My tea got wet

 photo E25687DF-C1CF-48F0-96FE-8221F796CB3F.jpg

Well… that’s sort of the idea, isn’t it, getting your tea leaves wet? In case you can’t tell what’s going on – on a recent trip, I took some tea with me to drink, since I don’t like drinking whatever the place I’m staying at might provide – it’s too much of a lottery unless I’m visiting Taiwan. So, one day we went outside, and when I came back, I met the cleaning lady still working. A short while later, right after she had left, I discovered that my bag of tea was gone. So…. long story short, we fished it out of the garbage, and she claimed that the bag – what you see above – was already that way when she came so she threw it into the trash. Now, I don’t think anyone in my family is insane enough to throw some wet, spent leaves into a bag of dry tea leaves, and I’m pretty damn sure my kids aren’t old enough to learn how to clean up yet, not this way anyway, with a stray tissue to boot. Needless to say, this cake looked nasty, wet all over, and looked like a bit of a lost cause.

Except, it’s not, because of the magic of puerh. Your tea got wet? What to do? Well, you can dry it.

 photo 3A129340-4AD6-403F-9C04-59D8595C3543.jpg

 photo FBBBB59F-35E1-49C5-BACD-3A9FB327FD73.jpg

I scraped off the leaves that got wet, and the rest of the cake, since it’s the center of it anyway, the leaves are pretty dry. Some are still a bit damp, but nothing that indoor heating on a cold day can’t fix. A few hours later, everything is dry to the bone again. I brewed some tea up the next day – no problem. All good as new.

You can’t do this with loose leaf tea. If this were a bag of oolong, for example, the whole bag would’ve been toast. However, because this is a solidly compressed cake, and because the bag wasn’t doused in liquid, other than the surface layer of leaves not much else got wet. In fact, once I scraped off the wet leaves the rest already felt pretty dry to my touch. Leaving it out overnight merely made certain that everything got dry – it probably wasn’t strictly necessary. This illustrates two things: 1) puerh is pretty resistant to moisture and dampness, and it takes a lot to get a cake thoroughly wet, and 2) don’t panic when accidents happen. It’s just tea.

YYX tasting

In response to my post about the YYX, one reader suggested that Phyll and I should do a Google hangout session. Google hangout is useful, but it’s not ideal for tea session – the most important issue is that you are not drinking the same cup. Even if you measure everything down to the exact decimal and brew using the exam same parameters and the same teaware, at the end of the day you’re not drinking from the same leaves and so will not share exactly what you have. Drinking in person is always better.

So obviously, the solution is for me to fly to LA and join Phyll and Will to have a tea session together instead. Will’s joining is fortuitous – not just because he’s another old tea friend from the area, but because he also possesses a few cakes of YYX – in his case he bought it from the Best Tea House directly in 2010, and then stored in his home in LA ever since. So in some ways his tea offers yet another example of differing storage of YYX. His storage condition can be called natural – while it was briefly stored in a pumidor, for most of its life the tea has just sat in a (mostly) closed cabinet in his home in Los Angeles with no additional moisture. I’d presume it’s air conditioned in the summer months.

We started our session with the comparison tasting – it would be bad otherwise if we leave it to the middle or the end of the session, when we might already be tea-fatigued. Instead of drinking it, say, competition style, we decided to drink them serially. Will’s was the first. One of the most obvious things to note about his sample is that it has some smoke – the smoke is fairly obvious and is noticeable even before brewing. The tea’s astringency and bitterness come through. Once you swallow it turns to a nice huigan that has some legs. We didn’t use a lot of leaves – 4g for a small gaiwan. We drank about 7-8 infusions before it becomes more or less flavoured sweet water, at which point we moved on. The wet leaves for Will’s sample are still greenish in tone (C in the photo).

 photo 12918995_1142834115768395_1530516824_n.jpg

Second up was Phyll’s (A). There is one problem with Phyll’s tea, stored in his offsite wine cellar. The wine cellar uses wood drawers for the storage unit, and over the years it seems like the tea has picked up a fair amount of the wood smell. It was apparent to me when I unpacked the cake that was sent to me by Phyll, and I notified him as much. Leaving it around my house for two months before tasting it didn’t really diminish the wood smell, so it will probably take longer for it to happen. The wood smell and taste dominates the first few infusions, overpowering almost everything else. The tea is smoother than Will’s, with less astringency and less obvious bitterness, although that may have something to do with it being the second tea we’re drinking (the bitterness, anyway). There’s no aroma that is discernible because of the strong wood smell. The leaves are noticeably darker with a slightly more leathery texture. After about 4-5 infusions the wood smell/taste recedes and some of YYX’s base notes show up, similar to Will’s tea. In that they are not too different. The wet leaves are dark.

My cake came third in our tasting (B in photo). The first thing that Will noticed, as he was the one prying the tea from the cake, was that it was looser – the cakes have loosened over the years and it’s easier to pry open. I noticed the same when I tried the tea at home. The tea has lost any sense of astringency and is also not very bitter anymore. There is some fruity/plummy taste, and sweet in the back. There’s also a touch of sourness. The body seems slightly thinner, and as Phyll notes it’s lost the vibrancy of youth in comparison with the less-aged samples. Once you drink enough infusions, the tea reverts to similar base notes that you find in the other YYX we tried already, with maybe a touch more age to it than the others. The wet leaves are about the same colour as Phyll’s, surprisingly.

So, what’s there to learn here? Well, first, that there is a real difference among the teas. However, the differences are not huge – they are easily discernable to anyone who’s paying attention, but you can also tell, after some drinking, that they have the same base. Mine is the furthest along in the aging path – there’s no doubt about that. It has developed some of the notes that you start to get when a puerh has been aged long enough – plum, fruit, etc, and lost that more floral and astringent character of younger teas. Environment certainly matters – if you don’t believe that the smell of the storage environment can change how a tea tastes, a smell of Phyll’s cake will convince you otherwise. He’s already moved the cake out of the storage, but it will probably be some time yet before it can actually get rid of that smell, and chances are there will always be a trace of it remaining given how long it’s been in contact with that smell.

I do wonder how much aging has happened to Will’s cake – is it more or less in the same condition as when he bought it in 2010? The existence of smoke, the green wet leaves, and the astringency suggest that not a lot of aging has happened since. It’s great if you love your tea young, but I also suspect that it’s not so good if you like your teas aged and mellow. The tea doesn’t taste like a 15 year old tea.

Phyll’s cake, despite the extra wood smell, is smoother than Will’s. The 10 years it spent in the offsite storage with relatively higher humidity has done something to the tea. The low temperature probably prevented it from being more aged-tasting. It’s an interesting mid-point between Will’s tea and mine, and altogether somewhat different.

It will be interesting to try Phyll’s cake again after say a year or two, let the wood air out, and see if it changes/improves. It will also be interesting, now that I possess a cake, to see how the one stored in Hong Kong will diverge from the ones stored in LA. Maybe we can report back on this experiment after another year or two and see what happens then.

As for the rest of the tea session, we drank a mid 90s 7532 that tastes somewhat cooked due to storage conditions, the 2005 Yisheng that tastes classically Yiwu, 2006 Yangqing Hao Chawangshu, which is similar to the Yisheng except even smoother, but for me lacking a punch. We finished off with a very high end dancong that I procured a while ago that has exceptional qi. The teas were all decent, but it’s the companionship that is the best. It’s good to see old friends again, and now we all have old(ish) tea to share. I look forward to our next tea session!

Separated at birth

People who read this blog probably have all spent at least some time worrying about storage conditions for their puerh tea. There are lots of people who have written lots of things on this subject. Some are plain wrong. Others more plausible. At the end of the day though, there isn’t much hard data to go by, so it all ends up being a bit of a “he said, she said” sort of thing out there.

So it is a bit of a good fortune that I am now in possession of two cakes from the same batch that have been stored separately for over 10 years to compare. The cake in question is the Mengku Yuanyexiang (YYX). It gained fame originally because some people hyped it up around 2005/6 through the puerh magazines and online forums. The tea was produced by the Shuangjiang Mengku Rongshi factory, and exists in a thin and a thick paper version, with the thin paper version being naturally stored while the thick paper is traditionally stored. There was only one batch of each ever made, and while prices shot up when it became famous, the tea never really took off after that and is currently still on sale at places like Taobao for about $250 USD, although there seems to be only a few cakes left. Honestly, at that price it’s not really worth it, especially if the seller is an unknown quantity.

The cakes here in question come from two sources. One is mine – I bought mine from Taobao many years ago for something like $30 USD. The other cake is from a good old friend Phyll, who is an active photographer based in LA and who used to, many years ago, run the tea blog Phyll’s blog. He even has a tasting note for the YYX here. He bought it from Guang of Houde when they used to sell this tea. We have each acquired our cakes about 9-10 years ago, and have stored them since.

My storage is quite simple – it has always lived in Hong Kong since about 2007, in a normal environment, no extra humidity, no climate control, nothing more than just “leave it out there and let it age”. It’s mostly lived in closed shelves/boxes, but not air-tight ones. Phyll, on the other hand, has mostly stored his tea in his off-site wine storage unit with a permanent 15 degrees celcius temperature and a constant 75% RH. So while he lives in LA, this is not LA storage but really a controlled climate storage.

So about a month or so ago we decided to swap teas – we traded cakes, basically, since we each have more than one. I take my photos, usually, but since he’s a professional with much better equipment, this is what the teas look like.

 photo YYX_1024px_01.jpg

 photo YYX_1024px_02.jpg

 photo YYX_1024px_05.jpg

 photo YYX_1024px_06.jpg

A is his, B is mine. There are a few things to notice here – mine is shinier, and it’s not an optical illusion or lighting problem. It really is. The brown is slightly darker/browner on mine as well, while his has a slightly greener undertone to the leaves. The paper on mine is more torn up, but that’s really just because the paper is extremely thin and tears up with any movement – and I’ve moved the tea a couple times. Aside from that, there’s no obvious difference. They smell a bit different, but that’s to be expected.

I actually have not tasted the teas yet. I have been holding on to the tea, trying to get it acclimated to Hong Kong before drinking. Sometimes air travel and what not can change things in the taste of a cake. I also just haven’t had the opportunity to really sit down and drink teas side by side. I hope to do so in the near future, so stay tuned.

Storing Pu’er tea – You are the final master

As long time readers of my blog know, I’m pretty allergic to marketing-speak, especially when the vendor is spewing disinformation. Well, I got an email a couple days ago from an outfit called Misty Peak, which I’ve never heard of but who had somehow harvested my blog email to put on their mailing list. The title of the email is the title of this post – Storing Pu’er tea – You are the final master. Yes. You can read the email here.

Basically, the email tells you how to store your tea, which seems informative enough, until you actually read it. To summarize the five points:

  1. You need circulating air – apparently the tea needs to breath or it’ll suffocate.
  2. There are two kinds of storage – dry and wet. Wet storage is when humidity is 50% or higher. Dry storage is “much drier condition.” No, 50% is not a typo.
  3. Temperature – between 55 and 80F (that’s 13 to 27 real degrees for the rest of the world)
  4. Store tea with other similar teas, turn over your tea every six months so “the leaves are getting exposure to the elements” and store it in porous containers, like wood or clay. If your got your tea in bags, throw away the bags or drink them quickly. The perfect place to store tea in a house is the top shelf of your closet – put it near a bowl of water and introduce a humidifier if it’s too dry. “There should be plenty of fresh air coming in as you open that door often and perhaps leave it ajar from time-to-time with a window open.”
  5. “Caravans of horses and mules travelled thousands of miles by foot over snow-capped mountains and through sun-heated desserts [sic].” So have fun. “Place some in your cabinet, some in your closet, and maybe even some on your porch. Just remember, this tea was cared for and crafted with absolute mastery and now it is up to you to learn to store it with care and prepare it with patience. You, my dearest tea friend, are the final master in this tea’s journey.”

Now, if you haven’t figure it out already – do not follow any of this “advice” if you care about your tea at all.

Let’s start with point 1. Airflow is pretty much a bad idea, and the theory that puerh needs fresh air to age is simply bogus. Fresh air can do a lot of things, but most of it will destroy your tea. If you want your tea to retain its aroma and age well, stick it in a place with low airflow that isn’t too damp. The fastest I’ve ever seen mold grow on my cake was on a coffee table with good airflow. A few days of continuous rain and it started growing stuff. Don’t do it.

The definition of dry and wet here is so off it’s laughable. Wet (I think they mean traditional in my usage) is a lot wetter than “50%” humidity – in fact, 50% is positively dry. Anything drier is going to kill your tea, and even a constant 50% will pretty much ensure your tea never really age at all. The idea that 50% or higher is wet is… simply amazing in its ignorance coming from a vendor. Certainly no vendor in Asia will call that wet.

Temperature – well, this is a sort of reasonable, if somewhat low, range. Temperature is not going to kill you here, but if it’s too cold for too long your tea won’t change much either. The reason Malaysian teas age a bit faster is because they’re generally hotter there. If your temperature is a constant 15 degrees your tea once again won’t age much at all.

Point 4 pretty much repeats what comes before, except that as people who have tried storing teas in clay can tell you – clay is very, very dangerous, and can easily kill your tea by helping mold grow. It’s not a porous material at all – certainly not porous enough. Wood, even, is pretty risky, and wood has the additional risk of smell coming from the wood itself. Sometimes simple is best – paper box with a tiny opening, a closet that is almost always closed in an area that isn’t too damp, avoid direct sunlight, etc. You can experiment with additional moisture via bowls of water if your area is dry, but humidifier is a pretty risky thing to use and I’d caution against it. You only need to screw up once to mess up your whole stash.

Point 5 is so comical as to invite laughter, or if I’m less charitable, I’d think they’re actively trying to get you to screw up your tea so that you’d have to buy more from them. Put your tea on your porch? Really? Caravans traveled through snow-capped mountains and sun-heated deserts? Not really – not usually anyway. They mostly traveled through passes (instead of over the mountains) and on plains through oases. You’d avoid deserts if you can help it at all. And don’t get me started on the bit that I haven’t quoted about dead horses and coming back to the tea years later.

So with this email, I was curious who these guys were, so I went to their website. I see they only do puerh, which is disappointing – for an outfit that only does puerh, the advice they’re giving you is astonishingly bad. I went to their “About” and “FAQ” pages, and noticed a few interesting things

“Our tea is the only tea on the market grown and processed by one family from trees planted in Yunnan China before the advent of electricity, 200-500 years ago.”

Pretty sure this statement is not true. There are lots of people selling single family teas from old tea trees in China (real or fake), but I guess if it’s in China it’s not happening?

“In 2014, the online tea community on the world’s largest tea review website, Steepster, rated us the #1 Pu’er Tea in the world out of over 5,000 different Pu’er teas with over 10,000 voting people!

Oh, Steepster…..

“Now the tea is available in over 370 select shops in the North America, Europe, Asia, and South America.”

Let’s see… 370 shops, but only one farm, and only 200-500 years old trees. That’s A LOT OF TREES FOR ONE FARM. Does this pass the smell test? You be the judge.

“First company in the world to change the shape of Pu’er Tea.”

You clearly haven’t bought any gongyicha before. You made a triangle in 2015. These guys made an elephant in 2013. There are also countless examples of other people who did this sort of thing way earlier. First in the world? Really? Have you ever been to a tea market in China? Obviously not.

Anyway, I think I’ve made my point. Avoid these clowns, and stop putting me on your junk mail list.


Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. For those of us looking for aged puerh teas, I think we all wish we have the gift of seeing into the future, to learn how a tea will age over time and whether or not it will become great. Some will, many won’t. It might be useful to remember that not all teas will age well – the ones that are commanding high prices today may have done so, but there were more, probably far more, that were produced, consumed, and in some cases, tossed out. We know for a fact that not every cake will turn out great. Figuring that out is the difficult part.

 photo 6af8e69f-8725-4aef-b861-ace6f98d4d6b.jpg

A couple years ago I retasted a cake that I bought when I lived in Beijing. At that time I thought the cake was ok – not great, but not horrible. I did note, however, that it was a bit thin. I drank it at the time brewing gongfu style, probably adjusting my brewing parameters as I went along. After that retasting, it went back into the storage and hasn’t been seen since.

Well, I’m on a trip now, and I pulled out a cake randomly to take with me on this trip to drink. This was the lucky draw. Drinking the tea grandpa style, I have to say the tea is not very good. It has that thin, metallic taste indicative of lower quality tea. It’s aged, yes, but not in a particularly pleasant way. The overall outcome, I think, is wanting. I have a lot of tea better than this, and there really isn’t a single reason why I would want to drink this now, or ever. If given a choice, a black tea from any decent coffee shop will trump this one in terms of pleasure it can deliver. My previous evaluation was too generous – I think I was giving it a chance, and this tea has blown that chance.

I’m sure I have many cakes like this one. We all do. I’m wondering what I should do with these – throw them away? Drink them? Keeping them is sort of silly, because they are really not going to improve at this point. Drinking them – well, they’re not really great and there are so many other, better things to drink. Since my consumption of tea is finite, drinking one of these necessarily means I’m not drinking one of my better teas. Throwing them away seems like the most logical and rational choice, even though it’s hard to get myself to do that. Perhaps I will thank myself later when I move and have less tea to carry.

When to give up

At what point do you give up on a cake that you have kept for aging?

I ask this because it is an important question for those of us sitting on tea. If you are a buyer of puerh and have stored some for aging, at some point you need to take them out and start drinking – after all, that’s the point. When you first start, it is likely that you bought more or less indiscriminately. You may have purchased teas based on recommendations by others who are supposed to, perhaps, know more than you. You may have bought because of the reputation of the vendor. You may have also bought because you liked how the tea tasted then. Afterwards, a few years later, perhaps, you take out that same cake again and discover that it’s changed, but not necessarily for the better. What do you do? You tell yourself “well, it’s just going through that awkward phase; it’ll get better” and put it back in storage.

What if the same thing happens two years later? Four? Ten? When do you just tell yourself “this was a terrible purchase and it’s never going to get better”?

I have a bunch of stuff like this. Some I bought because they were cheap at the time and I figured I could afford to gamble. Some because, well, I didn’t know better. Some because they seemed decent at the time, but subsequently has turned out to be quite terrible. I know my aging environment is fine, because I have a number of teas that I stored myself for ten years now that are quite drinkable. So the aging environment isn’t the problem; the tea is.

It’s true that sometimes teas do go through an awkward phase. They have lost that initial sweetness/floral fragrance that are characteristic of new teas, but have not yet developed old tea taste. It’s that weird in between state where it’s really a pretty bad thing to drink. However, I also think that there are many teas out there that simply cannot and will not age. This is mostly because of bad processing to start off with. If your tea was processed like a green tea, bad news, it’s not going to get better. Aged green tea will never develop that complex and rich flavour of puerh that you should be striving for (and if you are one of those people storing tea to preserve its flavours and fragrance, you’re in the wrong business). A telltale sign of a tea that is processed like a green tea is a beany taste – think a fresh biluochun, a classic beany tea. If your tea smells like a longjing or a biluochun, it’s time to drink it fast because it’s not going to get better.

There are, I think, storage environments where the tea will also die, and I suspect (although without firm proof, because I haven’t tried) that once killed by bad storage, the tea will never recover. There are of course two types of death by storage. The first is the obvious – heavy mold, bad mold (golden flowers), extensive sun exposure, etc. The second is more subtle – environment that has strong odd smells (medicine cabinet, for example), too close to the sea (it will get salty), too dry (the tea will taste thin), etc. Some of these in the second category need not be fatal, if recovered sufficiently quickly – a week in a medicine cabinet won’t do anything bad to your tea. Three years, however, and you have a different problem.

So if your tea is aging poorly either because it was bad to start off with, or because it has had bad storage, at some point you should just give up on it. Even though it may taste great initially, it’s no guarantee that it will age well – many well known teas were terrible when they were young, being very bitter, astringent, smoky, etc. When you want to give up is of course up to you, but I think by year five, if the tea is getting thin, more and more bitter, or otherwise exhibiting signs that it is not aging well at all, it may be time to reconsider the value of keeping it long term. As a comparison, it is useful to keep a cake of Menghai 7542 around as a control. It is, after all, the standard puerh cake. If your 7542 is aging badly, then it’s your environment. If your 7542 is aging well and your other cake isn’t, well, it’s the cake. Hope is, of course, what keeps us alive and living, so hoping that your tea will recover is a natural thing. Sometimes though, it is useful to admit defeat, drink up the tea (or get rid of it) and save some space. You’ll thank yourself next time you move.

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.

 photo IMG_6864.jpg
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.

 photo IMG_6867.jpg

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.

 photo IMG_6869.jpg


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.

The dangers of dry and cold

Well, regular readers know that I’m skeptical of storage conditions that are too dry or too cold. The combination of these two things is generally not good news for puerh tea. It makes for bad tea.

I recently bought a few cakes through Taobao from a vendor in Tianjin. I’ve bought from them before, years ago. Their tea is not that bad. These teas I got are not bad tea per se, but the storage on them has made them pretty poor. Specifically, the cakes (all different) all share a slightly sour, thin, and unpleasant note. Two of the teas are themselves very decent originally – the base tea still shines through, a bit, but without any of the thickness and richness you’d hope to see from teas that are 7-10 years old. Instead, they are just…. sour and a bit bland. If I have teas that old that taste like this, I’d be disappointed.

One of the cakes is a nice Yiwu that I know didn’t taste like that when first made, because I tried it way back when it first came out. I never bought any, because it was out of my budget at the time living on grad student stipend. I wish I had some, and was hoping that this cake would be ok, but it’s not – not in this condition.

Tianjin is typical north China – cold, not too damp, although probably damper than some of the more inland places like Beijing. This is why I normally don’t like to buy teas that are stored in any of these drier climates – they taste bad. The damage in taste is also not obvious when you’re buying online – the cakes, even when held in person, look perfectly fine. There’s no really obvious sign that something is awry, until you put it in water and try it.

This is not to say the tea hasn’t changed – it has. The colour has changed, the taste is also not what you’d see when it’s new. But as a tea that is getting better with age? No, not really. Just because a tea changes over time doesn’t mean it’s changing for the better over time, and a lot of people in these areas have never had a good tasting 10 year old to compare against, so it’s not obvious to them what’s wrong with teas like this.

Now the next question is whether some wet weather storage in Hong Kong can salvage the tea. I’ll let you know in a few years.

Temperature, humidity, and storage

I just got back from Southern Germany, where the land is flat and the beer is good. The weather was beautiful. I also came back with chapped lips, which led me to think about storing puerh tea in these places.

There’s a general consensus that the higher the temperature and the humidity the tea is stored in, the faster the tea changes. People disagree as to whether that’s a good thing or not, and some of it comes down to personal tastes (some people like their tea young tasting for reasons I don’t understand). Above a certain point, the high temperature and humidity will induce mold, which is generally seen as less desirable this day and age. However, under normal circumstances in natural settings, it is difficult to generate enough moisture to attain the level of humidity and temperature used in traditional storage facilities (we are talking +30C and relative humidity of 90% or even higher, in a tightly packed enclosed space). If you store your tea naturally, in an environment in which human beings are comfortable and not exposed to the elements, your worry shouldn’t be mold.

Instead, I think the worry should be too low a temperature/humidity. The problem, at least on an anecdotal level for me, is that tea stored too dry will begin to exhibit undesirable traits such as roughness, thinness, and lack of aroma, in addition to just not changing (or changing very slowly). I am presuming that the whole point of storing your tea is that it changes and ages – for those who want their tea young and fresh, you can stop reading now.

The dryness-induced changes are usually not very obvious problems, and may not even be apparent until you tried it side by side with a tea stored in a more optimal environment, at which point it becomes really clear that the tea stored in really dry climates is lacking something. Opinions are mixed on whether that can be revived, but it’s not at all clear that it is easy to do so without running risks.

Leaving aside why exactly higher temperature and humidity seems to allow teas to age in a more interesting manner, I suspect that it is not as simple as pointing to your humidity gauge and saying humidity is high in you neighbourhood. Since both of these factors are actually related to one another, I will attempt to talk about this in more absolute terms.

Hot air can hold more moisture than cold air. That’s just a matter of fact. Relative humidity in general is a poor indication of the amount of moisture in the air at any given time, unless you also give a temperature reading. So, if you look at this chart, you’ll see that at 30 degrees Celcius and 50% relative humidity, the air still has more moisture in it than 15 degree Celcius and 100% relative humidity. At the same time though, we know that the air has more capacity to suck in moisture – so it can dry things out faster. Experienced hands here who have long stored tea all believe that it is important for the tea to breath through the seasons – meaning that it goes through wet and dry periods. The winter, when it’s dry and cold (relatively) here, is when the tea rests. Then spring comes, when it’s quite wet, and then the summer, when it’s hot, and by the fall, it starts drying out again. And the cycle repeats itself. Slow changes in the climate seems to beget changes in taste.

I remember when I came back to Hong Kong one time during my study overseas, I noticed that one of my tongs of tea was moved to closer to the window, and this being early spring, it was extremely wet and warm in Hong Kong. The tong was almost wet to the touch – the tea, while not quite soaked, was certainly not dry. I moved it to a higher location on the shelves and, now, years later, the tea is no worse for wear, and in fact is quite nice last time I tried it. It has also certainly aged from when it was first purchased, when it was a green, young, rather bitter thing. That’s what we want after all – for that bitterness to recede and slowly replaced by aged tastes of sweetness.

So when I was in Germany, I noticed that the weather was quite warm, but it was very, very dry. It also gets cold rather quickly at night. Of course this is far from desert like climate, but it reminds me of Beijing, where the weather can also be pretty dry and warm. In my experience, places like that produce really badly stored cakes – they literally feel dry when you drink them, and are usually devoid of fragrance and flavour. Heat with too-low humidity is no good – the ones I’ve tried where they have been stored in high heat, low humidity places tend to be really, really nasty. When people use the term “dry storage” they really meant it in relation to “wet storage” or what I like to call traditional storage. It’s not “bone dry” storage. That’s what you do for mummies. I think the reason it’s dry during the day is because of the low temperatures at night, the moisture condenses, and over the course of the day as it heats up, the humidity drops because temperatures go up – and before there’s a real chance for the moisture to be evaporated again, temperature drops again at night, keeping things fairly dry during the day. I’m not sure what this does to tea, but I suspect it’s not a great environment.

Having said that, I generally think it’s not very wise to build elaborate pumidors to try to artificially inflate humidity for your storage. The reason is simple – it’s very risky, and you can easily cause mold or other undesirables. What you can probably do without much harm is to take precautions – don’t let too much airflow into your storage area, maybe add a little water container that has little risk of spillage. I really wouldn’t do more than that.

Not all old tea is good

We are always told that older teas are, somehow, better. Imagine if your old tea came from here though

 photo 9D0C58E7-DDB6-4FB8-AB06-C253CF203584-1804-000000AD5886BF44.jpg

 photo 74F080A3-602B-41D6-ADA1-0E6260B7349E-1804-000000AD5238EC97.jpg

This is a tea display from a grocery shop not too far from my home. They sell some pretty dubious teas, not sourced from this little display, of course. Nevertheless, if you ever need convincing that storage environment matters, this is it – it’s exposed to the sun, probably really hot, and hasn’t been cleaned in decades. God forbid you end up with a cake from here.