Seven years in Portland

Some years ago, I gave my cousin living in Portland, Oregon this cake. I bought about a dozen of these when I was in Beijing, and I sent them one. I think it was 2007 when this happened, although it could also be in 2006. Either way, it’s been some years, and every time I visit them I would try a little bit of it. It’s gone through natural storage in their kitchen pantry in a ziploc bag. When I open it it usually smells of nothing.

The rest of my cakes, ever since I left Beijing, have been stored in Hong Kong, also in natural home storage. They were mostly in tongs, although I had a few loose cakes. I didn’t put them in any ziploc bags, so they were just sitting out there. I didn’t really drink that much of it over the years, so I still have about 10 of these. It’s actually rather scary how they’re all soon to be 13 years old teas now.

Recently I grandpa’ed a cake of the ones I stored in Hong Kong, so I got to know the taste of my tea really well. When I visited Portland over Christmas, I tried a little of it as usual, and I noticed that it’s obviously different from what I have at home. So I asked them for a little sample of the cake, and took it home. It’s impossible to tell if the teas tasted different because of the water or if it’s because the tea itself is different. My impression in Portland is that it is a little more fragrant, but also a bit thinner and sharper than what I have at home.


So I brought it home, and decided to brew them side by side. The left one is the Portland one, the right one is the Hong Kong one. You can see that the Portland one is a bit lighter in colour.

So I took 3g of each (this is 3g you’re seeing, minus a little extra) and then brewed them. I brewed them for two infusions of five minutes each. The colour of the brew is not very obviously different in the first infusion, but somehow for the second it actually became more obvious.

So the right one is a bit darker, surprise surprise.

The tastes of the teas are, as I expected, a little sharper, a little more floral, more “high” notes but less “bass” for the Portland stored one. The Hong Kong one is a little bit darker in tone, a little smoother in the body, and a little bit sweeter. Are the differences obvious? Yes. Are they still recognizable as the same tea? Also yes.

Not a lot of information from either the dry leaves, the liquor colour, or the wet leaves visually. The effect of storing in Hong Kong, versus storing in Portland, is a bit like using different casks for scotch. Portland, in this case, would be the oak cask from start to finish, whereas Hong Kong is a little more like a sherry finished one. I think the Portland tea has definitely transformed less – it’s closer to the original, with a bit more bitterness retained and a little less change over time. The Hong Kong one is still bitter as well, but a little less so. I suppose preference for one or the other is really a personal choice, but to me the biggest knock against the Portland tea is that it feels sharp and thin. It’s not as pleasant when compared against the Hong Kong stored one.

The differences are solely due to storage – they were bought together and until I gave it to my cousin, the teas were stored together. This was a pretty interesting natural experiment.


Comments

Seven years in Portland — 16 Comments

  1. Washington/Oregon is a weird place for storing puerh tea. Also, it’s the only place in the continental U.S. (I think) where commercial tea is grown. Most of Washington/Oregon is an immense desert with almost no humidity at all. The other part of the state is very wet, but cold in the winter. So indoor storage of cakes during the winter is a problem. I imagine that might be what slows down the aging. Hard to say. I’ve been having some luck with storing cakes in Maine– but the winter is killing me.

    Ben

    • Well, I think that’s a common problem for much of North America and Europe – cold, long winters meaning lots of time spent in artificially heated but dry environment. That’s not a very good combo.

      • Yes, I’ve had cakes here for almost a year now and I feel like with what I know, I’ve noticed these factors as well. I’m on the western side, so I don’t have the desert problem, but I do feel as these cakes are going to age a bit oddly, if at all, without a lot of experimenting and figuring out. I’d rather not bother with that at this point though… I’ll simply drink and see what happens.

        I’ve done research in the past, and I believe there are around seven or so tea plantations in the US of which I could find documentation. I plan on visiting the one in Washington someday. If I remember correctly it’s managed by descendants of Japanese immigrants that started the farm as primarily a berry farm.

  2. Yes, what an interesting chance to investigate different storage conditions. We also have a tough time storing our pu’er in Montreal- both cold and humid! We try to keep our cakes airtight, but that becomes a pain if you just want to drink some. If those Pu’er cakes were going up to freezing cold Tibet for thousands of years, seems like they’d have a good way to deal with less than optimal storage environments.

  3. I think the whole idea of promoting the relatively wet storage in places like HK, Taiwan, and South East Asia, is a very dangerous thing to sell. As pu-erh drinkers, we all need to be aware of the increasing (yet, not fully conclusive) scientific evidence that wet stored pu-erh promotes the growth of mycotoxin-producing molds. See

    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10942912.2014.885043#.VL9Toy6UcZM

    http://www.lifescienceglobal.com/pms/index.php/jbas/article/view/2217

    http://ssu.ac.ir/cms/fileadmin/user_upload/Daneshkadaha/dbehdasht/behdasht_imani/article/Identification-and-quantification-of-fungi-and-mycotoxins-from-Pu-erh-tea_2013_International-Journal-of-Food-Microbiology.pdf

    to quote a few recent examples of research along these lines.

    In my modest opinion, we are dealing with a very risky business here. Aflatoxins and other mycotoxins are potent carcinogens, which affect especially the liver and kidneys, as well as other parts of the human body. In this regard, it is remarkable to notice the high occurrence of liver cancer in HK, Guangdong, Guangxi, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia (in the latter case, especially amongst the Chinese population). I am not claiming that there is a direct correlation between the high occurrence rates of HCC (hepatocellular carcinoma) and the elevated consumption of wet-storage pu-erh and other post-fermented teas in these places (although this can be a good research topic for an adventurous medical doctor), but the latter may be an extra factor to be added to food stuff like corn, peanuts, etc., which are often contaminated with mycotoxins in those places.

    Some vendors do test their ripe and aged pu-ehrs for the presence of mycotoxins (such like aflatoxin B1, B2, G1, G2), but this is not a general practice and it is not applied to sheng. However, such tests are not cheap and not easily available to small vendors and consumers that decide to store their teas at home or to send them to places like HK.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think a few things are in order here

      1) I think one ought to clarify what “wet stored” means. I am merely saying that natural storage in Hong Kong produces a more developed tea than naturally stored tea in Portland, at least in this post. Wet storage, in the traditional sense, requires human-intervention with added moisture and high heat. Those are not present in this case.

      2) Of the three articles you listed, the first one I cannot read because the full-text is not yet online (do you have a print version?). The third does not mention at all where they got their samples from and how – they could easily just be teas the researchers (based in Germany) have procured from local stores, which may have undergone all kinds of storage conditions, wet or dry. Only the second one specifically mentions the location, Guangzhou, where the teas came from. Experienced tea drinkers can tell you that Guangzhou stored teas are often overly moldy and have bad off-tastes. Also, without a comparison with non-wet stored Guangzhou tea, it is impossible to tell if the conclusions they have regarding wet storage (whatever it means – they never defined it) is unique to wet stored teas or puerh tea in general. Without that information, it is actually impossible to come to the conclusion that you did – that wet storage is the culprit for carcinogenic agents that are present in puerh tea. It is also possible that the samples they procured include teas that really should not be consumed because they were stored poorly and would be discarded by drinkers. Researchers buying random samples may not care about such things (in fact, have a vested interest in not selecting for this sort of thing) and would therefore include them in their research. Even in this case, the majority of the samples they found were below acceptable levels of toxicity. I think more comparative research is needed before a more conclusive result can be reached.

      3) High liver cancer rates are much more likely to be highly correlated with high hepatitis B rates in these countries. Given the carrier rates for this virus in the countries you cited, I would venture to guess that it is a much more important contributing factor in the high rates of liver cancer than the consumption of puerh tea that may or may not be contaminated with toxins. We need to remember that the vast majority of the population in most of these places you cited do not consume puerh tea on a regular basis.

      • Let me reply point by point:

        1) I will be glad to provide you a copy of the first article, which comes from a Research group at Yunnan Agricultural University. Please, contact me by email.

        The first article seems to contain some typos, but probably
        their conclusions are reliable. This group sampled pu-erh from 30 factories in the main producing areas of Yunnan. Therefore, I would agree that the results of the research from this group cannot be used to blame any type of wet or traditional storage for the presence of mycotoxins. However, let me elaborate:

        I agree that, from a taste/tea quality point of view, we need to distinguish between “wet storage” and “traditional storage”. On the other hand, from the point of view of mycotoxin production, although quantitatively there may be some differences (to be found by further studies), I believe that, in the long term, the effect should be almost the same. The reason is the following: As found by the authors of the first article above, the mycotoxins are already present in origin, that is, when the tea is manufactured in Yunnan. If the mycotoxins are present, we can conclude that both sheng and shu are contaminated by Aspergillus Flavus (A. Flavus) and other mycotoxin producing fungi by the time they are marketed. This is likely to be as a result of the manufacturing process and the environment, as suggested by the authors of the second study, from Guangdong, who stated in their article:

        “Since fungi opt for living their entire lives within plants, their metabolites and toxic products can easily contaminate plant products and subsequently cause intoxication. Pu-erh tea, especially the wet stored one, is likely to be contaminated by fungi and their toxins, because of its parasite-friendly processes of production, storage, and transport.”

        Now, add to this the fact that moisture and relatively high temperature enhance the growth of A. Flavus and the production of aflatoxins, as it seems to be well known in the case of corn. E.g.

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC376788/pdf/applmicro00103-0091.pdf

        And you have a recipe for a problematic product. Nevertheless, we could think that tea may be different. There is some research out there suggesting that tea extracts do suppress the production of mycotoxins. I would like to believe this makes tea different, but, in the absence of further reserach, let us be cautious and assume that this may not the case. In fact, research has found mycotoxins also in black and herbal teas, probably as a consequence of their poor storage/manufacture. But compared to other teas, raw pu-erh has the added problem that, when the final product is finally put in the market, it already contains much more moisture (typically 10% or more) than other teas.

        Thus, let me put it in overly provocative terms: Pu-erh may be a mycotoxin time bomb if the recent research is confirmed by further studies.

        2) Concerning the correlation between consumption of pu-erh (or post-fermented teas) and liver cancer, I never implied that there is a direct connection. Notice that I wrote above that “I am not claiming that there is a direct correlation between the high occurrence rates of HCC”. In this regard, I agree that the leading cause are the high rates of Hepatitis (B and C) in those places. the However, a few things are remarkable in this phenomenon and that are ‘food for thought’.A priori, hepatitis viruses should not make distinctions between race, sex, or religion. However, in a place like Malaysia, liver cancer is overwhelmingly more frequency amongst the Chinese population (68.7% vs/ 20.4% amongst the Malay). See:

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25512092

        Furthermore, it is also a remarkable that, in all the places that I mentioned, liver cancer rates are higher for males than for females.
        It is for this reason that the presence of mycotoxins in food has been singled as one of the main culprits. See:

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2898880/

        To conclude, I do not want to appear as an alarmist, but I think that it is important to be aware of the risks that we may be facing with pu-erh in general, and with the traditional and especially wet stored versions of it.

        • Thanks, you could send the paper to mail@marshaln.com if you wish.

          I think my problem with the papers is that they do not tell us what conditions the teas are found in. If anything, it is quite possible that teas we think that are visually problematic may be quite ok, when you actually test for toxin levels, whereas ones that look ok might actually be quite toxic. I certainly would like to see better documentation in that regard. In fact, we do not even know how old the teas are that they tested. As a control it is probably also worth at least testing non-puerh obtained from the same stores to try to control for factors such as the location of the store (their storage, processing, etc) versus the tea type.

          I don’t think it is normal for a puerh to contain 10% moisture or more – that would be a poorly produced product, and usually would result in things like cloudy liquor, etc that are telltale signs of bad processing (hence avoidance).

          Well, you didn’t say it, but bringing the two up together (tea and liver cancer) you’re making an implicit connection between them. I think in that regard it is probably better to withhold such judgements before you isolate all the other possible variables – of which there are legion. Even the Chinese population bit may have to do with diet (tea is far from the only dietary difference between Chinese and Malay).

  4. Sorry, in my reply above, where I said “It is for this reason that the presence of mycotoxins in food”, I meanT “It is for GOOD reason the
    the presence of mycotoxins in food…”.

  5. Hey Marshaln, thanks a ton for the excellent post, this is a gift to see a side-by-side comparison of the same tea stored in different places. We all know there’s lots of thoughts out there about how tea will do in different environments, but I think this post provides some good clarity, I appreciate it.

    I’ve been storing puerh in Kentucky for the past nine months or so; using stoneware crocks to get the tea thru the winter here. I noticed the tea beginning to dry out even as early as October, and now my tea closet is down to 39% humidity, obviously way too low to store tea. So I’m adding a little humidity to the crocks with some water-soaked shards of clay, just trying to get the tea thru the winter here at about 60% humidity (with the house at about 70F). So far the tea seems to be doing well, maintaining its aroma and tea flavor, and seems to be just coming along nicely, not really changing much but just maintaining. Also no funky new smells or anything. Hopefully in the summer I’ll be able to push them a little and we’ll see how they do then. This is the best idea I could find without trying some crazy ‘pumidor’, and so far it seems to be going ok. Certainly open to any suggestions if you’ve got any.

    Really appreciate your blog, it has helped me greatly with info on puerh, thanks for taking the time.

  6. just “found” your site…
    it will take a while to read through, but you are very much an expert and so it makes it important to digest what you say about the various teas.
    i like to drink both shu pu-erh (aged 5 years) and oolong (dahongpao, tieguanyin ‘monkey picked’), these teas come from ‘teance’, a tea store in berkeley (my former home town).

    reading that you have a cousin living in portland, i would like to ask which tea place you would recommend there.

    thank you for your answer
    michael

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