Don’t be hasty

There’s been quite a few responses on my last post, some focusing on the problem of “too dry storage” and how to fix it. I think it is important to keep in mind that although I said you can’t quite make “traditional storage” at home, you can easily grow mold at home, if you have the right conditions and aren’t paying attention. For example, look at this experiment that went horribly wrong.

There are lots of variable that go into aging and proper levels of moisture, etc, that makes it difficult to pinpoint what is a good condition and what is not. In that post, Tuochatea mentioned that the Jingyehao teas were not molded. That’s interesting, but may also be explained by the fact that the cakes were more compressed than the other ones. He also put some Xizihao in there, which tend to be loosely compressed, hairy teas, which are much more likely to attract and retain moisture than your run of the mill cakes. Put some Xiaguan iron cakes in there, and it’s quite likely that the mold damage would have been very light, or none at all.

If you go about changing your storage condition, especially if you try to accelerate aging by adding moisture artificially, or putting the tea in a place with naturally high moisture, it is quite important to be able to check on the tea every so often to make sure it’s going ok. If it’s an environment where human beings normally move about comfortably, then there probably won’t be much of a problem. On the other hand, if it’s in a shed or some such, or, as I’ve read once on a Chinese blog somewhere, moved outdoors onto someone’s balcony, then you’re playing with fire and can very easily ruin a whole bunch of tea in very little time, especially if you don’t catch the mold growing on a few leaves. Also, the natural rhythm of the seasons is said to be beneficial for tea aging – that the tea will “breath” moisture in and out as the climate changes. A constantly high humidity environment doesn’t allow the tea to do that.

So just because I told you to learn to stop worrying and love the moisture, I am most definitely not telling anyone to just buy two humidifiers and start pumping water into your room 24 hours a day. If you do that in, say, Phoenix Arizona, that’s probably fine, since it’s so dry there. If you try that in coastal Maine, it might not be such a bright idea and may very well end in tears.

Ideas of proper puerh storage

A few people recently pointed me to a blog post on McIntosh Tea serving as a “how-to” guide to storage for puerh. I think it is always good to have more discussion on this topic, and very often people have little idea of what to do for teas in general, and puerh in particular. However, I also believe it is very essential to have good, accurate information, and when things pop up online or elsewhere that seem to be misinformed, it can easily mislead people in the wrong direction. Alas, I think there are a number of problems in this post that need to be questioned.

The premise of the post is that Mr. McIntosh is trying to build a tea storage for his budding business as well as personal collection, which is a great reason to figure out a good way to store your tea. However, after talking to “tea wholesalers, retailers, collectors and experts in the field”, the solution he came up with is more or less the same as a lot of what others have built that are affectionately called “pumidors”. Basically – a closet, or an enclosed space, with a water source that provides some additional humidity in the environment. So far, so logical.

This is where the problems start. There are logistical issues, such as having a wet towel constantly on a plaster wall being VERY likely to induce mildew in that particular area of the wall (and thus more likely to infect the tea stored in the same space). The entire post is built on a foundation that is really rather shaky, namely that of focusing overly much on relative humidity and not enough on anything else.

The most important of these factors is temperature. Relative humidity of 70% in a 25C environment is very different from the same relative humidity in a 15C environment. The former is conducive to tea aging, the latter is not, because it’s too cold. Aging tea requires humidity and temperature, neither of which can be too low. Ignoring temperature from the equation is basically like telling people to store wine correctly on a rack in a damp environment, while forgetting to mention it needs to be kept cool. You can end up with vinegar that way.

Also, the relative humidity number used in the post is itself rather problematic. How did he come up with 50-65% as the optimal range for such storage? I can’t quite figure it out, and would appreciate if he would elaborate. After all, Kunming, which is well known as a place with relatively dry storage condition for puerh, has humidity that fluctuates between 60-80% throughout the year. 50-65% is considerably lower, and if you believe anything Cloud says, he would think that’s too low for the right conditions for aging good puerh tea, and 20-30C being a good range of temperature.

This choice of super-low relative humidity is probably explained by McIntosh’s self-professed dislike of “wet-stored tea”, but as I have made clear many times before, “traditional storage” is not the same thing as “wet storage”. You cannot replicate traditional storage at home, even if you try and pump up humidity and temperature. What you’ll get instead is some nasty tasting, mold covered tea, but the richness and the flavours that at least some find alluring in traditionally stored teas will be missing. For that, you need large volume, expert control, and the proper environment for it. You won’t get that at home, even if you try, unless your home also happens to have a more or less air-tight basement with literally tonnes of tea and 30C+ temperature.

What you can achieve with McIntosh’s setup, however, is storage that is far too dry. They can seriously damage the tea, and yield horrible results. Quite a few Kunming stored tea that I have tried that have been there since the early 2000s have similar problems, but the desert treatment that I’ve tasted takes the cake in terms of dryness damage. Not all Kunming teas are terribly stored, but many are. The worst is when they’re exposed to high levels of ventilation and dry air – it sucks the moisture out of the tea and will never change into anything decent.

What people forget, I think, is that when the term “dry storage” first appeared, it referred to teas such as the 88 Qing, which was stored naturally (i.e. without traditional ground storage treatment) in Hong Kong in an industrial building. There’s no dehumidifiers, no air conditioning, and only minimal air circulation. Mr. Chan only opened the windows on drier days, but given that in Hong Kong, most of the year the relative humidity is over 80%, when you say “drier days” it’s still quite wet by the standards of many places, and way wetter than the 65% upper limit that McIntosh has proposed, not to mention quite a bit warmer as well. And even then, the 88 Qing was, until maybe about ten years ago, still very young tasting and not particularly nice. It’s only in the past ten years when it really turned into something more fragrant and drinkable. That’s storage under Hong Kong, natural conditions. Under low temperature, low humidity conditions, it would’ve taken considerably longer.

Paragraphs like the following are particularly misleading:

“There are times when I have received a new shipment and have wanted to jump-start the microfloral growth after its been sitting on a boat for a few months covered in bubble-wrap, so I will bring the humidity up to 70% for a short period to speed up the fermentation process. I only will do this for abut a week, since if left longer there is a chance that mildew could form. Personally, I do not enjoy wet-stored tea, so I avoid high-humidity storage.”

Pumping up humidity for a week to 70% for a tea will do absolutely nothing in terms of long term aging, especially if the temperature stays at something like 20C, which is typical of a heated home in the US. I have a cake that I’ve been leaving out in the open for about three months now because it was stuck in some plastic wrap for a long period of time. Relative humidity has been around 95%-98% for the past two weeks with temperature fluctuating between 18-25C, and the cake has exhibited no evidence of any mold or any other abnormal growth. The fact of the matter is, unless you put your tea right next to an open window for weeks when it’s raining nonstop and temperature is hitting 25C or higher, the ability of your tea to grow mold is not exactly high. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but relative humidity of 70 or even 80% is pretty safe unless it’s getting quite hot outside. Overdoing it on the low end, on the other hand, can basically stall any and all aging and will result in teas that change very little over time.

I think what needs to be rectified is the confusion of different terms, and substituting “traditional” for “wet” and “natural” for “dry is a good place to start. There also needs to be a recognition that many of the old teas that we consider great by the tea community at large are, for the most part anyway, stored under conditions that might be considered “wet” in some circles but which are actually what should be just called “natural”. To “Keep your investment safe”, as McIntosh puts it at the very beginning of his post, there needs to be growth in the value of the investment itself, and not just preservation of the status quo or even a decrease in its value. Aging doesn’t happen without temperature and humidity, and so trying to keep humidity down in a temperate environment is almost counterproductive in terms of trying to get good, aged tea ten years down the road. What you might end up with is a lot of wasted time and teas that aren’t particularly good or aged. Regretting the lost ten years will cost considerably more than regretting the money you spent on the tea.

I should hasten to say that I have had and liked many teas that have been naturally stored – I am, by no means, a traditional-only type of tea drinker. In fact, most of the cakes I have are natural storage only since I purchased them, or even since when they were produced. I do, however, find much fault with the idea that’s sometimes propagated on the internet that natural = dryness. Even my friends in Beijing, who a few years ago were very wary of traditionally stored teas, are now trying very hard to find ways to add humidity to their storage precisely because they now recognize that the natural environment in Beijing tends to produce poorly stored teas (dryness + coldness). To speed things up, they’d add water in bags in closed plastic boxes in order to produce something better. Even that doesn’t produce mold. The worry, therefore, is really about dryness, not wetness. It’s easy to spot tea that is starting to grow mold and even easier to rectify such a problem – just reduce humidity and temperature, and you’re good. The cake I found growing mold in Taiwan has had no problem since – it’s aging just fine, even though it had a little bit of growth for a short period. Spotting teas that are stored too-dry and hasn’t been changing much is considerably harder, and the only thing that can fix that is time and effort. If you are drinking your tea regularly, chances are you’ll spot the mold long before it festers into anything serious. That’s how I learned to stop worrying and love the moisture.

Looking for a base

I had tea two days ago with two new friends in Hong Kong here.  It was a pretty interesting session, with exchanges of ideas of the question of aging.  One of the teas we had was a Mengku Yuanyexiang which was provided to me through a friend.  This particular sample was stored traditionally, and exhibited a taste that the two friends said they had not encountered before in this tea.  Considering that both of them have had various versions of Yuanyexiang before a number of times, this is surprising.

One of the most important thing that we all agreed on, I think, is that taste in a puerh is fickle, and changes constantly.  Mr. L, for example, mentioned how he showed some friends from up north that there’s a significant difference between tea that has been properly aired out versus tea that has not.  In the case of tea that has been through traditional storage, the process of airing-out is quite important in making the tea taste good when drinking it.  Many who dislike traditional storage don’t know that breaking apart the cake and letting it sit for six months will greatly enhance the mouthfeel and the taste of the cake, and draw conclusions about traditional storage based on an erroneous understanding of the process and the result.

Likewise, even for teas that don’t go through traditional storage, the taste of the tea changes all the time.  The condition of storage in each individual home, or in different cities, will alter the tea in obvious ways rather quickly.  One hurdle for many newcomers to puerh is to get past that veneer of taste.  This is something that I’ve written about before, but it still bears repeating.  Chasing taste is futile.  Mr. L told me a story of him buying a cake of 7572 back in the day from this one vendor here, and loved the taste.  When he went back to the same store to buy a whole tong, what he got was something different – still 7572, but without that taste he liked.  The owner insisted that it was the same batch, and he had no reason to doubt that claim.  Turns out, after much searching for years for that same taste, that it might have been because that one cake was stored outside a tong that made a difference — the tea soaked up the storage smell of wherever that owner’s storage unit is, whereas the tong didn’t get as much “air time”.  So, chasing such things get be quite futile, and expensive.

This is also important for those of us who rather enjoy the taste of some young puerh – just because you like it now doesn’t mean it’ll turn into something you’ll like even more.  In fact, among those who love the floral and sweet and fragrant flavours of a young puerh, the aging process can be a real disappointment.  It is really quite important to try real, well aged teas of proven vintage and provenance and to know whether or not you even like that taste to begin with.  If you do, great, store tea.  If you don’t, why bother?

It has been proven again and again that many currently good tasting teas often don’t age all that well, whereas a lot of nasty, sour stuff can turn out to be quite decent over time.  I’m not saying only bad tasting tea becomes great when they age, but current taste and future taste are, in and of themselves, not particularly related.  What’s more important is what we call “base” here, which means, roughly, the underlying strength of a tea.  Without such a “base” a tea is doomed to mediocrity, and I think this applies not only to puerh, but all types of tea.  It’s quite difficult to describe without confusing people how to identify “base” in a tea, but I think it is safe to say that it involves physically activating multiple areas of the mouth, throat, and body.  It has nothing to do with whether or not a tea is sour, bitter, or sweet.

The retaste project 4: 2001 Mengku Yuanyexiang

This is a tea that I bought along with the last tea I had, the 2002 Mengku.  Back in the day this was a hot cake, and although the market is now calmer, the tea’s price is a good 7-8x what the 2002 Mengku costs, even though they were made by the same factory and only one year apart in the production date.  I tasted this tea back then right after I purchased it, and the notes are here.  I remember my assessment at the time being that it was slightly nicer than the 2002 version, but not by a wide margin.  Back then the price difference was something like 10-20% difference.  Now, of course, it’s multiples.

This is the thin paper version, and one of the annoyances of teas with such thin wrappers is that they survive storage very badly, especially if they’re out of the tong, which is the case here.

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I realized that I opened the wrong cake, but I just took a look again at the original cake I had in my 2006 post and this one, and in terms of appearance, they exhibit no obvious differences.  It’s the same tea.

The cakes are very distinctive in shape, as are all Mengku factory cakes.  They have a flat surface front and back, especially back, and the edge of the cake is a straight wall, rather than a sloped, tapered edge like Menghai ones.  The cakes are quite unmistakable.  The cake is made up of mostly smaller leaves.

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The cakes did get darker in the five years since I last checked them.  There was some greenness when I drank them last, now they’re more of a blackish colour than anything else.

Now, although the thin paper has always been advertised as “dry stored”, many of the samples I’ve had from other sources in the past five years of this tea have mostly exhibited a “lightly traditionally stored” taste.  It’s not immediately obvious like a normal traditionally stored cake, but once you really savour the tea the storage taste does show up here and there in the shadows.  Most of the tea came from the same place, I believe — one batch of tea that was mostly sold through the Best Tea House in Hong Kong.  Cloud, who originally posted about this tea, also mentions the existence of a lightly traditionally stored version of the thin paper tea.  While no doubt the completely dry stored version surely exists, I don’t think I’ve actually ever encountered it even at the Best Tea House.  Maybe it was all snapped up.

Because of the storage condition that the tea went through, the colour is a bit on the darker side, especially when compared with the 2002.  The colour here is quite consistent with what some others have posted before, for example on Phyll’s blog back in the day (if you’re alive, contact me!).  Given the depth of my cup and the slightly dark lighting conditions, plus a few years of extra storage in Hong Kong, they’re not far apart.

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The tea is actually quite nice, indeed a notch better than the 2002.  Because of the storage difference (the 2002 I have doesn’t seem to have gone through any sort of traditional storage) the taste of this Yuanyexiang is a bit older, and has traces of some older teas I’ve had before.  I’m sure that given another five or ten years, it will turn out quite nicely as a good, aged tea to drink.

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The storage taste is only barely discernable, if you know what you’re looking for.  When I brewed it hard later on with long infusions, it becomes slightly more obvious, and sniffing the wet leaves, likewise, gives a hint of the traditional storage smell.  The leaves are still far from dark brown and exhibit youth in them.  This is a good tea.  Whether or not it’s worth the price of admission now is a question that’s really open to debate.  I tend to think that teas like the 2002 Mengku is a far better value for money, mostly because it’s so much cheaper, widely available, does not have the “fame premium” that you need to pay for the tea, etc, and still have roughly the same quality.  I also know some people who, having stored this 2001 Yuanyexiang for a few years, decide that they don’t really like it much after all.  That’s the problem when “chasing” famous cakes — just because someone else likes it a lot doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy the tea, especially if you plan on storing it for future consumption.  In some cases, you can try reselling them, but in others, you’re stuck with cakes that you don’t want to drink.  It’s a tough call.

Traditional, not wet

In the puerh storage world there has been a fierce debate in the past decade or so between those who believe in “dry storage” and those who don’t.  Until the appearance of “dry stored” puerh, there has only been one way to handle this tea.  The vendor (and it’s always the vendor — individual consumers didn’t buy raw puerh cakes, period) would take in his big order (we’re talking hundreds of cakes or more).  Having evaluated the tea, which usually comes through a middleman who handles the actual transaction, he would decide what to do with it and how to handle it.  Then, the tea goes into the “ground storage” 地倉unit, which is usually some basement in a building on a hill or something similar, so that it’s quite damp and dark.  Usually, the storage unit already has lots of tea in there, aging, and the vendor would make room for the tea.

Now, this environment is usually high humidity and high heat — it gets hot in there for natural reasons (Hong Kong can get to 30C+ in the summer).  Now, the tea isn’t just stored in there forever, and isn’t just going to stay in there for the duration of its life until it’s sold.  The teas were put on little wooden platforms so they don’t touch the ground, and likewise they do not hug the walls — all to avoid excessive moisture accumulating.  Also, the teas would get “rotated” every few months, which is actually a fairly big operation.  What it does is to even out the aging process.  So, a jian of tea that was sitting in the darkest, wettest corner of the storage unit won’t stay there forever, but instead moved out to the front where it’s drier and airier.  The stuff that has been in the open before now gets the dark corner, etc.  The same is true for how high the tea is placed (stuff on top gets moved down, vice versa). It is, I think, important to emphasize that they want to avoid excessive moisture.

This storage process differs by the tea and the vendor, but generally speaking, from the different vendors I’ve talked to, a tea normally would not stay in a ground storage facility for more than two years.  Then the tea gets moved to a regular, dry storage facility, where the “removing the storage” 退倉 process begins.  This would take much longer — six, eight, ten years, or whatever the vendor deems sufficient.  It is only then when the tea is ready.

When I first started talking about wet storage on rec.food.drink.tea, I remember there were people who were quite skeptical of what good could possibly come of wet stored teas.  In their experience, wet stored stuff was bad — unmitigated disaster, basically.  Moldy, smelly, ruined, and dangerous — it was something to be avoided at all costs.  For those who’ve never seen this stuff before, it can indeed look pretty frightening, especially the stuff that has a lot of white frost on them, like this:

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It’s not that obvious here, but you can see white here and there on the leaves.  If you don’t know what you’re looking at, you can easily take this to be bad, spoiled tea, only fit for the garbage.  It looks bad, and it even looks bad when it’s in a cup — dark, almost pitch black sometimes, and generally looking somewhat murky, with that musty smell.  If the “removing the storage” part hasn’t really been completed, or done poorly, it can still smell strongly of the ground storage unit, which can sometimes be a bit offensive to the untrained palette.

However, I am pretty sure this stuff is safe.  After all, millions of people in Hong Kong drink this sort of thing every single day in restaurants everywhere.  If it’s dangerous, its dangers are not apparent.  Also, this method of storage means that each teahouse has its own flavour — after a while, if you keep going back to the same stores for different kinds of puerh, you’ll start to notice that each have their distinct “house” flavours, no doubt related to how they store and handle their teas.  In this way, buying a puerh is as much buying a product of the original producer, as you are buying a “finished” (as opposed to raw) product from the tea vendor.

Now, dry storage — this is a term that really started showing up in, I believe, the 90s, and took on a whole new life after 2000.  It is often attributed first to Vesper Chan of Best Tea House, although that distinction is questionable, but he’s probably the guy who’s the earliest and biggest beneficiary of this.  What dry storage proponents believe is that traditionally stored puerh has a crucial flaw — that the process of putting the tea in ground storage fundamentally alters the way the tea tastes and smells, and some would also claim that it weakens the tea’s qi, and all the other stuff.  On the other hand, something stored purely in a dry environment, meaning without ever going into that ground storage unit, would not have this problem.  It retains the strength and the aroma of the original tea better.  The downside is that it takes a lot longer to age.  The tea also keeps its astringency a lot longer, as well as the bitterness.

It is also important to keep in mind here that dry storage doesn’t mean bone dry, “store it in a desert” storage.  It means keeping it in an environment where there’s still a healthy amount of moisture (it’s Hong Kong, after all) and let it age naturally.  Also, dry storage proponents, the ones who practice it on a large scale anyway, don’t generally store their teas in open air places — they are still storage units that are mostly closed off, shut off from sunlight, and stored carefully.  Leaving it in a really airy corridor in the middle of an open air terrace in Arizona is not their idea of dry.

I think when it comes down to it, whether you like dry or traditional is really a matter of personal preference — there’s no easy answer to this.  Those who use the “health” argument against traditionally stored teas are, I think, wrong, and increasingly, my friends in Northern China who used to hate that stuff are coming around to it.  Dry stored teas have their place as well, I think, as it is really the theory that underpins home stored tea — before this, as I mentioned, nobody bought raw cakes.  When YP, a really knowledgeable tea friend in Hong Kong, went with her friends in search of green, raw cakes in the 90s, the vendors basically stared at them like they’re from Mars, asking “you want WHAT? Why would you ever want that stuff?”  It just wasn’t done until pretty recently.  The fact that we all have tongs of teas in our own houses now is because we think we can do it ourselves.

One problem with traditionally stored tea is that it is often confused by consumers with fake tea — those teas that have been sprayed with water and (as one report had it a few years ago) literally left in the pig sty to age, or stuff made with discarded tea leaves not fit for human consumption, but made to look old.  Traditionally stored puerh is most definitely not fake.  It may not be your cup of tea, but it is very, very real, and it has been around longer than dry stored teas.

With that in mind, I would like to propose a shift in nomenclature — the use of the term “traditional storage” to substitute for the term “wet storage”.  We can relegate “wet storage” back to where it used to be — where the fake teas belong.  Traditional storage, on the other hand, is a venerable method of preparing tea for consumption in a very specific and technically skilled method.  I think it deserves its place in the sun.

Satisfaction

I’m in Hong Kong right now, and one of the first things I do when I get here is to check on my tea supply.  Last time I was here things were just fine — nothing was moldy, as I checked every single tong of my tea.  This time there’s no need to be so thorough, since it’s only been half a year and it’s been the dry season, so instead of actually physically examining all the cakes, I decided to try something I haven’t had for a few years instead, specially, tea that I bought in this instance.

More than four years later, it looks like this now

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The tong was never very pretty to begin with, and after a little moving around in four years’ time, it’s gotten less pretty since.  The tea, however, looked just fine.  I was trying this for the first time since I bought the tea — which is quite a while ago.  The leaves are actually on the brown side now, but still reveals greenness when I removed the outer layer.  I brewed it up using my makeshift setup

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And…. the result was most satisfying.  It was a good tea — good qi, nice body, thickness, etc.  Everything I want in a young puerh, for a pretty low price.  These guys DO know how to pick puerh for aging.  I remember it was pretty harsh when I tried it in their store, but this thing is not a mistake.  I should’ve gotten five tongs instead of one.  Maybe I’ll go back for more.

Growing culture

I didn’t realize that it’s possible to grow mold in heavily chlorinated water, which is what I get from the tap.  I added some water to two glasses and put them in my storage closet for my puerh.  I left them there for a few weeks, figuring there’s no reason to bother them since they had not evaporated.  I went back a few days ago to check on my tea, and I saw a thin film of white and black mold on the water.  Yum.

The tea, however, is fine — no evidence of mold outbreak.  Not sure what to make of it, really, but this is a first.

Storage checkup

I first put tea in my parents’ place in Hong Kong in 2006, and have been adding to it ever since.  This is the first time I am checking on the tea since I started storing tea there.  I took everything out and cleaned the shelves on which they’re placed, checked a number of cakes, and then put them all back in.

Honestly, I was a little worried.  Hong Kong is, after all, quite humid.  I put the cakes on the top shelves on a bookcase that is partially covered, so it was the maximum protection I could find in the entire apartment from light while avoiding the problem of smelly wood.  Air condition is often on during the summer months, so it probably helps alleviate terribly soaked cakes, but I remember coming home one spring and could feel that some cakes were somewhat wet.

Thankfully, when I opened the cakes, none of them were moldy in any way, shape, or form.  In fact, they all seem to have aged somewhat, with the silvery tips now gaining a somewhat brownish tint, and the leaves turning dark instead of staying green.  Stuff in a tong are greener than stuff outside of the tong, as one would expect, but in general there’s aging going on here.

I tried some of the tea too — by taking the shavings from a number of cakes, I’m essentially doing an “average” taste test.  Results are encouraging, with the tea tasting strong and smooth(er).  So far, so good.

So, I put them back where they belong, and hope that next time I check them, a few years from now, they would have aged even more.

Whitedog whisk(e)y and young raw puerh

The New York Times recently ran an article on the appearance recently of white dog whisky on the market.  It seems like some hardcore fans of whisky think this is a sacrilege — that maturation is what makes a whisky whisky (after all, they’re not allowed to call it that, at least not the scotch variety), I started thinking about our little favourite here, puerh.

After all, there are parallels here.  We talk about aging puerh as an essential process that makes a puerh, well, puerh.  It’s not pu if it’s not aged, or so some will argue.  Others, usually newer school drinkers, will contest that young, raw puerh is still puerh — it’s just not aged.  I think the parallel here with a white dog whisky is quite apt, and in some ways, much more so than wine.  A young wine, while it is not quite the same as an aged wine from the same vineyard, will share many resemblances with its older counterpart, whereas there are fundamental and crucial differences between a new make spirit and matured whisky, to the point where a newcomer to the drink will not even recognize them as being the same thing, sans 10 years difference in the cask (said drinker will probably think it’s just some really nasty vodka).

Puerh, I think, belongs to the latter category — no one of their right mind would think that a 15 years old puerh is the same thing as a new born cake.  They look different, taste different, and even feel different.  The aging process is crucial, and with that, where and how it was aged are also extremely important.  I just bought a few things from Taobao, and tried the first of these cakes today — a Kunming stored Yiwu from 2003.  It was not very inspiring, and leaves me with a lot of question marks.  I know, however, that Kunming is not a particularly good place to store tea for the long haul, and I think I should probably avoid buying Kunming stored tea from now on if at all possible.  If I want a new, fresh puerh, I can drink that, but in the end, I find the aged variety much more enjoyable.  Some would argue that drinking the unaged cakes will educate you about their future and what the baseline taste of puerh is, but I find that to be a bit of a red-herring — the taste of the tea changes so much over just even a few years of proper storage that it becomes almost unrecognizable.  Which is why, again and again, I think only mouthfeel and body ultimately matters in the evaluation of younger puerh.

Old vs new

Over the course of the past few years, I have grown increasingly skeptical of the idea that people used to keep tea around for a long time before they drink it.  I think generally speaking, we have a somewhat romantic notion, no doubt encouraged by many tea vendors, that aging your own tea is a good idea.  This is partly because puerh, as we know it, does age well, and partly because of this impulse to collect, that we now have a bit of a culture of “buy now, drink later” when it comes to tea, specifically with puerh.

However, I have yet to find anything definitive in historical texts that says anything remotely similar to what we consider a “buy and hold” strategy.  Yunnan puerh, when sold, seems to be new, or at least almost new.  At most they were a year or so old when they reach their final destination.  Oolongs and greens were definitely not kept around for the sake of aging them; you may keep them because you can’t finish them, or because they’re quite precious and therefore not worth drinking all in one go, but I have yet to find anybody writing anything along the lines of “I am deliberately aging this tea so that it will taste better x years down the road”.

This obviously does not mean that aging was not done; I’m sure it happened.  However, I think much of the aging was accidental, either because it was unsold stock, or because it was forgotten.  When I went to the “candy store” in Taipei and others like it, they were, mostly, selling teas that have been sitting around not because they were aged, but because they were not sold.  Sure, some collector somewhere might have been sitting on a few bags of tea to age deliberately, but that is almost always strictly for personal consumption.

One of the problems of storing your own tea is that you now take on the risk of spoilage.  As some of us know very well, this can easily happen even with the best intentions and precaution.  For those who live in places such as Los Angeles, the risk might be dryness.  For those in wetter climates, the problem can be moisture.  Either way, there is a lot of risk in storing tea long term, and I’m not entirely sure if it’s a good idea to do so.

If storage was never an option for tea drinkers, then is there a reason to do it now?  Sure there is.  Some of us like the way teas taste when they get older, so we store them, hoping that at least some of our tea will turn out well.  Others prefer them young, and that’s fine too, so long as your stomach can handle a steady diet of young puerh.  I guess what I want to say, though, is that the notion of storing tea as the “traditional” way of doing things is not really true.  At least, it’s not something for which I have found any reliable, written evidence.