Further thoughts on conditioning

As Wisdom_sun pointed out in his comments to my post a few days ago, talking about “storage” of puerh is not just merely storage… it’s conditioning. He’s absolutely right in that regard, so I will try to remember to use this term from now on 🙂

I think I have talked about this in passing before, but what I have noticed more clearly this time around visiting Hong Kong and also talking to the owner of the teashop here in Taipei is that there are clearly two trends, or two schools of thought, in puerh conditioning.

The first is the old school. Wet storage is good. Wet, however, doesn’t mean soaking in water, mould growing all over wet (that’s cooked puerh). Wet means a high level of humidity in a more or less controlled environment. It does involve a fair bit of skill and know how, as well as experience in doing these and to know what teas will need how much in the conditioning of such teas. Talking to old tea drinkers in Hong Kong, they will almost all tell you that a cake with a touch of wet storage age much better and faster. It was interesting to see the teashop owner here echo the same view.

The other school is the pure dry storage school. Dry, of course, doesn’t really mean bone dry either. I think what dry storage means really depends on the person you talk to. Many consider dry storage to be simply a tea that has not entered a traditional “wet” storage facility. Others take it quite literally — recall my experience with Xinjiang conditioned tea (Xinjiang has desert weather) that tasted thin, sharp, and unpleasant overall. I have met many a drinker and shop owner in Beijing who will refuse to drink anything that tastes remotely wet stored. Anything stored in the Guangdong area they deem to be wet, even after a year or two, when to me they taste quite normal and pleasant.

The overwhelming reason I’ve heard with this particular trend is that it is unhealthy to drink wet stored puerh. The mould really turns people off, and they think it is a health hazard. The same view is echoed by many on Sanzui, a Chinese forum for tea. It’s an interesting thing, really. After all, many people grew up in Hong Kong drinking wet stored puerh, and the city’s population isn’t exactly suffering from some serious puerh-related sickness, so why people worry about it is beyond me. It’s like mouldy cheese… it looks gross, it smells gross, but can be quite tasty, albeit an acquired one. I think puerh is even less of an acquired taste than, say, Roquefort.

I can see why there’s an argument. People in Beijing, for example, used to drink jasmine, mostly. They then switched to green, and then green tieguanyin, and now, young puerh. Their tastes are light in general, and therefore a heavy, wet stored puerh might not suit their style (though oddly enough, people who refuse wet-stored puerh have no problem drinking cooked puerh). This sort of preference is reflected in tastes for other kinds of tea too. It’s difficult to find a good roasted oolong in the north. It’s much easier to find one in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Perhaps we can chalk this down to regional preference.

As for who’s right in their theory on conditioning… I suppose it depends on who you’re talking to. I have, however, noticed a slight trend — more often than not whoever owns the new cakes will tell you dry storage is good. Whoever owns some old stuff to sell will tell you wet storage is good. Given that, I tend to trust my senpai who only buy for their personal consumption. I think some wetness is not a bad thing, and in a home storage condition, care must be taken to make sure the tea is not too dry. That’s partly why I decided to stick my tea in Hong Kong in the family home (although mid-Ohio, curiously enough, is awfully wet). Is it wise to buy slightly wet stored tea to store at home? I suppose it might be. I also wonder if whatever’s gathered in a cake of wet stored tea will pass on to the dry stored one in a house. It should, I’d think. That’s why I want to see if there’s a way to figure out what an optimal condition is… I’m curious, for example, to see what happens to the cakes that Phyll put in his wine storage. I’m also curious to know what will eventually happen to the cakes that happen to be stored in the perpetually wet but cool climate of England. We’ll probably only find out in at least a few years’ time, and I certainly am not as brave (although I have a few cakes that travel with me in the US as I move from place to place).

But at the end of the day… maybe it’s the fact that we keep these cakes and watch them age that makes it fun. Of course, nobody wants a cake to turn out horrible, but if it tastes quite ok 10 years from now, it’s probably worth much more to the owner than if he were to buy it off the market 10 years from now.


Comments

Further thoughts on conditioning — 2 Comments

  1. Ah, I worship the ground you stepped on…! There are more than a few pearls of wisdom in what you wrote above.

    Demanding “absolute dry storage” just because there are spoilage and mishaps in the cellar-ageing process is like throwing the bady out with the bath-water. Although some (in Sanzui, for example) have gone so far as to dismiss even the prized attributes, such as camphor fragrance, in vintage Puerhs as nothing more than “storage taste”, I think I am starting to see the pendulum swinging back, with more and more people seeing the merits of a reasonable amount of well-controlled cellar-conditioning. Instead of buying — rather blindly, I am afraid — en primeur current-year releases, I look forward to our returning to the traditional way of stocking up for Puerh-drinking: Buy well-conditioned teas (say, 2 to 3 years of cellaring plus 2 to 3 years of aeration) to allow them to settle down and mellow out at home (for another 3 to 5 years) carefully.

    What would you suggest as a proper way in Chinese to say “conditioning/cellaring”? I think the moment we mention “storage/­Ü”, the argument is already lost.

  2. Indeed, but there are lots of people out there who think it’s bad for your health to drink older puerh that has been wet stored, not thinking that things like furu (which is basically rotten tofu), pidan (thousand-year eggs), and many other stinky things in Chinese food are all the product of well controlled fermentation of one sort or another.

    I think there is a time and place for dry stored teas. Some teas are quite delightful in their liveliness, and if you play the mixer yourself, you can mix together different things for different results. I’ve talked to somebody who suggested adding a little dry stored, youngish puerh to a wet stored, older tea when making it. It invigorates the older tea’s liquor without giving you much bitterness or roughness. It’s worth a try.

    As for the translation issue… I’m afraid in Chinese “cang” is just the word used. The term “chenhua 陳化” does describe the process of aging though.

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