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.
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.
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.