Drink your tea now

Many of you reading this are probably sitting on more tea than you can consume in your lifetime, or at least some multiples of years, if not decades. For those of you who fit that description, I have a story for you.

A relative of a family friend recently passed away due to a heart attack. It seems like he was interested in a number of things, tea being one of them, and teapot being another. I was called in to take a look at what’s there, to see what can be done about it. I brought along a couple of friends who are tea vendors, since I wasn’t going to buy what could be a couple hundred cakes of stuff.

Turns out there weren’t a couple hundred cakes – there were maybe 60 or 80, plus some random liu’an, so on and so forth.

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You can see some of the cakes here. You might notice a few things, one being that almost all of the tea is still shrink wrapped. The second is that they all look old. These teas seem to be purchased from multiple vendors over a number of years, but probably bought no earlier than maybe the early 2000s or so. Some of the teas are supposed to be 70s or 80s tea, more are 90s or maybe early 2000s. Some are cooked, others raw. It’s not a big collection, but it’s a collection.

And the guy never got to drink any of these.

Among these cakes is one, placed in a box on its own. We opened it, and before us was the classic Red Label wrapper. When I picked it up, however, it felt funny – too light, and the cake’s shape is not right. Upon further examination, it is pretty clear that this must’ve been a fake, and not a very good one either. The price he paid, however, was real – the price tag was still on it from a department store in Hong Kong, for the grand price of $120000 HKD, which is about how much a cake of the 50s Red Label would’ve cost about 8-10 years ago. These days it’s more like $100000 USD a cake.

It’s still shrink wrapped too.

It’s hard to tell what kind of condition most of the cakes are in, since they’re wrapped so carefully from the vendors. It’s pretty obvious that most of them are pretty wet – some terribly so. The cakes that were not shrink wrapped were on the heavy side of traditional storage, to the point where they would be rather heavy going for those who are not used to the taste, and would depress the relative resale value. But it seems like the guy liked it that way – he has a lot of cooked tea, and heavy-going seems to be his preferred profile.

Of course, I don’t know what he’s drunk, so maybe he consumed most of his teas already. He passed before getting to 70, so while he wasn’t exactly young, he wasn’t very old either by today’s standard. The Red Label, I suspect, was a pride and joy, and he kept it separately because he paid dearly for it. Even though it’s a fake, or maybe precisely because it’s a fake, he was the only one who was going to be able to really enjoy the tea – he would think he’s drinking the real thing, and since we know that paying more for wine gives you more enjoyment for it, I think the same pattern probably applies to tea. He would’ve really loved the taste of the cake, thinking that one session is costing him upwards of $2000 USD.

Many of us sit on tea that we say to ourselves “I’ll drink it for that special occasion” or “I’ll wait till later before I enjoy it” or “I can’t bear the thought of drinking all of it.” Well, don’t let that hold you back, because chances are you are the only one who’s going to enjoy it. We can always delude ourselves to think that maybe our kids, or relatives, or whoever, will like tea, but more often than not, it’s just not the case. At least here in Hong Kong, there’s the option of selling it back to people who are in the tea trade (my vendor friend seems to do it a couple times a year – called by various friends of friends, etc). Good luck doing that in the States or Europe. So, drink up!

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.

2003 Menghai 7542

I went tea shopping this past Saturday, hitting a few of the old, venerable teashops in the Sheung Wan area of Hong Kong. Sheung Wan used to be where the Chinese section of the city began, and to this day it is an area that is best known for Chinese medicine and dried seafood stores. Among them are a number of older teashops that have survived the test of time, some having been around for decades or more. They are, in some ways, the best places to shop for tea in Hong Kong, because it is here that you can find real, Hong Kong style tea. Visitors to the city may have a little more trouble navigating these places, but they are, by and large, friendly establishments and you’ll find things here that are not available anywhere else – whether it be Taiwan, China, or overseas.

One of the teas I picked up is a 2003 Menghai 7542. It was cheap, and at least at the tasting I had at the store, it was good. I thought I’ll give it a spin and bought one.

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The tea is traditionally stored, but only lightly.  There’s no obvious evidence of mold or anything along those lines, and smells only faintly of the storage. You can see the surface of the tea is changing colour to a greyish brown. It looks a few years older than the Yiwu girl puerh, for example, but it probably should anyway. The tea, once I chipped off a chunk, is very choppy. Early 2000s Menghai (or any factory, for that matter) tend to have fairly uneven quality control, and some cakes can be quite high in chopped up leaves. This is one of them.

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I christened my newly acquired shuiping with this tea, and after two infusions, you see this darkish brown liquor that is the hallmark of a traditionally stored tea. The tea is still somewhat bitter, but is already exhibiting sweetness and a pleasant taste. It is slightly sour, as they often are at this sort of age, but I think it has started to round that corner and is yielding more pleasant tastes than not. Compared with the traditionally stored Lao Tongzhi, for example, this tea is not only better stored, but also better, period.

The tea was sold with no wrapper. Their sample cake had the regular CNNP wrapper, and I am wondering if I can get more wrappers from them for the purpose of storing these things. Otherwise, it can become a bit of a pain, because I don’t want my tea wrapped in plastic (even though it’s loosely, non-airtight at all plastic).

PhotobucketAs you can see, the tea is all chop. It didn’t stop the tea from brewing many infusions without losing too much power, however, so it bodes well for the future. It’s time to stock up again, if I can make more space for it.

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.

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.

Traditionally stored 2006 Haiwan Lao Tongzhi

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I don’t really drink stuff like this very often, but since this tea is among those that I think some of us have had, back when it was fresh off the press, I bought one for fun this time in Hong Kong to try it out.  The reason I got it is not because this tea is amazing, rare, or anything — far from it.  Rather, it’s because it’s been traditionally stored.  People often wonder what this process does, exactly, to a tea.  Here’s a good example of it.

I still remember seeing this tea in Beijing when I was living there, and it sold for about $3 USD.  This time, I paid close to $25 to buy it, so it felt pricey.  Then again, buying tea in Hong Kong is never going to be that cheap, but if you go troll the tea markets in China, I’m sure you can still find dry stored versions of this cake selling for probably $10.

Haiwan tea factory was founded and headed by Zou Bingliang, who used to be the head of the Menghai factory, and is credited with having co-invented the process to make cooked puerh.  Like a lot of others who were in leadership position at Menghai, Zou struck out on his own in the late 90s and early 2000s, and I think among the slew of factories that started around that time by Menghai alum (Guoyan, 6FTM, Haiwan, etc) his outfit is probably one of the better and more successful one.  Lao Tongzhi is pretty much the base cake for the factory — the lowest tier mass market tea.  I remember trying the very young version of this tea, and it tasted like any big factory, newly pressed cake — bitter, rough, but powerful in the hard hitting sort of way.  The tea was not something you’d particularly enjoy drinking, but hope it will get better with time.  An interesting thing to note about this tea is that it says “nongxiang xing” on the left — intense flavour type, literally.  I have, however, never seen any other types of LTZ cakes, so I think this is all just silly marketing speak.

Since this cake is traditionally stored though, it’s not your run of the mill 2006 vintage young puerh.  Right away, the smell is obvious when you open the wrapper.  The cake also looks visibly darker.

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There’s a reason puerh is a heicha (black tea).

There’s some white frosting on the cake, although nothing too serious.  It’s not white all over, and once I crack it open, the interior is quite ok.  Traditional storage can be overdone — as you sometimes see cakes that literally are covered in white hair.  This is medium.

The tea looks dark too, when you brew it.

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I believer it’s very important to educate yourself with stuff like this to get a sense of how a 5 years old, traditionally stored tea tastes like.  If you don’t know what it’s like, then it is very easy for someone to come by and tell you that the tea is actually 15 years old, and you would not be able to tell the difference.  In the cup, the tea is still a little sharp – the storage taste is quite present, and needs time to fade.  The underlying bitterness still exists, although having aired it out for a week now since I got back, the tea is already somewhat sweeter.  There’s decent body, nice aromatics that range from what Toki would call granny powder to dried leaves.  Good, solid traditionally stored pu that needs some time to age.  If I were to buy more of this, I’d just leave it around for a few years, and I think the tea will then progress to something quite nice.  It is also necessary — after all, part of the process of storing a tea traditionally is to tuicang (退倉) process, to both reduce the immediate smell of the storage as well as further aging the cake.  Stuff that just came out of the basement is not meant for consumption.

The wet leaves are various shades of green and brown, a typical look for this sort of storage condition.  Note how none of the leaves are black or stiff — they should retain flexibility, if they are well stored.

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All in all — a pretty enjoyable drink, I think.  More importantly, this tea has gone from pretty undrinkable to pretty drinkable within a span of five years.  I’m pretty sure that if you pick up a 2006 LTZ from Kunming, it’s still going to be fairly nasty.

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.

What it is…..

is the Mengku Yuanyexiang (YYX), thick paper, I believe.  A friend of mine gave me half a cake, which by today’s price is probably worth a few million.   YYX leaves on the left, cheap, cheap Chinatown cooked puerh on the right.

The reason I thought it was interesting was because within that tea, you can taste, very distinctly, the wet storage that went on.  It has that musty smell and taste that’s only attainable through that kind of storage.  Some people hate it, but others think that true puerh should only taste like that.

The difference between it and the thin paper, supposedly dry stored (in actuality less-wet stored), is not all that great.  I find the thin paper, which I tried multiple times and I own a few of, to be harsher.  It’s not the best tea — it’s merely good.

The problem with this kind of tea is that it’s very much a “brand name” tea.  It’s famous because of various types of promotional things that have been done to it — magazines, word of mouth, etc.  Hou De sold out both pretty much the instant he put them up.  It’s really quite amazing.  The fact is though that teas like this are not that great — you can probably find, after some searching, some tea on taobao that costs only a fraction but taste just as good.

However, what’s missing is the “celebrity” factor.  When you drink the YYX you know it’s good — because so and so expert said so.  When you drink this other stuff that costs only a fraction, you don’t know that it’s good…. because, well, nobody told you that.  What’s in the price is that stamp of approval.  As we all know, such stamps of approval tend to be abused, because there’s real money to be made there.

That’s why I normally don’t go for teas like this, and only drink things that I myself find pleasing.  I also tend not to talk about them all that much, male urine aside.  I know what I like, which may not be what you like.  What’s important is developing your own sense of what you find to be good taste, rather than to follow what other teach you to be great.

Airing out tea

Some of you already know this.  You’re supposed to air out a tea, if it’s a traditionally stored puerh.  The problem with traditionally stored tea is that if you don’t air it out, all kinds of nasty, “storage” smell remain, and will affect how much you can enjoy your tea.

This point hasn’t been illustrated as clearly as what I recently did with a bag of tea that a friend brought back for me.  It’s from one of my favourite stores in Hong Kong that sells such things.  The tea is very wet stored — you can smell the storage from a mile away, and is not for those who don’t like that kind of taste.  When I first opened the bag and brewed some, it was horrible.  It smelled fishy, moldy, rotten.  The first few cups I couldn’t drink at all.  I started wondering if I got a bad batch.

The friend, however, knows what he’s doing.  When he visited the shop, he noticed that the stuff in the jar, which is what they usually use to fill these smaller orders, was rather moldy.  He thought it better to buy some that were “cleaner”, so he asked the owner to show him a few bags of the stuff from the back.  The owner duly complied, and my friend picked out some from a good looking bag.  This is all good, except, I think, because the bag was relatively unopened, the tea still retained much of the storage smell, and it’s not pretty.

Fast forward two weeks — I’ve had the bag opened for that long, just sitting on my table.  I thought it probably best to let it air out a bit, to release some of the more “toxic” flavours from the bag.  I tried it again yesterday — no more fishy smell, or rotten carcass.  It’s gone.  Now, instead, much of the sweeter note that I love from this store emerged.  No problems — it’s just a matter of airing out the tea.