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.