Puerh storage has generally been classified as dry and wet. Of course, dry and wet are absolutes, and nothing in reality really operates like that. It’s more like a sliding scale of wetness — from bone dry (say, sticking it in the desert) to extreme wetness (say, immersed in water). It’s obvious that neither of those are desirable, but how much wetness is good?

I’ve been thinking about this problem recently because I’m been fretting over how to store my tea in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has a reputation for being humid. It is also the place where all these fabled wet stored teas are from. I myself have drank many such teas. They’re fine. They can be quite tasty. They’re, by some accounts, how puerh should taste. I’ve met quite a few extremely experienced tea drinkers in Hong Kong who hold this view.

Then you have the dry storage proponents, who say that wet storage fundamentally changes the tea in a negative way. You can’t get rid of the “storage” smell. The tea is less “lively”. You trade in the “liveliness” and the “freshness” for sweetness and smoothness. Many people who sell new cakes are people who will talk about this as if it’s the gospel. That, also, has a large following and many believe this to be the best way to proceed.

As with most things that have to do with taste, however, there’s probably no one real truth behind this. What I think there are though are misconceptions.

What happens to the cake I think is two fold. Since we know that mould grows on the tea when in wet storage, it’s obvious that those are part of the process of turning a tea into a sweet, mellow brew. There’s also, of course, oxidation that must be going on all the time. Pure oxidation, however, probably doesn’t work so well, since teas stored in very dry areas tend to perform poorly. I’ve had some that were truly hideous. So, the trick must be to get enough moisture to get the little mould spores going, but not too much so that it overwhelmes the tea…

What a lot of people in China, especially in the north, believe is that any sort of wetness is bad, and that the tea must be really dry. This is why I’ve tried the really dry teas — people who literally rented storage spaces in places with desert like conditions. The teas suck in those cases. Truly wet teas end up being a little boring and a little flat, and sometimes can taste too much of the storage and lose its charm. “Dry storage” as proposed then must really mean “wet, but only a bit”. After all, places like Hong Kong and Taiwan are quite wet to begin with. You don’t get a really dry environment unless you do serious climate control, and as far as I know, most of the dry storage facilities for tea merchants in these places are not climated controlled, only mediated by things like closed windows and sealed entrances.

What are the conditions that would produce the optimal amount of bioactivity, without overwhelming the tea and at the same time without it being too slow so as to make the whole exercise pointless? Somebody really ought to do experiments to figure this out. How about fluctuations in the humidity? I would think that fluctuations allow the tea to go in and out of the bio-enhanced aging phase. So sometimes it’s just oxidation, and sometimes it’s both. That, I suppose, must change the way it ages compared to a constant humidity environment. What, again, does it actually do? I’d imagine it can’t be that difficult to figure out.

Meanwhile… I am just praying disaster won’t befall my stash of tea.


Storage — 8 Comments

  1. To Puerh, “storage” is really more than just storage — as in “putting it away for it is not needed at the moment”; in fact, I think “conditioning” or “cellaring” is a better way to describe it. It is a necessary process, not unlike putting Cognac in barrels or second-fermenting Champagne in limestone caves, to mature the product into greater glory.

    The “experiment” you proposed has kind of been conducted: the traditional tea merchants have all spent years, if not generations, working out the technique to manage the cellaring. Sure, it is not scientific, nor is it perfect, but they do know what they are doing — that is, until some upstarts, who neither held the technique nor had stashes of properly-cellared teas to sell, came along telling them that “absolute dry storage” is better. Most shrugged at the idea; unfortunately, some gave in.

    And you are right that fluctuation is part of the formula — the constant temperature and humidity that many strive so hard to achieve just are not going to work. Besides the natural fluctuation that the climate of Guangdong and Hong Kong brings, experienced tea merchants would take additional measures to make the Puerh go through phases. As in life, changes build character, something unlikely to be found in mummified Puerh…

  2. I totally agree — absolute dry storage is not necessarily good.  I think for those of us who are buying some younger cakes, storing it in a humid place (like HK) is probably ok, because places like that are naturally quite humid and will do the job for you as long as you’re not too careful.  I do, however, I think that people who buy tea in drier areas need to take care to properly humidify the teas, for otherwise all you get is a bunch of oxidized teas that have not aged very well.

    What I meant by the experiment is not so much for merchants — those have resources that people like us don’t.  They have the storage facility and the years of experience that allow them to do what they want with the cakes.  I was thinking more along the lines of how to store these things at home and still create a good cake out at the end.  That’s harder to achieve, I think, but there are people in Hong Kong who have had decades of home-storage experience.  The common theme I’ve heard from these people is generally — don’t be too careful and don’t shy away from humidity.  I think I tend to agree.

  3. I don’t know how much tea you’re talking about storing. However, you may consider a cigar humidor (except I’ll say I don’t know how the Spanish Cedar would affect the tea). I don’t mean storing tea WITH cigars, or in a used Humidor. At least the cedar has a light scent, if anything.

    Any way, Any half-decent quality humidor is more than a box of wood. If you find yourself in a drier area, you can put more water into the humidifier. And hygrometers are growing inexpensive, to be sure you’re maintaining a minimum level, at least.

  4. A humidor can be a little expensive. However, if you’ll be storing a good bit in more of a ‘cabinet’ fashion, it’s something to possibly consider (or something to be inspired by?). The hydration system keeps the inside at a pretty good 65% to 75% humidity, which is far from bone dry, and not really wet. It won’t give you stages for the tea’s life so much, but …. it could be better, could be worse. Just any box with a tight-ish fitting lid would work nicely. A humidor still lets its contents breathe.

    With all this in mind, perhaps someone should build and market a tea cabinet!

  5. There’s been attempts at such things.  I’ve seen them online — built by some Yunnanese.  They use camphor wood, I think, and are shaped in a sort of barrel shape.  You can fit something like 10 or 12 tongs of tea in them

  6. Thanks for articulating the complexities of Pu-erh Storage.

    Having started my Pu-erh journey only recently, I am beginning to be convinced that storage is a major factor in the development of the final taste. At times, we have to pay much more to get a better storage cake. Its everyone’s goal to have a smooth and vivid tasting aged Pu-erh

    I am trying to put the concept in a graphical form. If you plot humidity against time, it would seem like a waveform. Unanswered questions are :

    How low and high should the relative humidity be ? (What are the extremes high and low ?)

    How long is the trough and peak? In a year, how long should the cake be left in higher humidily. If you take “x” months, should the peroid be spent in one session or split into mulitple sessions distributed over the entire year?

    Does the waveform changes over time (when the cake is young and relatively older) or does it need to remain constant?

    The same graph could be plotted for temperature against time. The variation of humidity and temperature will add to the complexities of the graph.

    Changing the focus, I am also interested in reviving excessively wet storage cakes. I have several 1996 7542 which have a “mushy” smell in the initial infusions. I got them from HK. I stay in Singapore where the relative humidity is very high. I am putting some cakes in my air-conditioned office (60% humidity) and some in my camera cabinet (40% humidity). I’m not too sure how it will turn up in the months ahead.

    Appreciate your thoughts.

  7. I believe it is entirely possible to revive very wet stored cakes.  Even loose teas that have been stored that way improve with some airing.  In fact, in those circumstances I believe a drier (but not too dry) environment will be best.  Not too dry, because if it’s too dry I think nothing will happen with the tea — it’s just sort of sealed.  Some moisture will carry away the unpleasant tastes.

    I, too, am very curious about the pattern of humidity and temperature that you’re talking about, and I think that a problem with Chinese mercantile circles is that these things are generally kept as secrets — not to be shared.  We will have to figure it out on our own, and if somebody can do that by, say, putting cakes in various kinds of storage and compare, after some years, how they’ve changed, then it is entirely possible to see what exactly happens in what kind of storage conditions.

    In fact, that is already happening with different people buying the same cakes but located in different places.  With modern day conveniences such as climate control, however, there are additional factors involved…. making the task even more complex 🙁

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