What is wet storage?

* This is a column entry that will go into the latest issue of the magazine my friend edits in Beijing, but you’ve seen this here first. Some of them are points that I’ve made before in various forms, so sorry for boring those of you with a good memory :).

For the past few years, puerh has been a typhoon that swept through the tea drinking community. Almost everybody, from old hands to newcomers, were swept up in its wake. Interest in this tea skyrocketed, and for a while, a bubble formed with the puerh market. Although things have subsided somewhat in the past two years, there is still plenty of interest and the landscape of puerh production, consumption, and storage has been permanently altered.

One of the issues at hand, storage, is a complicated matter that has led to much ink being spilt. Definitions of good and bad storage differ, and commercial interests, unfortunately, are heavily involved as old tea fetches astronomical sums. Those who have one sort of tea will claim it is the best, while some others who own another type will claim that in fact, theirs is the best. Confusion, unfortunately, is the name of the game.

Among questions on storage and tea condition is the perennial issue of “wet” vs “dry” storage. Both wet and dry are relative terms, and run from a scale of absolute dryness to liquid water. So, what exactly constitutes dry, and wet, storage? Unfortunately, definitions differ considerably, and are largely dependent on where one’s from. Let me try to summarize what I have found so far from personal experience:

1) Hong Kong/Macau

As the inventor of wet storage, people from Hong Kong and Macau tend to have a fairly strict definition of what it entails. I think largely we can summarize it as puerh that has been stored in an artificially wet condition with elevated temperature, for the specific purpose of speeding the aging of the tea and to change the character of the tea in question. This is sometimes also called “ground storage” as many of these storage facilities were basements or built into a hill.

Until maybe ten or fifteen years ago, there was no such thing as “wet” or “dry” storage. A friend of mine who has been drinking tea seriously for twenty years told me that when she first started learning about puerh, she, and some friends of hers, went to some of the very old shops in Hong Kong to search out puerh cakes. They wanted, however, to find cakes that were green – young cakes, so that they can store it themselves. When they asked, the storekeepers generally gave them a strange look, and asked why on earth would they want such a thing – these teas are undrinkable! Needless to say, their expedition was unsuccessful. Nowadays, it is much easier to find raw cakes that have not gone through such storage, but back then, it was nearly impossible.

These days it is much easier to find such cakes that have not gone through such storage condition. For the most part, private collectors or tea investors generally try to store them in a natural environment. What this means is that the storage space is not artificially enhanced with moisture or temperature, but just left alone to the natural cycle of the weather. My friend who tried to buy her tea in the 1990s has been doing that for a dozen years, and is now enjoying the teas that she has in her collection, some of which are very nice. This, to people from Hong Kong anyway, are what is generally called dry storage.

2) Taiwan

When I was in Taiwan doing research I noticed that they have a varied amount of terminologies used to denote different types of storage conditions. One of them is “Hong Kong storage”, which to them means wet storage. However, I have noticed among friends and shops that many teas that are so called “Hong Kong storage” were in fact stored in Taiwan. Taiwan, it must be remembered, has even wetter conditions than Hong Kong. Humidity is higher in many parts of Taiwan, and rainfall is continuous for weeks at a time. For dry storage, there is also a nuanced distinction between just regular, natural storage, and storage that sometimes includes climate control.

I remember in about November when I was in Taipei, the weather had turned cooler, but not cold. I usually left my window open in my 8th floor apartment during the day. There was a week when rain fell almost daily. The bulk of my tea cake collection was sitting on a loft area, far away from the window, but two or three cakes I left underneath the coffee table for easy access as I was drinking them. They were wrapped in their original wrapping paper and sat at least a foot off the ground and a few feet away from the window. The cakes were certainly not touched by water at any stage. Yet, in about two weeks, I noticed that the cakes were quite damp, and that there was the first signs of mould growing on the cake. This, to me, was quite an interesting discovery, because it showed that in a natural environment, away from direct contact with moisture, it was still possible to have mould growing on tea in a place like Taipei (and remember, I was on the 8th floor, not in a basement). So, even if a tea is “dry” stored, it is worth keeping in mind what that means for the tea.

3) Northern China

When I was in Beijing doing research, I lived there for a year. In that year, I spent probably more time trolling the tea markets than anything else, and was able to gain some insight into not only the tea market but also what people thought about what they were selling and drinking, largely through talking to a wide variety of people, from girls who came from tea farms in Yiwu to Beijing entrepreneur-turned-tea merchant. While this does not mean that what I found was a China-wide phenomenon, I do think that there’s some representation in terms of Yunnanese views as well, as Kunming is also a very dry climate (although not nearly as cold).

Basically, anything stored in Southern China is considered wet. I remember trying a few teas that were maybe about 10 years old by Southern China standard and certainly dry stored (again, by that standard). The almost unanimous response was “this is wet stored” and “this is poorly stored”. They demand a very dry kind of storage up north, where teas change very slowly and retain much of their original character through storage, mellowing very, very slowly. If you show them truly wet stored (i.e. ground storage) teas, they often think it is cooked puerh, or simply don’t recognize what they’re drinking.

Part of this, I think, is historical. Puerh really wasn’t consumed outside of a few provinces in the south and Southeast Asia, and so the experience of the Beijingers have been much shorter, generally (at this point in 2008) about five years old or so. Prior to that, they drank light tieguanyin, and before that, longjing, and a little further back, jasmine. Their tastes tend to the fragrant and light side of things (perhaps an antidote to the heavy food) and I think this preference shows itself in their choice of puerh as well.

4) The Occident

So what is wet storage in the Occident? Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but I think a survey of the internet is probably a pretty good approximation of what the consensus is.

To put it simply, there isn’t a consensus from what I can see. There are varying definitions of what “wet” or “dry” storage means, and different vantage points with which to view this issue. There are a few issues that complicate this problem. First, like Beijing, experience with puerh drinking in the West is certainly thin. Moreover, information is hard to come by, with a lot of it being provided by vendors who sell tea. Another problem, and I think this is a critical issue, is the lack of experience among drinkers who ca
n differentiate the different kinds of storage. While I was lucky to be guided by more experienced hands, and have had the opportunity to drink a wide variety of teas, many in the West rely solely on retailers who sell through the internet. The teas being sold through this medium are, for the most part, young cakes that are under 10 years of age. There is also a selection bias in the inventory of such vendors, and so they often only reflect one philosophy with regards to proper storage condition.

What I find generally true is that “wet” storage has been largely seen as a bad thing – it is believed that it affects the tea negatively. I have also seen an interesting obsession with the idea that teas need to retain their “true” “authentic” flavour, and “wet” storage is seen as something that will tamper with the purity of the tea. To that end, “dry” storage is seen as ideal – it retains the flavour of the original tea and thus is “better”.

Long time reader of this blog probably know that I don’t necessarily subscribe to this view. In particular, I do not believe that it is important to keep the original flavour of the tea in order for the storage to be successful. If anything, the point of storage is to change the flavour of the tea away from its original character, which is often harsh and bitter, into something that is sweeter, softer, and mellower. The degree to which this change should take place varies by individuals. However, I think it is not the best idea to think that teas should be kept in a largely similar condition to when it was purchased. If that is the goal, the best choice is to buy well sealed tieguanyin or green tea and drink it when appropriate.

What I think it comes down to is a problem of transmission of information – whereas it is possible to drink a lot of different kinds of teas, talk to a lot of people, read a lot of books, and see a lot of cakes if you’re in Taiwan, China, or Southeast Asia, in the US or Europe, the choices are extremely limited, prices are almost always high, and information hard to come by. What little that exists are fragmentary and prone to personal biases (including, of course, mine). There’s hope for optimism though, as years pass we all gain experience storing teas and buying teas, and give them a few more years, we will start seeing the results of storage conditions in places as disparate as Pairs, Florida, and Los Angeles. Some are bound to be disappointed, and it might not have anything to do with storage conditions as the quality of raw materials also plays a significant role. Hopefully we will all come out richer in knowledge.


Comments

What is wet storage? — 17 Comments

  1. MarshalN, it is prudent to remind the reader to keep in mind that discussing storage in LA, New York ,Beijing etc is only the macro climate, but in my opinion and direct experience the micro environment is critical. It may be the macro climate in Malaysia as example, which is different from North to South and in different towns or cities. As well, in each room or container can make a difference.

    I have just recently had the chance to compare a cooked Puerh which I bought about 2 years ago, and stored in my house, with the same tea stored at the tea merchant’s premises. Even this two teas already tasted different.

    So it is well to say it is in Kuala Lumpur (macro), but in whose storage (micro) is also critical.

  2. Well done!

    ‘There is also a selection bias in the inventory of such vendors, and so they often only reflect one philosophy with regards to proper storage condition.’

    I tried a number of  ‘wet’ storaged cakes, and I never liked them. The ‘wet’ storaged teas were taken off my purchasing list, apart from being expensive. Partly because I did not find really good ones, partly I thought they were unhealthy to drink.

  3. Behhl: Great point, I should amend that. I thought about it, but it gets too cumbersome. I remember, for example, how if you want to pick cakes from wet stored stash, you always want the cake in the middle of the stack — not the top, nor the bottom. It’s down to that level of detail.

    Jim: How can they be unhealthy if people in HK have been drinking it for ages (and still are) and the city has one of the highest life expectancies on the planet? It can’t be that bad for you.

  4. Thank you for posting this. I definitely agree with you that a lot of what people rely on is opinions/listing descriptions of sellers when it comes to dry vs. wet and sheng vs. shu. There really doesn’t seem to be much in terms of scholarly input when it comes to pu-erh. The fact that blogs and forums seem to be the most comprehensive source of information speaks to this. I think that those who really are passionate about it will eventually learn what they like and what they don’t like; sort of a personal taste filter. When I first started drinking pu-erh, I definitely relied solely on descriptions to guide me. After tasting, talking, and buying, I’ve started to find that some of the teas I initially thought were amazing really aren’t ready to drink yet…likely because I was comparing them to small bags on string stuffed with dust and fannings. Actually, when I first started drinking, I had a stigma against shu as well, because of what I had read. It wasn’t until I started sampling them with a more consistent practice and an open mind that I saw why there is a market there as well. To that extent, most of these metrics are relative. Perhaps in time I’ll find a healthy balance between personal experience and everything else I absorb from those around me, but in the mean time, I’ll continue to rely on individuals such as yourself to help guide me.

  5. These should be the 4th Commandment for every puerh beginner and seasoned drinker! Thanks for putting your wisdom in such a clear, easy to digest way regarding to this hard difficult subject. My Man! T

  6. What a great post and article. It’s probably not worth mentioning in the article, but since I live in Florida I use air conditioning almost all summer and heat much of the winter. It is normal down here for people never to open windows in their houses … for years and years at a time.

    So, the Florida macro climate is generally on the hot and humid side, but the custom of running A/C and heat means the interiors of our homes can be moderately to extremely dry. I bring this up because some people ignore the important issue Behhl mentions, micro climate. Also in the cold parts of the US where heat is running for months at a time, sometimes half the year, it can be literally as dry as a desert even though the frigid air outside still contains a fair amount of humidity.

  7. MarshalN, You missed my point.

    “Long life is not equal to drinking ‘wet’ storaged pu”.  We are talking about ‘wet storage’ here, right?

    There is no hard evidence to prove ‘wet’ storaged Pu is healthy or unhealthy. Besides, a great percentage of HK people never drink Pu in their life for all I know.

     

  8. Jim: But you said “I thought they were unhealthy to drink”

    Not too many consciously drink this stuff for fun. Most are consumed in a variety of ways, usually in restaurants when they order puerh. Most people are clueless what they’re drinking.

  9. ‘they were unhealthy to drink’ is stating a fact. But I said ‘I thought’, so it’s just my opinion. Ha, ha.

    This makes your statement so true:

    ‘There is also a selection bias in the inventory of such vendors, and so they often only reflect one philosophy with regards to proper storage condition.’

  10. I know it’s an opinion, but I don’t think it’s based in the facts — it’s something that I keep hearing repeated, especially by a lot of people in Beijing, who think it’s really “dirty” and really want their tea to be “clean”. Well, sure, but I don’t think wet stored tea is necessarily dirty.

  11. I live in Tucson Arizona, so the storage here is dry…real dry. I can report that our cakes are changing slowly, and since I have only been collecting puer for about ten years it is too soon to say the end result.

    I visited the puer ‘bank’ that was set up in Yunnan last year, and granted it was in early June, so it was hot, but I thought the storage conditions there were extreme. The bank is really an old jasmine tea factory build like a giant quonset hut, and it was really hot in there, and humid, though I don’t believe it was over 70%. Certainly it was impacting the natural process. Most of the space in the ‘bank’ was not filled, and with the bursting of the puer bubble, I doubt that it will be.

    I can say that until recently has the storage issue caused so much thought. I have tasted some very good puer, that was stored carelessly, in fact I would say haphazardly, and was really good. I know there are a lot of puer dealers in the Fangcun tea wholesale market that have a lot of 2007 puer that they can’t sell, so there will be a lot of wet storage cakes around in the future. I’m guessing they will be drinkable.

    Austin
    Seven Cups

  12. Austin: I agree – there will be a lot of wetter stored puerh out there that will be entirely drinkable. In fact, I think wetter storage is better for a lot of the low grade stuff out there that have been produced the past few years than drier storage. Just my thought…

  13. Interesting agreement PuerhShop. I think most of the newer puerh drinkers (5-20 yrs) have no idea what the tradition and background about puerh taste like. I do draw the a similar conclusion to new (light) Oolong drinker in Beijing and Yunnan, which they have no idea of what traditional Refine fired and aged oolong is all about. Newer generation, fresher approach, IMO. Toki

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