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Friday, May 22, 2015

Lots More on Puerh Storage

An article on puerh storage caught my attention this week when tea blogger Nicole Martin tweeted it from her blog teaformeplease. What I like about Ms. Martin's blog and Tweets is that they reflect her wide reading in everything about tea, which means I don't need to read. And she has a way of picking out the must-knows, so that I don't have to think. I can rely on her for all this instead of making any effort of my own. I'm not the only lazy tea head. Her recent win of a World Tea Expo award for Best Social Media is well-done, and exposes all of us who can't help peeking at what she digs up. This week her sifting dredged up a Fresh Cup magazine article called "House-Aged Puerh: The Whole Leaf." This article is accompanied by what appears to be a photo of Rishi mini tuos, and instructs you everything you need to know about aging more than half a leaf at a time. Except it leaves out a most crucial thing. THE most important thing.



Now before you get all excited about the prospect of Cwyn skewering an article, I'm actually not going to do that. We're talking only about one point, after all. And when I get worked up, I'm not a fighter. Or a self-mutilator. I'm a graffiti person and so I just draw bad cartoons with my permanently tea-stained index finger. That's right.


Getting on with it already, the most important factor to consider with puerh storage is

YOUR
LOCAL
CLIMATE.

Now, to be fair the article mentions things like RH factors and temperatures, but this is confusing for people because these can also refer to the conditions you need in your storage solution. The article covers possible storage solutions, but doesn't really help anyone with how to decide what storage solutions are needed, based on

WHERE
YOU
LIVE.

Write it down.

The problems we run into with information on puerh storage and fermentation  is that so many early articles on the net focused only on how puerh is stored in southeast Asia, where the climate is hot and humid. Places where it rains for three months or more a year, and I'm not talking about the oozy rain of the northwest US. I'm talking about torrential monsoonal downpours on a daily basis. This is why people in these climates stored their tea either just in the bamboo out in the open or in unglazed clay jars which breathe, and use fans to circulate whatever air is available during all this rain and hot weather. In this type of climate, circulating the air is a huge concern. Even with good circulation I'm sure people are fighting 6 inch thick mold even with the closest attention to their tea. But I have a theory that people in these types of climates don't notice musty tastes and smells as keenly as people in drier climates simply because everything smells this way all of the time. So "traditional" storage tea is musty and nobody tastes it because it reminds people of home.

I think the focus on southeast Asian storage has been repeated so often that everyone assumes the way tea is stored in Asia works willy-nilly everywhere else in the world where the climate isn't hot, humid and rainy. This makes absolutely no sense. When you live in a really dry climate, which is mostly every place which boasts a RH factor of less than 60% and temperatures lower than 78F/25.5C, you are going to need a storage solution that is NOT an unglazed clay jar. The only reason to use an unglazed jar is if you bought yourself a tea cake that was stored in a humid climate for a number of years, and all it needs is airing out before you drink it, or you bought a shou with pile fermentation odors and flavors.

So, the very FIRST thing you need to do when storing your tea is take a look at your climate and where you live. My house, this past winter, reached a temp of 62F/16.6C and boasted a RH of 24%. Yes, that's right, a cold desert. In fact, when I check my local ecosystem online, my area of Wisconsin is classified as "prairie" and "oak savanna." Savanna means really, really dry.

We need to think storage from the Outside-In, rather than Inside-Out. Start with climate outside, and then your house, and then pick the correct solution. Analyze what will be outside the tea storage and then pick the storage. When we do this, we pick the storage that matches the climate factors around the tea. But if we work from inside-out, choosing the storage before looking at the climate around the tea can mean making a choice that doesn't work.

What about you? If you don't know what the ecosystem is where you live, check on Wikipedia. This is important to know because your house is affected by degrees from the outside climate. Also helpful is knowing when the outside weather can help the tea, so on humid days you can expose the tea to the free boost. And then when the weather is dry or cooler, you can close your puerh away from the adverse climate.

Still not sure about your ecosystem? Go to your local drugstore and check the hairspray aisle. If the store primarily sells sprays to control fly-aways, your climate is dry. If the store sells mostly anti-frizz, your climate is humid. I can't guarantee this method is any better than 75% accurate. However, I have been to the middle of England in the West Midlands, and I had to buy anti-frizz hairspray which is pretty much all I saw in Boots. Also, I've seen the rubber seals on the high efficiency washing machines in that part of the world, and I tried to scrub one with bleach to no avail. Needless to say mine does not look like THAT, and I haven't used the Boots hairspray since. So, unless one lives in an island sort of place, I and probably you too will need some sort of storage solution that creates a separate micro-climate that is favorable for puerh.

Okay, so here is something of a checklist on When to Use which storage solution.

When to Use:

Cardboard Boxes and Paper Bags--When you are airing shou puerh or humid-stored musty sheng of unwanted odors. But don't do it for long. I've already tested this for you. I stored a shou puerh in a cardboard box for 5 years. And it tasted like cardboard box.

Plastic wrap and plastic bags--temporary until you develop something better. In the long term, my climate is too dry for plastic wrap, it just dries out and becomes brittle, and then so does the tea. Puerh needs heat and humid air to age, plastic does not survive cold, heat and dry air over the long haul. And do you truly want plastics all over your vegan, organic, BPA-free, lactose-free and gluten-free tea for thirty years?

Presentation Boxes---when you give a gift. Really.

Shelves--good for humid climates and storing out in the open.

Wood boxes/drawers--put the bras back in, ladies. Wood has too many variables like oils, odors absorbed from the air especially at the humidity levels you need for the tea. A large enamel pot with a lid is better, wipe the inside of the lid with a damp cloth for moisture if needed, and leave the lid slightly ajar.

Cupboards--semi-humid climates only, and not in the kitchen.

Yixing and other Unglazed Jars--only if you live in tropical and humid climates. You sweat constantly. These jars are good for airing shou puerh that has wo dui fermentation smells. Can air out any aged sheng for a SHORT time after you receive a package from China. Then move to regular storage. If your jar doesn't have a lid, you can cover it with either a china plate or cover with a cotton cloth/paper towel secured with a rubber band or string.

Glazed Stoneware crocks---anywhere Yixing Jars are not appropriate, anywhere less than humid, hot and muggy. Add tobacco pouch buttons as needed or shards of soaked terra cotta clay pots. These create a micro climate when stuffed full of tea cakes and tuos.

Porcelain jars--somewhat humid climates. The TeaDB folks are reporting some results on ceramic and porcelain jars in Seattle. I would think covered casserole dishes might be an option too for storing whole puerh cakes.

Old unplugged refrigerator--ugly but works. Add a jar of water or humidity device purchased from a tobacco store. Make sure the device doesn't smell of store tobacco. Keep a RH and temp device in there and watch it like a hawk, fridges are cold and can get dry if you aren't careful. Open the door every so often to air out. If you smell lovely tea smells, you're probably okay.

Wine Cooler--a stylish investment.

Custom storage vault--now we're talking. And I'm on my way over.

Objections:

1. But it's ugly.

Get creative, an old radiator cover that doubles as seating with a couple coolers inside.

Use black spray paint on the exterior of a few coolers or ice chests. Or use square baskets for humid climates. Toss a few colorful pillows on top. Lift the lid when you need to check everything. I keep my best cakes in an old dorm fridge which doubles as a side table in the living room in winter, and on the porch in summer.

2. I don't have any room.

Empty out your wife's walk-in California closet. Appropriate the shelving.


Maybe all of these ideas still leave you scratching your head. Go back to your local climate. Ask a few old timers what people in your area did to preserve food prior to the age of refrigeration. If nobody lived in your area prior to refrigeration, then you need to call a realtor right now. Or else you're facing the cost of an outbuilding with custom solar panels, a drip system, sodium halide light fixtures and an off-grid security system to watch out for cops. At that point, growing something other than tea mold is a more lucrative hobby for you. Then buy all the China-stored tea you want and throw it out when it goes flat. I'm considering this idea myself. It beats out what I've been doing at the truck stop lately to afford the new spring bings.

Now, a person doesn't need to store every single bit of tea you own in a custom storage solution. Teas you are actively drinking, for example, can be stored anywhere you darn well please. Like in your bed. Or in that pretty porcelain caddy you found at the dollar store. Pouches and baggies are great for small amounts of tea you plan to get to any day now, as long as that "any day now" happens in the next month or two. The teas you really want to find a solution for are the ones that need more time to turn into that fantastic sheng to sell for thousands of dollars at Sotheby's someday. Because if that's your plan, you'll be needing the best storage solution you can get. Unless you are old-like-Cwyn and plan to have "Dead Blogger" labeling large in the auction catalogue. In that case, well, bathroom storage is just fine.


Requiescat in Pace when you git 'er done. Don't end up like me 5 years on with a cardboard box going "oops."

*And if you have any more questions, really you needn't call me. Go to Steepster.com and message mrmopar. That is "m-r-m-o-p-a-r" all small letters. Thanks for stopping by!

21 comments:

  1. I think you had some really stinky cardboard boxes. store mine in old USPS Priority boxes, and have no box smell/taste.

    Going on five years of storage here, and most everything seems to taste delicious, as they are past or nearing that 7 year mark. Then again, I'm in Atlanta. However, Atlanta isn't *that* humid.

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    1. Nope my box wasn't stinky. It was corrugated cardboard, same as your Prioirity boxes. You have become accustomed to it. I am willing to bet I can taste it in your tea.

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    2. Again, though, I find that idea dubious. Of course I get used to the character of my own storage, but are you willing to bet anything substantial that you'll taste cardboard in my tea? A number of my teas are delicate enough and non-woody/papery enough that cardboard ought to be easy to detect for even my biased taste buds.

      Ultimately, I suppose I don't really care. Whether or not it does have eu du cardboard, since I can't buy more tea, I have to love them as if they were my own kids. Fortunately for me, this is not a difficulty.

      As a postscript, I suppose I should remind people that it's pretty hard for tea not in airtight containers to not pick up stuff from the elements around them, wrappers, box, room, and that if you're storing for decades, you're going to get *some* kind of warehouse taste incorporated. I mean, I could probably identify various shu from white2tea as coming from a particular warehouse because they all have a particularly strong and distinct warehouse note that reduces gently as you keep it.

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    3. Agreed on the warehouse, and your point there is why I won't ever recommend paper to store someone's sheng. But unless you've stored something like kimchee in a crock recently, that crock will not give odors. Same with an enamel pot, or clean unplugged fridges, wine coolers etc. Porcelain or glass are better than cardboard, if a person has nothing else.

      I've been chewing on Priority boxes for years so I know I will taste it.

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  2. I do love your posts!
    The only thing I would add is to remember that buildings greatly modify your local climate. In particular, heating the air reduces its relative humidity. So, if you live in a temperate and damp climate, as we do here in Wales, but have central heating (as we do), the air in the heated house will be warm but dry. Keeping your stash in an overly heated room could therefore excessively dry out your stash.
    I have chosen to keep my stash in a cupboard in a room where we rarely have the heating on, even in winter. The good stuff is either in specially made cardboard 'archive' boxes kindly supplied by EOT, or still in bamboo-wrapped tongs, to keep out the light and dust. I suppose it is a sort of 'moderate' microclimate they are in. They say moderation in all things is good for you ( so why am I so immoderate in other things?). So far so good. Nothing has gone off yet, and the young cakes seem to be ageing. Some that were originally very 'minerally' have aired out and improved. Fingers crossed!

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    1. In my house there is no possibility of having any Puerh tea exposed to the house air in winter. However, the heated house is actually more temperate than the outside weather which is -20s C.

      In your climate, despite the house central heating, the season is short enough that you could let your Puerh "sleep" during that time and you can still get more humidity in house air than in a savanna climate.

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    2. You know, on second thought...in your case I'd go with the outbuilding option. Then when you sell your tea, your catalogue description can include things like "tended by by magical elvish maids and bairns" etc etc and Game of Thrones something Winterfell etc etc and then you got several thousand pounds up on anyone's else's cakes.

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    3. Adp, you could send your tea to me for storage minus a small bit of each for storage services.

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    4. Hi Cwyn
      Great idea! I could build a little hobbit house down the bottom of the garden. Merlin the magician Is reputed to have come from around here' and King Arthur is said to have hunted a magic wild boar through our valley, so I could go for the full Arthurian Legend theme - 'tea drunk by Guinevere to make her slim enough for Lancelot to fancy her' .... 'Made in the shape of the Round Table' , or maybe 'the Cakes that King Arthur didn't Burn'. or other such stuff. But then hiding a stash of suspicious looking vegetable matter at the bottom of the garden, and sneaking off at odd times to sample it might raise more suspicion with the authorities than would be wise!

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    5. John
      Too late - I just accepted a similar offer from a Nigerian Prince ;-)

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    6. Yes, but his storage will be too dry I expect.

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  3. Thanks for the mention! It's good to hear that my manic reading habits benefit others. I tend to think of my apartment as a puerh cave. It's a ground level basement deal that stays a fairly constant temperature and humidity level throughout the year. I have one cake that is displayed out in the open simply because the person who gave it to me also gifted a nifty little stand for it. All of the rest are in brown paper bags. So far I haven't had any issues with that method but I do hope to find some crocks eventually.

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    1. I also live in a ground floor/basement room in a big old house in the Pacific NW (where it's chilly humid most of the year. There's no trace of mold or musty smells (a miracle, really) but my room stays in the 60s with like 50-75% humidity and fairly low air flow; my room isn't connected to the central heating and we don't need AC in these parts. It's actually pretty ideal for wine storage (my other beverage love) but I also find my puerh has been happy since I've moved in here, despite the low temps. I keep my sheng cakes all together on the back of an open shelf. I share the opinion that I don't want my tea storage area to smell like *anything* other than tea, and to me that only means ceramic and open storage. To me it's almost impossible to speculate on any sort of storage condition without sticking your nose in it and literally feeling it out while checking in over time. Another person's cellar-temp/humidity US NW storage is not going to be the same as mine..

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    2. Sheng lovers worldwide begin moving into the basement. :)

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  4. Cwyn
    Thanks for your ongoing posts and experiments regarding storage and aging in North America...really appreciated. I have a couple of questions:
    Do you think there is a functional difference between glazed stoneware and porcelain in terms of aging/storage?
    Do you have any suggestions for alternative lids for glazed stoneware? Where I live it is fairly easy to find vintage stoneware, however often lids are missing.
    I am paranoid about plastic smells and therefore have avoided using the old fridge option so far. For the past few months I have stored some of my raw pu erh in a large stainless steel stock pot. I use a thermometer and hygrometer to monitor the 'micro climate' in the pot. So far it seems to work well. Can you anticipate any problems with stainless steel?

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    1. faite, most fridges have food safe plastic in them. They resist odors and mold very well. Mine has worked very well the last 2 1/2 years.

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    2. The difference between glazed stoneware and porcelain is internal temperature, and depending upon the stoneware and glaze, air circulation. Stoneware is Traditionally used to create a micro climate, to store items to keep cool and prevent spoilage, or to ferment foods like sauerkraut or kimchee. Thus stoneware is ideal for tea fermentation. Stoneware does not react as quickly to changes in temperature and humidity outside. I favor red ware. Porcelain keeps tea clean and dry, ideal for humid climate outside so your matcha doesn't turn into hard globs. Porcelain is good for aged and humid storage teas, airing out etc. I have one porcelain cookie jar with bricks of wild purple Dehong sheng. If I am going to push humidity I prefer stoneware.

      I have not tried stainless steel but I would be wary of metallic leeching. Stainless has grading, and nowadays cheap alloys are often used. I think enamel over metal is better for humid or acidic foods like tea or tomatoes.

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  5. My Shous!!!

    OMG that killed me, and I am not even tea drunk at the moment (a tragic state to be in) and I still giggled so loudly that my cat gave me a filthy look.

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  6. You have 16Celsius INSIDE the house?? My wife would freeze to death at these temperatues.... wow.

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    1. It's not too bad with the TV on.

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