Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Perspectives on Storing and Aging Pu'er Teas (v): Concepts and Methods of Storage


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: The series continues with this, Niisonge's third instalment. Parts i, ii, iii, and iv of the series can be read here, here, here, and here.]]

What do you store your pu'er in?

In storing sheng pu'er, people want to be clear in what ways storage is possible. Here we will discuss a few methods that some pu'er lovers use to age pu'er. But first, you need to understand some storage concepts:

1. Aging

Aging -- what exactly is it? Aging pu'er has the goal of developing the scent and flavor characteristics in both dry and brewed infusion; and to stabilize and complete the quality of pu'er tea. The factors that affect the aging process are: temperature, humidity, oxygen, light, extraneous scents, moisture content, time.

2. Dry Storage Vs. Wet Storage

There are two approaches to aging pu'er: “dry storage” and “wet storage.”

Dry storage means to store pu'er in relatively dry conditions and allow the aging process to naturally take place. But too dry of an environment will slow down the aging process. So a certain amount of humidity is required. Dry storage requires decades for the tea to age satisfactorily. Pu'er that is dry stored will have a mild taste. It is the preferred method for storing tea.

Wet storage means to store pu'er in a relatively humid environment, and can speed up the aging process dramatically. Since humidity can be controlled, you can get varying speeds of aging. Indeed, wet storage can be divided into 3 main forms: heavy humidity storage, medium humidity storage, light humidity storage, which then begets the following: heavy humidity aged pu'er, medium humidity aged pu'er, and light humidity aged pu'er. However, too high a humidity in storage will lead to speedy mold formation, which is not good for pu'er. Wet stored pu'er will have a stronger flavor than dry stored pu'er. And it will have a characteristic earthy, moldy flavor.

Because wet storage can cause mold formation relatively quickly, it is not considered a suitable way to store pu'er. And the molds that form on the pu'er may contain elements like mycotoxins that are harmful to the body.

3. Segregation or Quarantine in Storage

In storage, you should segregate or “quarantine” bings. That is, sheng should be stored with sheng, shu should be stored with shu; and partially aged pu'er should be stored with partially aged pu'er. Because they are all at various stages of microbial development; so you don’t want your sheng bing’s microbe colonies to be overpowered by those of a shu or aged bing. And more importantly, you don’t want a moldy bing to spread and infect other bings in your collection (think microscopic spores here).

4. Storage Environment

The storage environment should have ideal conditions such as away from sunlight, rain, and clean. It must also be airy; there should be air circulation -- because the microbes in pu'er are oxygen-loving critters. And it must be free from extraneous odors. So no kitchen smells, perfume smells, etc. And be careful of what you store pu'er in -- cardboard gives off odors, so does particleboard, stained/varnished wood, and even some woods like pine emit odors. So unless you want a piney scent in your pu'er, better to keep it away from odor sources; which will absorb into the tea, and impact the delicate flavor.

5. Mold Growth

Mold is the enemy. About every 3 months or so, you need to thoroughly check your pu'er collection for signs of mold growth. Mold is not good. Once bings go moldy, the mold will spoil the flavor of the tea. Instead of becoming aged tea, it will just be moldy tea. This is where moisture content of pu'er is important. When the humidity is too high, the tea will suck up more moisture -- leading to mold growth. So mold can be kept in check by controlling humidity, and therefore moisture content in pu'er. Ideally, pu'er should be about 10% moisture content.

But you do have to acknowledge though, that microbes like Aspergillus niger, Penicillium chrysogenum, Aspergillus clavatus, Rhizopus chinensis, and others are all molds that are naturally present during the aging of a sheng pu'er. But, in minute quantities they have a beneficial effect. If under humid conditions, they are allowed to explode in growth -- then, that would just change the tea for the worse -- into a moldy mess. So it’s best to avoid mold on the surface of your tea. You might want to air out moldy bings on a shelf to reduce the moisture content.

6. Time

Time is important. A sheng pu'er needs at least 10-15 years to age well, before you get a good result with the tea. And so there is the common saying, “the more aged the more fragrant” pu'er becomes. And this is especially true when sheng pu'er is stored properly to age.

7. Post-aging Storage

Post-aging and pre-drinking storage is important, but we will get into that later.

Pu'er Storage Methods

1. Original Packaging 包裝紙

By far the best way to store pu'er is in its original packaging. Bing chas should be kept in their individual paper wrappers. If you have a tong of bings, it should be kept intact as a tong. Let bings of the same ilk be together. But don’t mix shengs with half-aged pu'er, or with shu bings.

2. Dedicated Pu'er Storage Room 專門貯藏室

Ideally, there you should have an entire room dedicated to storing pu'er, that is temperature- and humidity-controlled and has good air circulation. Ideally, the temperature should be about 25 degrees C. and at 75% humidity maximum. Again, with shengs stored separately from shu and aged. And a dedicated storage room should be free from filth, pollutants, extraneous odors, and light. Of course, you know that already, don’t you?

3. Wooden Shelf 木架

For bing cha, tuo cha, and any other kind of large pu'er, they should be stored to age on untreated wooden shelves, to facilitate air flow. The wooden shelves themselves should be of a scentless wood, to avoid tainting the pu'er with an extraneous scent.

Every three months, you should turn them over, and examine whether there is any mold development, insects, etc. If you find mold, then you need to move your collection out, and determine the extent of the mold, and clean any bings of mold infection. Excess mold will cause undesirable qualities to develop in the pu'er, which will cause the aroma and flavor of the tea to change -- for the worse. If you do find mold, and lots of it, that means you probably have a humidity and/or ventilation problem. See what you can do to remedy the problem.

4. Large Earthenware Jars 陶缸

These are very large jars, with a wide mouth, meant for storing a lot of pu'er cakes. They provide a dark enclosed environment for aging sheng pu'er, allowing the pu'er to “incubate” together, and age together. Although the earthenware is porous, it’s not as airy as a wooden shelf. Storage in such a closed environment, like these large earthenware jars means the scent of pu'er will develop together -- and not be tainted by extraneous odors -- like say, sitting on a shelf in a room where smoke happens to waft by. But you wouldn’t be smoking or burning incense around your pu'er, now would you?

Some pu'er people in Taiwan actually like to “improve” the scent and flavor of their bings by adding camphor wood in between the bings. The camphor aroma will then be absorbed by the pu'er, and be present in the tea. But is that really a good idea? There is some logic to it though. In the wilds of Yunnan, pu'er trees grow alongside cinnamon trees. And the scent of cinnamon is absorbed by the pu'er -- which is a desirable quality. Maybe putting cinnamon bark into an earthenware jar with some bings to age for a time could improve the flavor? I don’t want to try.

5. Cloth Bags 棉普洱袋

There are simple, round, heavy muslin cotton bags in China that are used especially for storing pu'er bings. These are actually useful, because paper wrappers get torn, but the cloth bag is breathable, yet keeps out dust. They can be large enough to store a tong of bings. So that’s also a storage option to be considered.

6. Earthenware Jars 陶罐

Small earthenware jars are good for storing loose pu'er. And once your pu'er has aged for a desirable amount of time, you can then break up a cake, (or -- for tuo cha -- steam it, break it apart, and dry it reasonably), and put it into porous earthenware jars. Cover the jar with paper or cotton cloth for a time, not the lid.

The Other Side

There are some people who say that mold is natural for pu'er. They claim it’s a natural part of the aging process. And they even tolerate the generations of mold growth on their bings -- white mold and yellow mold, green mold or black mold. But is that really a good idea? Why risk mold and possibly tainting the tea, and worse, ruin years’ worth of effort to store tea? A small amount of mold is tolerable, even expected. But when found, it should be dealt with quickly. And the mold should be cleared away. A very moldy bing will likely end up tasting moldy; and at the very least, vigorous cleaning will have to be done to take care of the mold problem. By far, it’s much better to avoid mold, if at all possible. Just because a bing has turned moldy doesn’t mean it has aged. Mold growth can happen fairly quickly (as I have demonstrated already) -- especially in a hot and humid environment. Aging pu'er takes years. And besides, who wants to run the risk of consuming mycotoxins?

Then there are those who say that the aging process for shengs can be sped up by storing them in a large earthenware jar with some aged pu'er. They advise you to remove the wrappers, and let the microbes “mix.” The microbes in the aged pu'er will migrate to the new pu'er, and this supposedly will “quicken” the aging process. Also, the aged scent of old pu'er is supposed to be sucked into the new pu'er. But could this method really work? First, you should know that microbes in pu'er -- some start out during the manufacturing process -- but quickly recede after processing and then after the first year. And during successive years various microbes live and die, with mainly Aspergillus niger remaining. So adding Aspergillus niger from an aged bing to a new bing isn’t really going to have any effect -- because Aspergillus niger is already naturally present during the aging process. You’re not doing anything that nature won’t do itself. So why bother? You might however, end up adding lots of unwanted, invisible mold spores to your new bings which might get moldy if neglected for a long time. Here, let me spore you some tea!

Just remember, when looking at storing pu'er, you need to think about the long term if your pu'er is to age and mellow. Time is an important element in storing pu'er, maybe just as important as what you choose to store your pu'er in.

Post-aging Storage

Ok, 30 years or so have passed, and your shengs have now become aged pu'er. You take one out, break it up with a pu'er knife, and then ... yeah, you still should store it for a while longer. Use a small earthenware jar. Put the broken pieces into the jar. Cover with cotton cloth -- not the lid of the jar. You want air to circulate in the jar. Why should you not drink it right away? Think of the pu'er in layers. There is the surface layer, and the inner layer. For all these years, the surface layer was exposed to everything -- all the air, etc. And the inner layer wasn’t so exposed. The surface layer will be a bit mellower, while the inner layer will have a stronger scent and flavor. So you want to mix these 2 layers up in an earthenware jar and sit for (say) two weeks, just so that everything balances out, and reaches equilibrium. Then, you can better enjoy the tea. And the teas flavor and scent will be better balanced out. We call this the “Tea Qi Blending Method” (茶氣調和法).

Monday, October 13, 2008

Perspectives on Storing and Aging Pu'er Teas (iv): How to Store (and Not to Store) Pu'er


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: The series continues with this, Niisonge's second instalment. Parts i, ii, and iii of the series can be read here, here, and here.]]

What’s the Best Way to Store Pu'er?

People always ask: “What’s the best way to store pu'er?” But that perhaps isn’t the question to be asking. Maybe the question to ask is really: “In what ways should you not store pu'er?” Let’s take a moment to look at some dos and don'ts of storing pu'er.

Storage Environment

What kind of an environment is not good for pu'er? I currently live in Fuzhou (Fujian Province, People's Republic of China) and I have also lived in Longyan, in southwest Fujian. Both areas are tea-producing areas, by the way. And the climates of the two places are similar. Summers are very hot and humid. In the house, the relative humidity often tops 90% -- day in and day out. In the autumn and winter, it rains quite often, though it’s drafty and cold in the house. But still, the humidity in the house is quite high, usually around 80%.

Mr. Pu'er

You know, I’m quite famous in Fujian now. Everyone calls me Mr. Pu'er. Just looking at me, total strangers know me well -- but from smell rather than from sight. See, all my clothes smell of pu'er. They all have that characteristic scent reminiscent of an aged pu'er. But I didn’t get this moniker because I know a lot about pu'er. In fact, my knowledge of pu'er is as infinite as the Yellow River as it flows into the sea. Ok, maybe I made all of that up. People don’t really call me Mr. Pu'er, but I swear, all of my clothes really do smell like aged pu'er! (And in case you didn’t catch that, the Yellow River sometimes does not flow, or even trickle into the sea. The water gets all used up before it reaches its destination.)

I store my clothes in a wardrobe. And some are stored in suitcases; and others are just hanging in the bedroom. After only a week, they all smell like pu'er. But I never actually store pu'er in my bedroom (well, maybe I did briefly -- for a month or so -- but that’s it). No, that distinctive pu'er fragrance (and we all love that fragrance, don’t we?) comes from the fact that both the humidity and the temperature are high in Fujian (as they would also be in Guangdong, Guangxi, parts of Yunnan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc.). Because of this combination of high temperature and high humidity, things get moldy quickly.

Here are some examples:
• My nice suit got moldy. (stored six months in a wood cabinet)
• This white cotton shirt was stored under a few other clothes, in another cabinet. It’s not white anymore. (Stored six months)
• We have a healthy spore population in the bathroom -- which is quite exciting. (Over one year of growth). OK, nobody ever cleans that area of the bathroom -- it’s too darn scary!
• Some flecks of mold in the cupboards. This was post-cleaning; it was much worse before. (Six months)

I would have to point out that time is not really much of a factor here. I stored a seldom-used briefcase for just three months, after which it was fully enveloped in white mold.

Under these conditions, in this environment, if this is what’s happening to my other belongings, then it is also happening to my pu'er.

Is this a good thing? Ok, maybe some kinds of fungi are delicious, like tea mushrooms (Agrocybe aegerita) -- 茶樹菇 (cha shu gu) as they’re called in Chinese, which grow on tea-oil trees (油茶樹, you cha shu or Camellia oleifera) -- and these are some of my favorite fungi to eat. This kind of tea fungus is good; but not the kind of fungi that tend to grow on top of pu'er.

If there are fungi growing on my things, and this quickly, think about what they can be doing to pu'er stored under the same conditions. Kind of scary, isn’t it? How is that kind of growth -- at that speed -- going to affect those bing chas? And how, especially, is it going to affect the flavor and aroma of pu'er? Of course, the tea will have a moldy flavor, and a moldy aroma, but how pronounced or strong that mold flavor and scent are, in comparison to the delicate flavors and scent of the tea leaf, is something to be considered.

Pu'er stored in this type of environment (high-humidity, high-temperature) is known as wet-storage. In natural environments where this occurs naturally, such as in Fujian or Hong Kong, sheng pu'er will tend to age relatively quickly. But the downside is that this quick aging, like the quickly aged factory processed post-fermented pu'er (shu pu'er) just won’t have the flavor and aroma and quality of a pu'er that has been stored properly and slowly aged over a number of years.

Moldy pu'er is not synonymous with aged pu'er. Though some aged pu'er is moldy, and the mold growth on top of the pu'er can tell you something about how that pu'er was stored -- it was at one point wet stored, thus creating all the mold growth -- it is not indicative of a good, aged pu'er, because it wasn’t properly stored.

And if you were to break open that cake, and brew it up, you would know from the aroma and taste that it’s just not as good. How exactly would it taste? It would taste moldy! That cake of pu'er would taste better if it had not been wet-stored.

Yes, wet-storing pu'er can speed up the aging process, often dramatically. But the resulting “aged” pu'er is not the same. So storage in a high-humidity, high-temperature environment is NOT GOOD. And when you see a moldy bing cha, then you will immediately know: improper storage. Improperly stored = flavor won’t be as good = not a good buy.

Have Mold, Will Go ...

Ok, before you all go running off to the Gobi or the Taklamakan desert to store your cache of pu'er in the driest conditions possible, you should know that storing pu'er to age it in such a dry area is also not good. Of course, you could go to Death Valley too. But, unless you’re there because you’re into extreme tea drinking, too dry is not good for pu'er. So when you take your bings to the Burning Man, it’s not going to be beneficial to aging that pu'er. Neither is sunlight good for your sheng. So don’t take your pu'er along with you when you go for your fun in the sun. And no beach parties for the pu!

On the other hand, the microbes in sheng pu'er are oxygen-loving (just like you and me), so make sure you give them plenty of ventilation.

It’s Alive! It’s Alive!

Pu'er actually has quite a few organisms (fungi and bacteria) in it, like Aspergillus niger (黑麯黴, hei qu mei); 青黴 (qing mei) or blue mold -- actually a type of Penicillium; Penicillium chrysogenum (產黃青黴, chan huang qing mei); Aspergillus clavatus (棒麯黴, bang qu mei); Aspergillus glaucus (灰綠麯黴, hui lü qu mei); Rhizopus chinensis (根黴, gen mei); Lactobacillus thermophilus (乳酸菌, ru suan jun); Saccharomyces (酵母屬, jiao mu shu, a yeast); and other beneficial or benign organisms. These colonies of organisms live in the pu'er. So think of your pu'er as itself a living organism. And treat it as a living thing. Living things need conditions conducive to life, such as air, comfortable temperatures, comfortable humidity level, and so forth. So pu'er should be stored in an odor-free environment, yet be allowed to get some air. And pu'er ages best (ideally -- slowly) stored under the same conditions that people find comfortable for living in -- that is, similar room temperature, and comfortable humidity levels. Likewise, changes in seasons, changes in ambient temperatures, changes in humidity, and regular air flow all are beneficial to the organisms in pu'er. These all act to help pu'er to age and mellow gracefully. The colonies of organisms in pu'er will grow, expand, and die back; some microbe nations will rise, some will fall, some will dominate, etc. This is all a natural part of the aging process. So get with the cycle, and remember: your sheng pu'er is alive.

Now you know how to store your sheng pu'er. What to store your pu'er in -- that’s another question.

NOTE: 'Wet Storage' is not to be confused with the post-fermentation process, 渥堆 (wo dui, i.e. 'moist heap'), which is meant to speed up the processing of pu'er, or shu pu'er (熟普洱) in the factory.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Perspectives on Storing and Aging Pu'er Teas (iii): Buying Aged Tea -- But Why?


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: Continuing our series on storing and aging pu'er teas -- of which the first and second parts can be read here and here -- are three essays by Warren Peltier, known to tea aficionados the world over as Niisonge. Today's instalment is the first of his three contributions.]]

A Brief Historical Perspective

Not so long ago, aged tea could be had for pretty cheap. But all of a sudden, a lot of people in Asia got pu'er crazy, and started buying up all kinds of aged pu'er -- any pu'er -- regardless of quality or price. Let’s take a glimpse at some of the historical highlights of all of this:

Hong Kong has a long history of Pu'er drinking. Pu'er is used here for its medicinal properties, and has long been a favorite tea for consumption during dim sum meals in Hong Kong teahouses.

People’s Republic era: Hong Kong became the “tea storehouse” for pu'er tea. It was sent from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, where some was consumed locally by Hong Kong people, and some was exported to South East Asia.

1950s: one tong of good quality pu'er bing cha cost just a little over 3 HKD. By that time Guangdong people knew that the older pu'er gets, the better it is. But at that time, even old pu'er was only 1 yuan per pound more expensive than newer pu'er.

1986: One 30-year-old aged Hong Yin (Red Label) bing was selling in Sheung Wan-area tea stores for a little over 170 HKD; some Lao Hao bings aged to 50 or 60 years were selling for 800 HKD. At that time it was already considered very expensive. But today it would be worth in the tens of thousands of HKD.

Starting in the 80s, Hong Kong’s economy started to boom, creating wealth, and a wealthy class of people. Some of these people started collecting pu'er teas as a kind of investment speculation.

In the mid and late 90s, some of the big teahouse owners went overseas -- because of uncertainty about Hong Kong’s future. But after 1997, they came back, started to clean their storehouses, and discovered that there were many kinds of good-quality aged pu'er in their stores. They then proceeded to sell off these stores to collectors in Taiwan and overseas. And two teahouses in particular -- Gam San Lau (金山樓) and Long Moon Lau (龍門樓) (see end-note) -- had stores of Tong Qing Hao Lao Yuan Cha (同慶號老圓茶), aged to almost 100 years in their possession.

Pu'er collectors, especially from Taiwan, would go to the tea farms and factories in Yunnan, sometimes buying up whole crops of tea leaves before they could reach market -- and thus securing their own private stock of tea to be privately pressed into bings for aging.

And that is what kicked off the big pu'er mania -- where everyone who was anyone had to have 100-year-old aged pu'er in their collection. And then supplies of good pu'er, even recently produced, became scarce. Of course, the likelihood of finding 100 year aged pu'er nowadays is virtually impossible.

Value Decisions

Just assume that there were some real, verifiable 100-year-old aged pu'er available for purchase to lucky you. And best of all, that you could actually afford it without going broke. Would that particular brick or bing of pu'er be worth it? That’s the question that has to be asked with any aged tea. Is it worth it to buy this tea? First of all, you probably don’t know the whole history of that tea. Sure, you can research wrappers and factories and batch codes. But that doesn’t tell you anything about how Person A, who first bought the tea, stored it. It doesn’t tell you whether the tea happened to come in contact with any extraneous odors. It doesn’t tell you that Person B stored the tea on a shelf next to a pair of his stinky shoes. It doesn’t tell you that Person C, who then bought the tea, brought it home in a rain storm, and it got all soaked. It doesn’t tell you that Person D doctored the tea by adding extraneous scents from camphor wood to the tea, just because that person thought that the tea smelled kind of like stinky shoes and mold, and thought that it would smell better (and perhaps taste better too) if it were scented with camphor wood.

Since you don’t know the exact storage methods used during the history of that tea, and since you haven’t tasted that tea, how will you know if that tea, aged 100 years is really good or not? You can’t know. And you also won’t know if it’s worth the price you paid. It just may be too big a risk to take.

So how pu'er teas are stored is important, not just for drinking, but also for resale value, if one were to ever be insane enough to sell part of his/her pu'er collection. Of course, pu'er manufacturers know how to age and store tea. And they know how to ship it. So you don’t have to be worried so much how the tea was stored in some warehouse at the factory.

But whether a tea is aged 10 years or 100 years, how the tea was stored is an important factor that will affect the quality of the tea over time. The longer the period of aging, the more important how a tea was stored during all those years becomes. And because of this, one should keep in mind that just because a tea is old doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. Of course, Chinese have a saying with pu'er: “the more aged, the better the tea becomes.” But that’s all relatively speaking. If the pu'er was stored improperly, or under non-ideal conditions, then it may be mediocre -- or bad -- aged tea.

In the past few years, in Mainland China, many extremely wealthy people (including many who don’t know a thing about pu'er) got into collecting pu'er as an investment. They speculate in pu'er, driving up the prices -- and driving real pu'er lovers out of the market. There are now many pu'er drinkers who are extremely negative about buying aged pu'er. And they refuse to buy any pu'er until the prices start reflecting the actual value of the tea.

I myself refuse to buy any aged pu'er, partly because of outrageous prices, and partly because I’m not sure how that particular tea was stored; and also because there are so many fake and forged aged teas that it’s too complicated to keep up with. Now, when I buy pu'er, I visit several reputable dealers where I can sample many relatively new (aged 3 years or less) sheng pu'er bings; and compare prices. If I taste a particular sheng pu'er and I like it now, then when I take it home and store it away for say 7-10 years (or even longer), surely it will taste much better after proper storage and aging.

Did the Pu'er Bubble Go Bust?

Pu'er prices rose dramatically in the first half of 2007, with prices of mao cha doubling. But this didn’t last long. By the end of June, prices had fallen dramatically as the following examples illustrate:

2007 Price Comparison Prices of Mao Cha

April 1, 2007
Banzhang Ancient Tea Tree: 1400 yuan/Kg
Bulang Shan Ancient Tea Tree: 600 yuan/Kg

July 1, 2007
Banzhang Ancient Tea Tree: 600 yuan/Kg
Bulang Shan Ancient Tea Tree: 300 yuan/Kg

According to market reports, in July 2007, pu'er mao cha prices remained calm, but tea farmers in Nan Nuo Shan (南糯山) and Bu Lang Shan (布朗山) were unwilling to ship their harvests because the going price was so low. And factories in Menghai stopped receiving shipments of tea; many factories reduced the production of shu pu'er.

So overall, the market was in a bit of a turndown in 2007. No longer were consumers driving the market based on quantity: by the end of the year, they were demanding quality. And that drove prices back down. The demand just wasn’t there anymore.

Today’s Pu'er Market

At the end of June 2008, in Guangdong’s Fang Cun Tea Market, we see pu'er tea prices going down -- sometimes dramatically. A 357-gram 2008 Da Ye 0622 Sheng Bing is selling for 350 yuan per tong. With seven bings in a tong, that comes to 50 yuan per bing. Don’t take my word for it -- see for yourself at this page.

If the prices of pu'er continue to fall, that will be good for consumers. And maybe now is the time to start stocking up on pu'er. A recent trip to the Dong Pu Tea Market, in Fuzhou’s Jin An district, seems to verify suspicions. Tea vendors there say business is slow. Shu bings were selling for a mere 30 yuan. A 400-gram 2007 Meng Ku Large Tea Tree shu bing sold for 80 yuan. And that was the vendor’s asking price. I didn’t even try to bargain him down. If I had bought a tong or two, I probably could have got them for 60 or 70 yuan each. Keep in mind, Dong Pu Tea Market is a backwater tea market with only about 20 vendors. Much larger Pu'er markets, like Guangzhou or Shenzhen, or even Fuzhou’s larger Five-Mile Pavilion Tea Market, probably have stores of sheng bings at a much lower price point. Pre-2007 bings however, and the more famous brands of pu'er are still selling for a relatively high price. As the 2008 bings come onto the market, though, I suspect they will sell for relatively cheaper prices than in the past.

If you want further proof, you can check online auction sites like The lowest price for a 250-gram 2000 sheng zhuan (brick) was 21.8 yuan. Shu bings are going for as low as 18 yuan. You see similar low prices on online tea vendor sites in China. And that leads to another question: with prices so low, what will the future hold for the new huge tea markets that sprouted up overnight in places like Shenzhen during the days of Pu'er Mania?

Pu'er Reality Check

What makes people go so crazy about pu'er anyway? Is it the moldy smell that people find so captivating or what? What’s all the mystique surrounding pu'er? And why would individual pu'er collectors go out of the way to buy a whole tea farm’s crop and hoard it? Why? Tea Hoarder! That’s tea insanity! And why would anyone be willing to fork over hundreds to thousands of yuan for a single bing? If you compare the quality of leaf in a bing to that of any other kind of tea (say Tieguanyin, for example), are you really getting value for money? For the most part, the pu'er leaf that is used for bings comes from the 4th to the 8th leaves on the bush (or tree). These are pretty large, coarse leaves that are used. Don’t fool yourself: those leaves aren’t big because they come from some thousand-year-old “ancient tea tree.” So why would anyone willingly spend large sums of money for teas that are made with so-called inferior quality leaves? I find it ironic that the teas I buy actually cost as much as, or even more than, the teaware I buy. It’s an expensive lifestyle.

Sensible Enjoyment

So my advice is: Wait awhile and see if cheaper prices make their way through the supply chain. And then, buy pu'er because you like the taste, not because of fame or reputation, or because of the duration of aging. Tea should be enjoyable, not an aggravation. If some of your pu'er tastes good now, then drink it now and enjoy it. Why wait to store it? But if you can wait, then store some away and see what happens. So, enjoy some now, enjoy some later. Maybe that’s the best way to buy and store pu'er.


"A Brief Historical Perspective" is based on information found in:

Zhang Hong, ed. 普洱茶 (Pu'er Cha). Beijing: China Light Industry Press, 2006.

Hong Kong's 100-Year-Old-Pu'er Tea Houses:

金山樓 Kam Shan Lau Restaurant
地址 : 油麻地新填地街78-86號閣樓至2樓
類別 : 廣東菜、中菜館、酒樓、點心
消費 : $41-$100
M-2/F, 78-86 Reclamation Street, (Yau Ma Tei)

龍門樓 Long Moon Lau Restaurant
地址 : 鑽石山鳳德道60號南蓮園池龍門樓
電話 : 3658 9388
類別 : 廣東菜、素食
消費 : $41-$100
Long Men Lou, Nan Lian Garden, 60 Fung Tak Road, (Diamond Hill)