Sunday, August 24, 2008

Perspectives on Storing and Aging Pu'er Teas (ii)

by CORAX & Co.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Not too long ago we posted the first instalment in this series on storing and aging pu'er teas. Today we add a second chapter to that discussion. I remind our readers that the whole topic arose in response to a provocative article by Jinghong Zhang on storing pu'er tea (which itself included a link to an earlier piece by the same author). Today's instalment offers the musings of two of our most esteemed pu'er aficionados. Once again, as always, your comments and queries are most welcome.

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Danny SAMARKAND, eminent tea authority and one of the founding contributors to CHA DAO, offers the following very practical observations:

When I was first approached to contribute my two-cent worth on the topic of storage for puer, my first reaction was "Nooooo, this is too complicated a topic to even hold a decent discussion on!" A week later as I sit down to cook up something to waste blog space with, my sentiments still echo the initial response. It is difficult to write conclusively on the storage of puer, simply because this concept of 'storage' is a recent one, and anyone who writes about it is likely to include a fair amount of expostulation and guesswork.

Before the Taiwanese discovered the joy of puer and introduced it to the rest of the world, most puer was imported into Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and exported from these places to other countries in south-east Asia. Back then, 'storage' as a term was not commonly in use. Most likely it was the Taiwanese who introduced this term to indicate that these puer were kept in warehouses in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

In Chinese, 'storage' can be translated as 入倉 ('to go into storage'), and in both Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the majority of the puer are stored in temperature- and humidity-controlled warehouses. And since puer are mostly stored in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the term 'storage' was a specific term used for puer that were kept in poorly-controlled warehouses. When the Taiwanese discovered the charm of puer and introduced it to the rest of the world, they created new terms for puer, and we find terms such as 'dry storage'(乾倉), 'wet storage'(濕倉), 'home storage'(家庭倉), and the baffling 'never in storage'(未入倉)-- which I find oxymoronic, since nearly nobody drinks up all the puer the day it is brought home, but keeps it aside, whether for ageing pleasure or for investment: and that, even in loose definition, is storage.

Most of us who have purchased puer over the years will have stored them in our homes. Many vendors, puer authorities, and tea masters have come up with their own set of guidelines to storing puer, and since puer has heated up the tea market, there must be at least a dozen sets of guidelines, all to varying degrees of similarity. When we visit a teashop in China or Hong Kong to buy some puer, or mail-order one from these countries, we sometimes ask the sellers how best to keep the tea, and the sellers spell out a litany of do's and don'ts. What we often miss out is that these sellers are telling us their experience in their own natural habitat, which will be very different from Miami or Milan in terms of the temperature and humidity. So do we take their words like a pot of gold? Perhaps, but also throw in a pinch of salt, as that might save your tea. While it is important to heed the advice these sellers offer, it is also important to know the type of tea you have: its ageing potential if it is a sheng, and its mellowing potential if it is a cooked. It is also vital that you know the geographical climate in your own neck of the woods.

So, the basics. Firstly, know your tea. Is the puer shu (cooked) or sheng (raw)? If it is cooked, how thoroughly cooked is it -- does it smell damp or like a fish tank? If it is raw, does it also smell damp -- or like the forest air, or sencha? The microbial (or fungal) activities in shu and sheng puer are different, so they should never be in the same basket -- ideally they should not be in the same location, but in a home, one might not have that many rooms to store them separately; so as much as possible, keep them apart. If the tea smells damp or moist to the touch, it might just be freshly out of the factory or kept in a humid area, airing the tea naturally for a couple of days in a cool dry place away from direct sunlight might rid it of the dampness, after which the tea can be returned to its storing place.

Then there is the location. Is the storage area warmer or cooler than the rest of the space in the house? Is there any ventilation? Is the humidity level high or low? Is the location in the line of direct sunlight? Is there food or other strong-smelling items nearby? Most directions for storage on packages of tea picked up at the supermarkets will tell us to keep them in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight, and this is what we should apply to puer as well, including the unwritten tag 'away from strong smelling items,' because tea is a strong absorbent of moisture and smell, and you don't want your precious YiWu puer tasting like garlic or the leftover rack of lamb.

Tea as a plant loves moisture and sunlight, but tea as a product should stay away from these elements. Keep the humidity and temperature in the storage low -- I always believe that if you can stay in there for several hours without sweating a bucket or feeling parched dry, your collection of puer will age rather nicely there too. But as we know, keeping the temperature and humidity level low is relative. To a south-east Asian, 68° Fahrenheit and 60% humidity would be low, but to someone living in Montreal, that is on the high side. Someone has stated that puer should be kept at a humidity level of 60-68%, with a temperature level between 68 and 83° Fahrenheit. To me this seems a workable gauge for storing my tea.

One last point I would like to mention, is that putting puer into storage does not mean forgetting about the tea. Ironically, the famous Red Label was a tea that was chucked in a corner and forgotten, till a chance discovery brought it into the limelight, but I can't say the same for all the puer in storage. The puer craze has stirred up a lot of mass and quick production of the tea, and some of these may not be sufficiently processed or dried before exporting out of the factories. Go through the puer stash once every six months or so to see how each tea is ageing, check for dampness and specks of mold -- any visible mold should raise some health concern, be it white, grey, or yellow. Yellow mold (believed to be eurotium fungi; its functions on puer and fuzhuang [茯磚] is still under study) may be a sign of dampness in the tea which should be dried out and dusted off -- I know I would, as I would if I found any mold on my puer.

I believe the enjoyment of tea should be simple, and would love nothing more to keep it as basic as possible: keep the cooked and the sheng separate, keep the teas in a cool dry place with moderate ventilation, and keep a close eye on the temperature and humidity. Perhaps in ten years' time I may come to regret my own guidelines, but so far in the five years I have keeping puer, they seem to promise me great fun in my golden years.

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MARSHALN, master of the renowned Tea Addict's Journal, has penned the following thoughtful observations:

I think any discussion on tea storage should start with one simple question: why are you storing the tea?

As Toki has already pointed out, there are basically two reasons -- one is because you can't consume something in due time, the other is because you want to leave it around so that something will change, and that over time, it will turn into something else, hopefully for the better.

Since we're talking about puerh, I am going to guess that almost everybody is buying tea to store intentionally -- i.e., you don't just happen to have too much of it.

Then we run into a little more confusion, which requires an answer from the person doing the storing: what is the preferred outcome? Is it to mellow the tea a bit, taking some of the edge off? Is it to change the taste significantly in ways that are hardly imaginable early on? Is it to keep the original fragrance and aromas?

I think if the answer is the last -- to keep its original aroma and fragrance as much as possible, then I'd recommend sealing the teas in nitrogen-flushed foil bags, out of sunlight and any source of heat, and only to be opened when ready to be consumed. I gave that answer first, because that's the most straightforward one. End of discussion.

If the point is to change the taste of the tea, hopefully for the better, then one is confronted by a variety of choices, not all of which are available to any individual in a given locale. It is agreed that long-term exposure to air and possibly micro-organisms in the air will alter the taste of puerh over the long run. How this process takes place exactly, nobody seems to be sure of (if it's common knowledge, then we'd all know exactly how to store teas perfectly).

I think the common classifications of "wet" and "dry" storage should be useful here, but here is where the English nomenclature for such things has generally failed us: the most useful Chinese term for this should be whether something has "entered storage" (ricang) or not in its lifetime. Not just any storage -- wet, damp, high humidity/temperature storage units that were probably developed in Hong Kong and now exported to places like Guangzhou and Taiwan.

Whether or not something has entered such storage should actually be fairly obvious to the seasoned drinker -- if you've tried a wide variety of, say, 10 years old puerhs, chances are you've at least come across some that were "wet stored" at some point or another. The liquor for such teas tend to be dark, the leaves brown, the smell slightly musty. None of these, on their own, are good indications of storage condition, and exactly what kind of "brown" or "dark" constitutes evidence of wet storage takes some experience to learn.

It is important to keep in mind that having been "wet stored" doesn't mean that it was in such a storage condition for the duration of its life, whether that's 5, 10, or 30 years. In fact, from what I understand, usually they only go into such spaces for maybe two years at most. After that there should be a period of "reducing/receding storage (flavour)" that entails putting the tea in a dry, aired space that is neither too humid nor too hot. The tea should, properly speaking, spend a good deal more time in such units than in the wet storage unit before it is considered done.

Now, wet-storage condition is hardly something that we can easily achieve at home, but I'd say that the vast majority of older (20+ years) puerhs have been wet-stored at some point or another -- i.e. it went through such storage units. A very small minority, such as the 88 Qing from Best Tea House in Hong Kong, have not, and those are sought after by collectors NOT necessarily because it is better (in my opinion the tea is currently extremely overpriced) but because of its rarity and also because of the rather mistaken belief that wet-stored teas are bad for you. Sorry, but if it's that bad, most people in Hong Kong would die rather quickly. In fact, the city boasts the world's 6th highest life expectancy.

So, storing at home necessarily means that we're dry-storing a tea, but if you prefer the wetter-stored taste, it might be advisable to buy teas that have been through a bit of wet storage first before sending it to your tea closet at home -- there are things like that on sale online, I believe.

I still haven't talked about the difference between wet and dry storage, in terms of taste. I think the simplest way of describing it, based on my meager experience of drinking such things, is that wet-stored tea will be a little musty, with notes that one could characterize as earthy, mellow, and sweet. Dry-stored tea of sufficient age can also be sweet and mellow, but instead of musty, they'll be a little more fragrant with more "high" notes, sometimes a little tart, with fruity notes emerging and also possibly a longer aftertaste. Your mileage, of course, may vary depending on the tea and storage condition.

I think there isn't much to say about dry-storing teas at home -- there's ample discussion on this already. Store it in a dry-ish (but IMHO, not too dry), room temperature space away from light and odd smells. Store teas together. I personally do not think that it is necessary to store them in well-ventilated areas. In fact, I think that's actually a rather dangerous thing to do -- if your air is too wet, your cake can quickly accumulate moisture and mould. If it's too dry, your cake can be rather nasty in a few years' time. Tucking them away in a box or two is probably the easiest thing to do. Exact conditions are always going to vary, and supposed experts on the subject all have different ideas of what's good and what's not, so I don't think it's easy to say what's best.

There's of course the million-dollar question of: so what SHOULD one store? What kind of cake should go into storage in the first place? The very short answer is: I have no clue, and neither does anybody else, from what I can tell. When all the experts differ on exactly what makes a great tea for storage, that means that nobody is really certain, and it's all a bit of a game of luck. Old tree/young tree, blended/single mountain, whole-leaf/chopped, machine-pressed/hand-pressed, spring/fall, the list goes on. There's something for everyone out there, and if you want to hedge your bets, you can always try the shotgun method of having some of everything.

However, there is one thing that is very often overlooked that I think should be kept in mind -- in all my discussions with people who know something about puerh, there is one thing that has basically universal agreement -- that the great teas of today, such as the Red Label, Blue Label, Yellow Label, etc, were all NASTY teas when very young. Positively nasty, some would say. Sour, bitter, astringent ... everything to make you want to put it down instead of drinking it. Some take this to mean that only nasty teas will age well in the future. That may be so, but it does not necessarily follow. What it does tell us, however, is that young teas that are very nasty right now MAY age into greatness. If you bought a cake that's sour, bitter, and astringent, don't throw it away (or burn it, as some have done), but stick it in the box with all your other teas. It could end up being the one that you like the best 20 years down the road.


~ Phyll said...

All excellent points, sirs! Thank you very much.

From the perspective of an individual drinker (not a seller), there is perhaps one point that hasn't been discussed: our own age, as mortal men. The "When," so to speak. Or to put it in a question form: "When do you want to drink it?"

[The "what, why, who, where and how" have already been discussed in part 1 and 2]

Young people in their 20's or even 30's should not be concerned with a collection of young pu'er teas. They would expect, with luck, that they will still be around to enjoy their collection for many decades down the line (or is it "up the line"?).

However, suppose that I'm a middle-aged person (50-60) and would like to be able to consume my collection of rather young and supposedly GREAT pu'er in say, 5 - 10 years from now before I go kaput (doesn't give a hoot about handing tea down to ungrateful children).

The goal, of course, is to be able to consume the teas in question when they've become sufficiently mature.

Logically speaking, I should consider tweaking the storage condition through higher temperature and humidity levels to promote a faster aging process but perhaps stopping short of the levels for a wet-storage condition, right?

[Even more logical, perhaps, is to buy and drink already-aged teas, but that is beside the point here]

Any other factor(s) that helps promote a faster aging process beside temperature and humidity levels? Does anyone in this esteemed group of tea aficionados have any comment on the question of "When"?

The topic of pu'er storage and aging is anything but simple...

Thank you, as always.

~ Phyll

corax said...

[EDITOR'S NOTE: here is danny's response to phyll.]

Hi Phyll, thank you for your comment. I'd like to reply to your comment that the "When" is not raised often in discussion on puer storage. The "When" is intrinsically linked with the "What, Where, How and Why", not spoken, but it is always hovering in the shadow...

What kind of puer you are looking for, how is the puer processed, where is the puer stored, and why are you buying that piece of puer, define When you want to drink it.

If you buy a cooked puer, you can drink it now. If you buy a brassy, harsh on the tongue raw puer, you will have to chuck it side and let it age before you can return to it and see how it ages. If the puer is stored in Hong Kong in a humidity and temperature controlled warehouse to speed up its ageing, you can drink it now, if has been kept in Kunming or an arid place, you'll have to age it for some time before you can drink it. If the puer was processed in the manner of a green tea using a higher heat to dry the tea, its ageing potential may be decreased and you'll probably want to drink it within five years, but if it dried nicely with warm heat, it'll probably retain its ageing potential and you can age it further. If the processing methods are correct, a puer using more plantation leaves might need a longer period to mellow than one using leaves from old arbors or wild grown ... (ever read of comments from tea experts that "this tea is harsh now, but it will get better in 10 years' time"? Or wonder the reason why 80s Menghai factory puer are tasty only now? - most of them were plantation leaves ... and it is from these puers that old tea lovers concluded that puer must be aged for a long time before it becomes mellow and nice!)

If you wish to have a puer that is really enjoyable now, and will probably turn much better in a couple of years' time, puer made from old arbors in disused old plantations or wild grown leaves might be what you should target on. Leaves from these trees 'age' faster than those from cultivated plantations. Another type of puer you might wish to look at is one which has undergone a slight fermentation prior to processing. Bottom line, you have to know your tea.

Several of puer from Chang Tai in 2004-2005 have undergone slight pre-processing fermentation; the tea was young back then, but the liquor was rich orange with hint of age. Curiously as the tea ages, the colour cut back into gold but the flavours were increasingly improving. You might want to hunt for some of these, but they are not cheap. Puer between 2006-2007 has seen a massive and messy market, with factories cashing in on the tea and quality production flung out of the window. My caution is to buy less puer from these years unless you have sampled and really like it. Most puer from this period has also used plantation leaves, so the ageing potential might well be a long term investment.

While it seems practical to speed age your puer at home, the variables involved might not worth your time and effort, not to mention that there will be puer casualties.

All the best,

~ Phyll said...

Hello Danny,

My utmost thanks for your time to provide a thoughtful response to my rather hastily written comment / inquiry.

You said: "Several of puer from Chang Tai in 2004-2005 have undergone slight pre-processing fermentation;"

[Edited by Phyll]: Does this apply to some pu'er in Chang Tai product line only, or also with the Yi Chang Hao product line? Any specific ones you know of? I'm curious.

I think my comment was based on common sense for wine buying and storing: we have to shape our buying decisions by factoring how old we are. One does not live forever, and so if a person of [advanced] age expects to enjoy, say, the recently acquired 2005 top vintage Bordeaux in his/her lifetime, these wines better be stored in a warmer cellar in order to encourage a more rapid aging, as opposed to the traditionally recommended 50-55'F average.

Then again, wine storage seems to be a much less complex issue than proper pu'er storage.

Thank you again.


Danny said...

Hi Phyll,

I'm not familiar with wine and its storage, from the little that I know, once the wine is bottled, it essentially does not age anymore - for most wines, that is. When you mention storing wine in a cellar on higher temperature than the usual recommendation, is this done by the cellar owners themselves?

Humidity and temperature are two crucial factors to puer ageing, if you wish to speed age your collection, these would be the two factors you might want to experiment on. My guess (GUESS!) is that if you raise the humidity level to 80 with a temperature between 86-90'F, you will probably get to speed age puer.

Rereading the previous reply, I realize I have failed to mention two crucial points: one, you have to consider the pressing method of the puer. There are vendors who speed age puer by themselves and sell these off as aged puer. What happened when they speed age the puer was that the outer leaves were aged, but the inside of the cake was green, these usually happened to cakes that were tightly pressed. If you choose to speed age your collection, do check on the pressing of the cakes first, or you might wish to break up the cakes to ensure a more thorough process.
Second, if you have two pieces of the same puer, you subject one to speed ageing and the other you leave it to age on its own, what you get at the end might be two different tasting puer. With speed ageing, there is a potential danger of pushing the tea towards becoming cooked...


~ Phyll said...

Hi Danny,

Thank you for the additional points. Compression level is indeed a crucial factor for aging pu'er evenly.

On the subject of wine aging (which is off-topic here -- my apologies for bringing it up in the first place), I believe the answer to whether or not wine ages once it's bottled is: it depends on the type of closure and temperature. Broadly speaking, wine ages, matures and then degrades over time through oxidation. Corks made from tree bark (traditional corks) allow minuscule amount of air to seep through the pores on the corks' cellular level.

Temperature also plays a role. The higher the temperature (there is a recommended range for proper storage), the faster a wine ages. Too high of a temperature, however, will "cook" a wine, and the result will be an off-balanced and faulty wine. Ever ordered a bottle of wine at a restaurant and the bottle came to the table too warm? Most likely it's been stored this way for some time, perhaps stacked in a milk cart next to the kitchen stove or the fridge's exhaust vent. These wines tend to taste stewed, even when it's cooled down later.

Going back to the subject of Chang Tai teas, when you said some undergone a slight "pre-processing fermentation", did you mean fermentation as in the process of creating cooked pu'er or as in partial oxidation?

I hope I'm not testing your patience with my endless questions. I'm here to learn from you.



Danny said...

Hi Phyll,
Sorry for not replying earlier...
Fa Jiao (发酵)in Chinese encompasses a wider meaning than microbial/fungi activity on the leaves, it can also be used to indicate oxidation, though Yang Hua (氧化)should be the correct
It was not unusual for the plucked leaves to undergo some amount of oxidation prior to being processed into maocha - many of the traditional methods involved some amount of oxidation - whether accidental or intentional.
Some producers also subject maocha to some extent of fermentation before pressing them into cakes.
Then of course, there is the post-production fermentation that we are more familiar with.
All three types (there may be more, but this is what I know so far...) of Fa Jiao all produce different tasting puer.
Many connoisseurs claim that if a young puer turns a bright orange at third or fourth brew, chances are the leaves have been oxidized before processing into maocha. Likewise, if a young puer brews up bright to dark orange in the first and/or second brew, it is most likely fermented at maocha stage.
As for brew color of post-production fermentation, we are familiar with the typical Hongkong storage.
How true is this claim, I cannot tell, I'm also learning. But one thing I do realize is this: between leaves from old trees and those from plantations, the brews do not hold out for long on oxidation and pre-pressing fermentation on plantation leaves. They usually give up their ghosts by the fourth brew, while old tree leaves tend to offer nice brews even till the tenth round.
Post-production fermentation on the other hand, gives plantation leaves a mellower tasting puer, but completely wastes a puer processed from old tree leaves.
Back to Chang Tai. I have not tasted all of Chang Tai's 2004 and thereafter products, so I can't provie you with a complete list of their might want to check the market for their 2005's Old Chen's Bu Lang Cake (Lao Chen De Cha - Bu Lang 老陈的茶-布朗). I find this tea to have undergone some oxidation on the plucked leaves...but then, I may be wrong...


~ Phyll said...

Thank you for the explanation, Danny.

Coincidentally, I recently tasted a 2005 Yichanghao "Ji Pin" with leaves that may had been partially oxidized.

Also, I was able to obtain a beeng of the 2005 Yichanghao "Lao Chen De Cha". Will be interesting to compare it with the "Ji Pin".

Danny said...

Hi phyll,

"Lao Chen De Cha" and "Yi Chang Hao" are two different brands under the Chang Tai group. I may be wrong but I don't think there was a Yi Chang Hao Lao Chen De Cha...


~ Phyll said...

Danny, hi. You may be right. I was quoting Houde's site since they sell it as a Yichanghao brand. It's this one:

Coincidentally, the USPS box containing the said tea has just arrived as I'm writing this.


Danny said...

Hi phyll,

That's the cake, but it is not under Yi Chang Hao brand. It is under "Lao Chen De Cha" (Old Chen's Tea) brand. This is the first cake produced under this brand name.

Do write about your tasting experience on chadao!


Danny said...

Hi phyll,

Sorry, you are right. It is Yi Chang Hao Lao Chen De Cha! I dragged out my stack of the cakes to inspect and found, written on the outside, "Bu Lang, Yi Chang Hao"; inside on the wrapper was also printed "Yi Chang Hao".

I checked and was told that as this was the first production of Lao Chen De Cha brand, they probably wanted it to ride on the more established Yi Chang Hao before branching it as a separate brand.


~ Phyll said...

Hi again,

No apology was necessary. Whether or not it's a YCH brand, I was certain that you were referring to this particular tea.

Will do a tasting during this week-end and share with you my experience.



~ Phyll said...

Hi Danny,

I've been drinking Lao Chen De Cha for the past 3 days and I think it's good tea. It's strikingly different from the Yichanghao Jipin in that the LCDC tastes more like a classic raw pu'er: plummy, still astringent, good chayun and huigan. The qi for me is calming and relaxing, yet reviving, too. (I'm drinking it as I'm writing this, and I could feel my whole body warming up slowly...building up. Nice).

In regard to be honest, I'm not sure what telltale signs to look for. I do notice that the color of the dry leaves are about the same green-red hue as the Ji Pin, and the color of the liquor is deep orange. Yet its taste is that of the usual (good) pu'er. What am I supposed to be looking for to know that the tea received pre-oxidation treatment?

I think I'd give this a shot by getting a few more cakes for storage. Thanks for the recco.



Danny said...

Hi Phyll,
Thanks for the tasting notes!
There are several indications if the tea has been pre-oxidized, but none really conclusive because other factors can also display similar manisfestions.
One is the colour of the liquor, which, compared to another tea from the same period, would be darker. This is more apparent when the tea is young, as we know from experience most young puer is pale or yellow in colour, and turning darker as it ages. A pre-oxidized pu'er would be much darker than its peers, usually a rich orange when young. However, as the teas age, different storage, different climate, etc, may affect the tea colour; so if the Lao Chen De Cha Bu Lang is dry sored while the Ji Pin is humidly stored, the brews may turn out differently.
Second is the taste of the tea. Young pre-oxidized puer in my tasting, appears to be more mellow and richer in texture than its peers in the first few brews, and then that 'young puer' notes come back in later brews. Over time however, in different climate and storage conditions, the puers might just match up.
Third is the leaves. The brewed pre-oxidized leaves are mostly redder than its peers when newly produced. Unintentionally pre-oxidized is usually shown on the leaf's edge and stalk, while intentional pre-oxidation is shown on 3/4 or entire leaf. Again over time, with different conditions and storage, this distinction can be blurred between puers.
But I think the most important tell-tale signs are in your own tasting: plummy and astringent...if we are on the same tasting profile, these are notes belonging to a much older tea than its 3 years of age. Even by comparison to the Ji Pin.