One of the topics that came up during Sherab’s visit on Saturday was traditional storage. Traditional storage is sometimes viewed with mythical vile — it’s bad, it’s awful, don’t do it, it’ll kill you, etc. I’ve heard versions of all that.
I think slowly, people have come to realize that there are two kinds of traditional storage, so to speak — good and bad. Good traditional storage can produce great results — witness all the “classic” puerh cakes from the 50s onward, most of which received some traditional storage treatment at some point in their life. Others can be incredibly bad — cakes that are moldy inside out, growing not only the usual (and all together ok) white stuff, but also yellow, red, black… you name it. The first kind is welcomed, the second should be avoided.
I think Cloud at some point or another wrote a few things for the Puerh Teapot magazine (Chinese version) that talks about traditional storage. I am not sure, but I don’t think they’ve been worked into English through the Art of Tea. I suspect, though, that it will be a useful exercise. Essentially (and this is also from my friends who are more knowledgable about this sort of thing than me) what happens is traditional storage is only one phase — usually not a very long one — of a cake’s storage life. It should not stay permanently in a “traditional” storage condition, which generally means high humidity and often accompanied by higher heat. After that, however, the cakes should be aired out and left alone in drier climes — storage units that are ventilated and not in the basement of buildings. Much of an aged tea’s life is actually spent in such storage units, not traditional basements.
Also, traditional does not imply spraying water all around or anything like that. In fact, sometimes it might even be necessary to control the humidity by putting things that will absorb moisture (I believe chalk is used — spread around the floor, although my memory is fuzzy on this). The cakes that are stored in traditional storage should never touch the floor, the walls, or anything other than each other, really — they’re put on racks so avoiding the very damp floor and they’re usually placed a little away from the walls to avoid condensation, etc. You don’t want them THAT traditional.
Ideally, teas that were traditional stored should spend time outside of that storage to age, and to also let the “traditional storage” flavour go away a bit. It will never entirely disappear, but it does dissipate over time. I drank some traditionally stored loose puerh today that has mellowed considerably comparing to when I first got it some two or three years ago. It is now quite drinkable, smooth, without any sort of nasty mustiness, and most importantly, it can be rebrewed many times (I think I drank around 20 today). Cooked puerh will be lucky to last 7.
So if you got some stuff that smells musty and looks a bit nasty, don’t give up on it and say it’s bad and throw it away (again, this only applies to stuff with white dusting on it — yellow, red, or really any other colour mould should be avoided). Give it time, let it air out, and after a few years, it might surprise you.