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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Revisiting Storage of Puerh Teas

The weather this week in Wisconsin is expected to be warm and humid, unlike the cold, dry and then rainy weather of the past two weeks. So I open up all my crocks and the pumidor for what may well be one of the last very warm weeks of summer. And after a summer of ideal conditions for fermenting puerh on my three-season porch, I'm assessing teas in their best state for this year. Soon enough, the fall season will mean cooler and drier weather, and I will need to add warmth or humidity myself.

One of my storage containers I've been impressed with is the red clay Frankoma honey pot, and I am using other crocks from Frankoma as well. Over the past year, my honey pot has held a sample of 2013 Bada Shan from camellia-sinensis.com. I haven't tasted this tea until now, I just tossed it in the pot. More than any other tea I've been storing, the tea in this pot has smelled malty and sweet when I've checked it over the past year and a half. Camellia Sinensis has brought back the tea again for 2015, this time in 100g cakes for $44 and change. Fairly pricey stuff for what appears to be mostly huang pian. I don't see much evidence in this of 800 year old trees, but I do see what is probably autumn tea.


2013 Bada Shan by camellia-sinensis.com

My crock has clearly pushed this tea as far as it can go in a short term experiment, based on the browning you see in my photo. No mold or humid storage, but the tea smells like beer. Soup is surprisingly thick. The brew is mildly bitter, nice warm throat effect and I break a sweat after tasting four cups. But no real punch to the tea. It's a pleasant and mild cake meant for western tea drinkers with very little experience in puerh, if you want to pay the price tag. I like the thickness, but not much flavor here for us who are well-braced puerh drinkers.

First steep after two rinses.
However, I can think of a handful of western-shipping vendors selling 250g bricks of huang pian with more punch than this has. In fact I'd rather buy one from an eBay vendor, a brick that might have a nasty edge and some spank to it, if I am going to the direction of buying huang pian. And to be frank, I'd probably prefer huang pian from Chawangshop or similar vendor, because I know I'd get a tea that holds up in storage in Asia, rather than a pleasant drinker for tea shops in the west.

Third steeping.
We still know so little about long term aging of sheng puerh outside of Asia. Though over the past year I'm encouraged by the wealth of discussion amongst collectors in English. More and more I see people sharing details and photos of what they are doing to keep their tea. Yet all of this, and even the '88 Qing Bing, remain anecdotes of successes amidst a growing body of tales of tea dug up from warehouse corners, under floorboards, or a hoarder who passed away before he drank it all in some forgotten home in Asia, and behold, a gem of a cake emerges. And even when as much of the story behind the cake is verified as possible, the proliferation of fake aged cakes means the best anecdotes get consigned to the dustbin of myth rather than added to a systematic body of knowledge. But then I suppose we westerners like our systems of knowledge.

One anecdote I see repeated occasionally is the 6-6-6 rule or the 7-7-7 rule (take your pick). This rule suggests that raw puerh changes in years 6, 12, and 18. Or 7, 14, 21 if you like the other "rule" better. To me this is a real anecdote. Is there some sort of coding in the DNA of all raw Yunnan leaf, that can be applied to every sheng puerh? For one, we know that highly compressed shapes like tuos, mushrooms, gourds and balls remain dry on the interior even when steeped. Many of us tried the white2tea Poundcake gourd, or the Planet Jingmai sheng ball by Crimson Lotus, and after multiple soakings and steamings we had steeped out the exterior leaves, and picked apart the interior only to find it bone dry.

So a highly compressed tea can sit in a puddle for days and still remain dry on the inside. We all know that iron cakes and compressed shapes were developed for very humid climates and for very long term storage. I don't really believe a 6-6-6 rule is going to apply equally and consistently to a tuo or iron cake, compared to loose maocha or even a stone-pressed cake. And most of us know that even tea leaves are not equal, sweet leaves from the north of Yunnan peak far sooner than the bitter teas of the more southern counties. I'm happy to consign rules like 6-6-6 to the anecdotal basket.

And then I wonder whether we in the west have any business even buying tuos or iron cakes unless we live in Florida or somewhere near the equator. Unless of course these teas have already spent considerable time aging elsewhere, and we are buying on the back end rather than the front end. More and more lately I find myself tasting teas and judging how they will be after two years in MY storage, rather than thinking about how they taste now. And I definitely have zero thoughts of "this will be worth money someday." The best I can hope for is to drink what I have.

Steeped leaves,  I went 5 steeps on this.
When I buy tea for my climate, I have to face what few facts exist, and they are all related to my climate and storage solution unless I plan to drink up the tea right away. One of the most difficult facts for a collector to face is this:

If we really want to age tea in a drier climate, we need to break up the cake and add humidity.

Without breaking up the cake, we are likely to end up with fading tea on the outside, and hardly any aging on the interior. For any consistency, the cake needs to be broken up. Because even soaking it for hours and hours is going to leave the interior dry.

Most of us who hoard puerh tea get attached to the shape, the wrapper. Like a vinyl collectible figurine we want to save the box, wrapper and papers and keep it intact. In other words, we are seduced by aesthetics that might better be applied to collecting tea ware rather than tea. But the person serious about fermenting and aging tea has to do what must be done to treat the tea as a plant product meant for fermentation and consumption. Collecting and storage are very different tasks and should guide our purchases at the start. Few of us think this way. And vendors with self-interest prefer that we continue to hoard cakes as things, because as soon as we take fermentation seriously, we truly realize some teas are impossible and the wrappers are unnecessary.

My puerh buying seems to fall into these categories.

1) Fine fresh sheng for drinking over the summer, to rid myself of excess water and cool my body.

2) 10 years old+ with some humid storage.

3) Heicha, partly oxidized and pile fermented teas that may have golden flowers fungi, something tangy as a change to shou puerh.

Because of my storage experiments, I can taste storage more and more. And I've become more aware of how truly undrinkable sheng is from 2-10 years of age due to fermentation and changes from wok charring in particular which gives the tea a sour dry quality until it is worked into the tea. For me, years 2-10 are the survival years for sheng. The tea either comes out of this heading toward a decent drink, or it dies from dry storage, bad leaf quality at the start, or too much char that needed really humid storage to work out.

2015 version of the same tea. Photo camellia-sinensis.com
As for my 2013 Bada Shan sample, I really need to toss it out or drink it up. I've done what I can do with it, and know that it is a short term drinker and not a long term storage tea. The tea hasn't made my feet cold, as a fresh sheng would, and won't improve much more except to fade because the old orange leaves have limited strength. So that is my evaluation of a tea I've stored for a little while.

In upcoming posts, I will continue to discuss more aspects of storage, so stay tuned!


12 comments:

  1. Thank you very much Cwyn for sharing the tea storage details that you practice. People like myself are all ears about such information as I have had sheng going from bad to worse in the past but lately things seem to be improving albeit very slowly as it can be expected by listening to people like you.

    As usual I am very keen to future posts.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for taking the time to write, I appreciate your kind words.

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    2. Having re-read the second setence I noticed that my English is what is going from bad to worse!

      Lately sheng storage is improving slowly because of its nature, not because I am listening to you. If I was not listening to you it would have gone to the bin as it happened in the past.

      Oh dear I am really sorry about that. All this tells me I am not drinking enough raw pu'er.

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    3. One anecdote that might be worth listening to is the idea that tea can taste bad and a few years later might improve. My tea here has not much taste at all. But I can explain that by looking at the old leaves on the cake, how many there are. It is a pleasant drink when fresh, but not enough strong leaf for aging.

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  2. You will have to let me know if i'm on the right path with my storage.
    M

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    Replies
    1. Your storage is better than mine.

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    2. It is a work in progress. The humidity this year has been crazy around here.

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    3. We have had quite a bit of humidity as well. This week, which is th first week of Sept., we are having temps of 90F and dew points in the 70s which is well above normal for this time of year. My three season porch gets far hotter than that. So Bangkok weather all week!

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  3. Have you tried the Huang pian 2011 guafengzhai from puerhshop I would recommend, $16 357 gram Cake

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  4. This post is really good and informative. The explanation given is really comprehensive & informative about
    pu-erh tea | fitness plan

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  5. did you were using any of these "pouch buttons" in the honey pot?
    Thanks for the great information, greetings from germany.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Amon, no I didn't use anything additional. I can always brush a little water on the inside of the lid.

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