Sunday, November 20, 2016
Storing Pu erh Tea
"How do you store your pu erh tea?" I received this email question last week and this same question was posed to me by a Guangzhou tea collector friend last year.
As a tea drinker/collector, you would know that tea should be kept away from heat, light and odors. So storing tea in a kitchen or bathroom are not good choices to keep away your tea. Green teas, if you have large amounts should be refrigerated and even stored in a freezer in small bags to keep the green tea as fresh as possible. In Guangzhou, I have seen longching tea dealers using chest freezers to store their tea.
But if you store your pu erh tea under certain conditions, your pu erh will age well. The taste and aroma of an old pu erh are enjoyed by many pu erh tea drinkers throughout the world. Not only pu erh gets better with age, many such older pu erh command a much higher price in the tea markets and teashops than a similar younger pu erh. Older ripe pu erh are equally expensive now as well.
Let me digress. For my readers who are starting their pu erh adventure, Pu erh tea is available in 2 types. The 1st type is called 'raw' pu erh tea. This process of making this tea is as follows (my short version) - pu erh tea leaves harvested and collected, the leaves are spread out on the floor to naturally dehydrate, later in the evening, the tea leaves are fried in a wok to stop the oxidization and further dehydrate the tea leaves, tea leaves are rolled and shaped by hand/machine, tea leaves are sun dried/ machine dried, tea leaves are sorted and ready to be pressed into cakes. The 2nd type of pu erh is 'ripe or shou' pu erh. Making this ripe tea is the same as raw pu erh with a few extra steps at the end, as follows - the tea is spread out again on the floor and moisture is reintroduced back into the tea, and covered in cloth at a fixed level of temperature and humidity. This process is called 'wodui' in Chinese. The tea leaves are turned a few occasions during this 6-9 weeks wodui. The ripe tea is ready to be pressed into cakes.
Chan Kam Pong in his book 'First step to Chinese Puerh Tea' explains:
"As it is known that Raw Pu erh requires a relatively long time for aging, such as 20 to 30 years, most people are unwilling to store Raw Puerh by themselves. For this reason a scientific manufacturing process which speeds up the fermentation was invented…….a tea factory will deal with the raw Puerh leaves by using water and micro organisms, which is for fermenting purposes. Then the tea factory will cover the mixture with blankets throughout the whole process of fermentation. Providing a suitable fermentation environment is essential for the fermentation process. The temperature and humidity have to be strictly controlled. While fermenting, Puerh tea has to be stirred at intervals manually. The whole process takes several weeks or months depending on the maturity of the Ripe Puerh tea."
This would imply that ripe/cooked pu erh was made to resemble old raw pu erh. If you are a pu erh tea drinker and prefer the raw to ripe versions……your raw pu erh if you manage to store for a few decades might end up (ahem) tasting a bit like a ripe pu erh. That is another story.
Back to pu erh storage. A pu erh tea drinker/collector will not only need to store the tea away from heat, light and smell but at the same time would like his/her pu erh tea to age while the tea is being kept. So how should you store your pu erh? Well, there are already people storing pu erh and this would be a helpful guide in gleaning more information on pu erh storage.
For me, I looked at the Far East. I looked at countries like Malaysia, Hong Kong, and China. There are many tea collectors there that had kept pu erh tea for more than 20 years. Malaysia and Hong Kong are good places to look. This is because pu erh tea stored in these countries are often 'repurchased' by Chinese tea dealers back for resale to China. Taiwan tea dealers, in the late 90s/early 2000s had bought lots of pu erh tea from Malaysia and Hong Kong though this buying had stopped due the weaker Taiwan economy. The pu erh tea that was repurchased by the tea dealers were later resold for a much higher price. This would suggest that the storage of such pu erh tea would be one of the main reason for the higher price and demand for such tea.
In addition, with me staying in this part of world…..this allows me to have easy access to these tea. I am able to sample and buy the tea. I am spoilt for choice….I can choose the brand and the different age of the tea. I can easily get 3, 5,8 10, 15 year old pu erh tea here. This large variety of tea available had allowed me to 'taste the results' of aging and storage. I will get a clearer picture on how a tea is aging and this helped me in choosing a tea for storage knowing (with a small degree of confidence) how the tea would taste like after waiting out 8-12 years of tea storage.
When you buy an older pu erh tea, you are not only buying just the tea but you are buying the storage. I would also like to think that you are also buying 'time' - the time you would otherwise have to 'wait out' for the pu erh to age. The same 10 yr old Dayi/Xiaguan cake you buy from a teashop/online would taste different if you had purchased the same identical tea from Europe, Yunnan, Beijing, Malaysia or from Hong Kong. This difference is due to the storage of the tea. This difference in taste and aroma is obvious and this is due to the climate where the tea is stored and 2 factors play an important part in the storage. They are temperature and humidity. It is my opinion that for proper aging of pu erh tea, you need to have a storage facility or room that is humid and warm enough (constant with little variation in temperature and humidity) for pu erh tea to age well. Do not be mistaken that tea collectors here expose the tea directly to the tropical climate. No they do not, but I would like to suggest that storing pu erh tea in a clean room or storage space, but in a climate of high humidity and temperature is conducive to aging pu erh.
A look at the climate conditions of the countries (Malaysia, Hong Kong and Guangzhou) I had mentioned, have both high temperatures and humidity all year round, which is suitable for aging pu erh. Let me give you a snapshot on the weather in Kuala Lumpur, city of Malaysia. The average temperature there is 28c (80f) and humidity at 80% all year round. Humidity there is even much higher during the rainy seasons. Google search the climates of the places I had mentioned and you will get a better picture on the temperature and humidity levels there.
In Malaysia, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, I had visited the storage facilities and rooms, to store pu erh tea, that are used by my serious tea collector friends and teashops. A few serious tea collectors would dedicate empty bedrooms (and use fully from floor to ceiling) to store their tea. One friend actually rented a house and store 4 bedrooms to the max with tea. I also know a few friends and teashop owners renting warehouse facilities to store their tea. These storage rooms are clean, lined with proper metal shelves and only tea is stored in these rooms.
Will pu erh tea age in countries with lower temperatures and humidity? I have friends that live in temperate countries and they had constructed or made 'pumidors' to store their pu erh. They have told me that it is a constant challenge to keep both temperature and humidity constantly high especially during the winter months. I am planning to visit USA/Canada in 2018 and look forward to drinking their teas. It should be fun. I would also like to do a tea exchange with my readers if we have the same tea. It would make an interesting study and a nice Christmas gift for both of us as well.
How do I store my Pu erh? I mainly buy my pu erh tea in 7-cake tongs and in cartons. I keep the tea in 2 rooms and only open these rooms to take out the tea or adjust the tea boxes properly so that I can store more tea. The secret to my tea storage in Singapore - let time quietly do its work. 8 to 12 years seems like a long time. There will be many milestones in life as we age our tea. Time really flies….and some of my tea are now ready to drink.