essence tea storage".
Consequently, for two decades, selling Yancha of over 18 months was illegal; and naturally, there is little aged Yancha available in the market at present.
3. How and for how long can Yancha be aged?
According to scientific studies, Yancha can be conserved and consumed for the long term, but it depends on the previous production and the subsequent storage conditions. The species of the tea plant used in the particular tea processing also plays a role.
3.1. Durability of Yancha preservation.
On January 30, 2022, the Wuyi branch of the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) interpreted the standard of "GB/T18745-2006 Product of geographical indication - Wuyi rock-essence tea", particularly regarding the undefined part related to the expiration date. In this interpretation, the research results of Liu Zhonghua, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, were cited, indicating that aged Yancha does not produce harmful substances to human health. This officially confirmed once again that Yancha of proper toasting level can be conserved and consumed for the long term.
In accordance with the interpretation of the GB/T18745-2006 standard mentioned above, the administrative authority established the following:
✅ According to the traditional Yancha production technology and under the proper storage conditions, factories can independently decide the expiration date based on the toasting level of the products.
✅ Factories can inspect their products, for those that remain unaffected in quality after prolonged preservation, the expiration date can be indicated as long term.
However, the fact that factories can determine the expiration date on their own does not mean that all Yancha have an indefinite shelf life; companies remain responsible for the quality of their products. Likewise, the fact that aged Yancha does not generate harmful substances does not imply that each aged Yancha is delicious; it all depends on the initial quality before aging, the toasting level and the storage conditions.
3.2. Storage conditions for Yancha aging.
Again, in accordance with the provisions of GB/T18745-2006 regarding the storage conditions of Yancha: warehouses must meet requirements for ventilation, dryness, cleanliness, freshness, and avoid direct exposure to sunlight; it is strictly prohibited to store the tea together with toxic items, those with odors, those susceptible to insect infestation, those prone to contamination, and in a humid environment. Here is the interpretation of the instructions presented in an executable manner:
✅ The moisture content (≤5%) in the tea and pesticide residues must be below the corresponding standards at the time of storage.
✅ The warehouse should be clean, odor-free, with the temperature (≤30℃) and humidity (≤50%) controlled, avoiding mold and direct exposure to sunlight.
✅ The packaging should be airtight, made of non-toxic materials, odorless, and avoiding any type of contamination.
✅ The tea should not be stored mixed with non-tea products, and it should be kept separate from other types of tea.
However, the storage conditions mentioned above are industrial standards, which may be more complicated for ordinary consumers to implement. For short-term family preservation, simply follow the five principles: store in a dark, sealed, dry, cool, and odor-free environment.
3.3. Types of Yancha suitable for long-term aging.
Although aging is a natural process that occurs in any type of tea, the selection of Yancha for intentional aging involves various factors. Since aging an unsuitable one will not only be unlikely to result in a good aged Yancha, but it can also potentially worsen its quality and even risk deterioration.
Depending on toasting level.
Upon reanalyzing the expression in the interpretation of the standard GB/T18745-2006:
"According to the traditional Yancha production technology and under the proper storage conditions, factories can independently decide the expiration date based on the toasting level of the products."
for long-term preservation, in addition to complying with the required storage conditions, the toasting level is another crucial factor. The less toasted the tea is, the more moisture the leaves will contain, which hinders the preservation of Yancha. In lightly toasted Yancha, the "Fanqing" phenomenon (returning to green) may occur rapidly in several months, causing the tea to lose its aroma and good flavors, becoming bitter and astringent, and even at risk of mold in inappropriate storage conditions. Therefore, long-term preservation, equivalent to aging, is only allowed for Yancha of medium and higher toasting levels.
Depending on the quality of the tea.
It is recommended to age only high-quality Yancha, which contains abundant gustatory and olfactory substances, allowing it to undergo remarkable transformations during the aging process. On the other hand, it's not that low-quality Yancha cannot be stored long-term, but rather that it's not worth doing so. During aging process, any tea will experience changes in flavor and aroma, but it will never transform a bad tea into a good one. In other words, aging does not help improve the quality of tea.
Depending on the varietal of cultivar.
While in theory, almost all common varietals are suitable for aging, it is more common to age traditional varietals such as Da Hong Pao, Shui Xian, Tie Luo Han, etc., and less common to do so with new varietals. The underlying logic is that many new hybrid varietals are often highly fragrant species, and it is inevitable that Yancha weakens its aroma during aging, causing these teas to lose their most prominent characteristics and resulting in a less attractive tea when aged in comparison with their early years. However, this is not absolute; if a tea made from a non-traditional varietal is of high quality, it can still remain enchanting after proper aging process. A good example is the 2016 Huang Guan Yin offered by Xin An Chu, which has developed a typical style of good aged Yancha, rich in flavor, with a thick texture, and still effectively maintains some pleasant aromas. Although, undoubtedly, it ever had even more intense aromas when it was a fresh tea.
4. Is aged Yancha just a marketing gimmick?
Aged Yancha is not a novelty, as it has been present in the market for centuries. Even in the recent decades when it was considered an expired tea by the administrative authority, it was still being sold clandestinely. This demonstrates the demand for its distinctiveness in flavors and aromas. On the other hand, complying with the latest national standards, "aged Yancha does not produce harmful substances to human health." However, if it were merely a "non-toxic" tea without imparting excellent distinctive flavors, there would not be top-level scientists researching it, nor would it be necessary to modify various legal norms.
The misunderstanding that aged Yancha is simply a marketing strategy may have stemmed from two reasons. The disappearance of aged Yancha in the market for two decades has led to a great lack of awareness, so upon its resurgence, it is logical that many assume it is a recently created concept. Also, it could be attributed to the negative experiences of those opposing aged Yancha, as during the prohibited era, it was not uncommon for the quality to vary extremely due to the lack of regulation and the absence of instructions on aging conditions.
Throughout the aging process, Yancha undergoes a series of transformations. The gustatory and olfactory substances experience complex chemical changes, including oxidation and biological reactions, among others. These changes are directly reflected in the variations in aroma, flavor, color and texture of the liquor, and also result in a more complete and stable extraction in the infusions. In addition to the general changes mentioned in the first section, certain aromas that don't typically present in fresh Yancha, such as medicinal notes, woody nuances, and hints of plum, ginseng, etc., may also develop in products that have been aged under proper conditions for a sufficient period.
The perception of the difference generated by aging becomes evident when comparing two teas: the 2017 Lian Hua Feng Rou Gui and the 2022 Lian Hua Feng Rou Gui. Both teas come from the same plantation and have been processed in the same factory, with the only difference being the duration of the aging period.
The existence of aged Yancha is an ancient tradition based on its unique and pleasant flavor, supported by scientific foundations and current regulations. Over time, undoubtedly, we will witness a growing supply of high-quality aged Yancha teas in the market, providing pleasure to the palates of tea enthusiasts.
GB 18745-2002 武夷岩茶
GB 18745-2002 Wuyi rock-essence tea
GB/T 18745-2006 地理标志产品武夷岩茶
GB/T18745-2006 Product of geographical indication - Wuyi rock-essence tea
T/CSTEA 00015-2021 陈年武夷岩茶
T/CSTEA 00015-2021 Aged Wuyi rock-essence tea
T/CSTEA 00016-2021 陈年武夷岩茶储存技术规范
T/CSTEA 00016-2021 Technical specification for aged Wuyi rock-essence tea storage