My storage is based entirely upon my local climate. What people do in China to age puerh is of little to no use to me in Wisconsin, this is my starting point. The climate I'm living in has been compared to Siberia, a climate of extremes, hot in the summer and ghastly cold and snowy in the winter. In summertime, we're baking in humidity and hot sun, which is great for my tea cakes. Next month I expect the temps to fall below -20 C, requiring heat in my house which will take the humidity levels to 38% or lower. At best, home humidifiers might get me to 42%. Nothing remotely like southern Asia.
In China, Malaysia and other very humid southeast Asian countries, controlling mold and humidity naturally leads to using porous clay jars, baskets, and cardboard boxes. Or even blocking humidity altogether with vacuum sealing. When I started aging shou puerh cakes in 2009, I dutifully followed Cloud's advice about storage in cardboard boxes. Fast forward four more years, I had shou that smelled and tasted like cardboard box. So not only did I have cakes that needed a rehab solution, also I starting buying really good tea that I need to preserve. Topics about storage on the internet tend to either focus on Asia or climates measurably more temperate and humid than mine. One common solution for many tea drinkers is a non-working refrigerator.
Some of my cakes are stored in a non-working dorm fridge from the 1970s, a small square thing that in no way resembles the dorm fridges of today which are much larger. This thing maintains 69-74 F/23C and 61% humidity without any added humidity. With a glass of water I can get around 63%, and adding a soaked clay shard I can get 64-66%. Okay, though somewhat dry and cool. I'm also concerned that the 40 year old dorm fridge has plastics in it that I know nothing about. Do you store your tea in plastic containers from the 1970s? Didn't think so. So I've spent the past 6 months experimenting with local crock storage, and based in my early results I plan to move all my cakes to vintage American stoneware crocks.
|It's ugly, but unplugged it works.|
My childhood memories include tripping over waist high salt glaze Crocks filled with green molding sauerkraut. Farming relatives collected a variety of ceramics, but I have no idea what happened to all the family sauerkraut crocks. A few years back I starting buying chipped crocks and urns at secondhand stores during a hobby period when I taught myself how to repair chipped pottery. I worked on lots of different ceramics before moving on to my target goal of repairing mid-century modern Scandinavian ceramics (particularly Rorstrand workshop pieces from Sweden). I sold all my fine pieces that I repaired, but I still have a lot of crocks sitting around that I worked on to learn to repair chips.
Crocks create a microclimate that is slower to react to changes in weather. The lids are loose enough to allow a bit of air in and out. To add humidity, I use a clay pouch button. A pouch button is normally used for keeping loose tobacco or weed at the proper humidity. It consists of a clay disc inside a metal case, you soak the button in water for a half hour or more until the clay inside is soaked, wipe it off and add it to your stash. The humidity lasts around 4-5 days.
|This pouch button has some history, but I'll never tell.|
|Clay shards, humidity on the cheap.|
This past summer, I started using unwrapped puerh samples acquired from my purchases to see what ceramics create the best change. Here are some photos of things I've got going. All of these will create a micro climate for either fermentation or preservation.
McCoy pottery is a long standing US company and had many changes in ownership. The company mainly produced stoneware intended for sanitary food storage prior to widespread refrigeration. So incredibly practical were their pots that McCoy did not even stamp mark their pieces prior to 1930 or so. I use Brush McCoy and later McCoy pieces, which are differentiated by their glazes.
|Brush McCoy pots. 2009 CNNP 7572 and circa 2000 "Ding Xing Hao"|
|L, unmarked probably early Red Wing, R Brush McCoy|
I also have a mid-century McCoy soup tureen which is a perfect size for this tong of 2014 Ban Payasi cakes.
|Mid-century McCoy piece in my last post about 2014 Ban Payasi|
The quintessential sauerkraut and fresh water stoneware pottery, Red Wing is a bit more collectible than McCoy because pieces are geared for specific types of storage, such as whisky jugs, water coolers and of course their fermentation crock. Some of the more unique pieces can be pricey, but the market has honestly declined for collector value. People who buy Red Wing stoneware nowadays intend to use the pieces for food or beverage storage rather than just displaying them. Salt glaze crocks are popular here with "survivalist" people who think that Obama is going to usher in the end of days. The pottery is thick to really create a sterile microclimate and be practically bomb proof.
|Red Wing, Minnesota canister|
Right now I'm favoring Frankoma pottery based on the changes I've seen in my samples. Frankoma pottery is based in Oklahoma and used local clays. In 1953, they began using a brick red clay which is the type that I like. My teas in Frankoma pots seem to be the most fragrant and retain moisture well.
A 2013 Bada Shan sample I got from Camellia Sinensis was very fresh, similar to the photo here.
|2013 Bada Shan retail photo by Camellia Sinesis Tea, currently out of stock|
|Frankoma red clay "Prairie Green" honey pot|
|Dry and green 2013 Bada Shan browned and malty now.|
|Smoky tuos stored in Frankoma 5W Prairie Green bean pot.|
|Various samples in small pots.|
Santa Clara and Navajo
Santa Clara is a type of black fired clay pot from New Mexico. I stored the above mentioned 2014 spring Misty Peak sample in a Santa Clara pot for several months. However, the Santa Clara did not respond well to humidity. The clay smells like graphite when humid. Pueblo desert type of pottery won't smell like graphite when properly used in New Mexico to store grains. But Wisconsin, my poor Misty Peak tea sample picked up the graphite smell and lost its tea smell. After a month just sitting in a gaiwan it aired, and brought back the smell, but the tea is still very green. I'm holding it for another experiment soon. Navajo pots with glazed interior are usable, but unglazed smell dusty and sandy like the desert if they get moist.
On the west coast you can find plenty of California pottery from the 1940s-1960s. One really great line to consider is Edith Heath stoneware. This company is still going very strong providing household ceramics and tiles to Arts and Crafts-era homes and businesses. Their prices, even for vintage, are higher than for most other types of American ceramics, but you can buy factory "seconds" for about the same as other vintage ceramics. Heath pieces are very modern and minimalist and I love them. But Edith Heath ceramics proved too porous for my locale. The tea did not retain its humidity and moisture. But this type of pottery might be great for west coast cities with lots of rain. Just enough protection from drier days, but breathable enough for the rainy days.
Vintage crocks abound on Ebay. About ten years back they increased in value because of the WWII generation collecting what they remembered from childhood. But now this generation has quit collecting and the market has tanked, although many antiques dealers don't seem to see that. I refuse to pay more than $5-40 for these pieces, and reasonable or free shipping. I take advantage of chipped, cracked and glaze craze pieces that collectors don't want. Still, that beats trying to import jars from Asia that won't work here anyway.
So far I have not had any mold issues, but again my challenge is more about keeping humidity in rather than overly wet. If my tea got very wet, I'd either leave the lids off, or change to another storage method like baskets or porous clay. However, if I wanted to push the humidity I can do so anytime. My Bada Shan sample, and the fragrance and tea texture of my other crocks-stored cakes show me that change is occurring at an acceptable rate, and humid stored teas are able to air without becoming bone dry.
North American Tea Storage Experiment!
|Daily Drinkers: "Ding Xing Hao" loose L, at R Crimson Lotus Bulang shous in duani.|