I got a phone call from a puer drinker not long ago. He told me that after several months of storage his favorite shu puer lost a lot of aroma and flavor. He sent me a couple of samples that I could compare with the same tea that I store at home. I prepared two gaiwans, the ruined samples, and the equal amount of the same tea from my own supplies. I made sure to brew both in the same way. The difference was obvious, and it had to be due to storage conditions, since his and my tea came from the same batch. I’d say that the shu puer in question lost at least one third of its sweetness. And overall it felt like those shu cakes were kind of dull, washed out – with almost no essence left.
How to keep your tea?
Tea storage is not a simple process, but there are some simple rules: greens should be kept in the fridge, shengs need to be aged, some green wulongs should be stored in the freezer, and so on. Some teas don’t mind plastic bags, others fare much better in wooden or ceramic containers. I’ve tried all kinds of techniques and ware, and the only thing I’ve learnt is that there is no one best way to store tea. Eventually, I even stopped measuring moisture and temperature. I just did what felt right. Chinese tea masters often say that the art of tea brewing is a mixture of knowledge, luck, and intuition. I would say that the same applies to storing tea.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that there’s only so much that I can do to overcome, let alone use to my advantage, the local climate conditions. Besides, power outages, and simple human forgetfulness can have truly detrimental effects on my home-kept cache of tea. One can always go fancy and opt for a storage room outfitted with microclimate control, but that’s way too expensive and complex. So I developed a protocol, which is really about finding the proverbial golden mean that lies somewhere between the ideal and the feasible. I have to say it works pretty well, but let’s first identify the issues that we’ll need to tackle.
It is generally agreed that decent-quality greens and green wulongs should be kept in the fridge in airtight bags or containers. This is particularly true for green tea because it is not oxidized and thus quite susceptible to various external factors. Wulongs lose fragrance at a disturbing rate when left in the open. If you’ve ever been in a wholesale tea market or a big enough tea shop, you may have noticed the huge iceboxes that the owners use to store their tea.
But beware: you probably shouldn’t use your regular kitchen fridge for that purpose, unless you don’t mind the taste of other foodstuffs in your cuppa. That happens because no domestic containers are 100% airtight.
The other issue is condensation. The droplets of water that form on the inside of a container can do a lot of damage.
In the tea circles, one often hears that sheng puer should be aged. It’s true, but only if tea is aged properly. Aging sheng puer at home is a gamble. After 10 years you could end up with great-tasting, high-value cakes or…. compost material. The factors that come into play when it comes to tea aging are seasonal changes in moisture levels, mold, odors (spices, food, animal activity, pollution, etc), and, of course, the quality of tea material itself.
So, even though tea is a dry substance with significantly better shelf life than, say, meat or dairy products, bad things do happen. I’m no exception. One day I discovered that a batch of sheng puer that I’d been experimenting with started to smell weird, almost like a forsaken cellar. As I later realized, it happened because I kept the tea in airtight containers, impeding air circulation, which is a key factor in the sheng puer aging process. The tea wasn’t completely ruined though. It was drinkable, just smelled funny.
Easy to learn and use. Great results. Firsthand experience.
If tea is pressed into cakes, I leave the original wrapping paper on and place each cake in a separate ziplock plastic bag. I separate shu from sheng by placing tea of different categories into different cardboard boxes. I keep these boxes in my living room, a good distance away from possible sources of unwanted odor, heat, moisture, or sunshine. While shu puer isn’t particularly fussy about constant air exposure, sheng puer will only age properly if exposed to at least a bit of fresh air. So the paper-plastic-cardboard method that I’ve described early is a good solution. The plastic bags are not completely airtight, allowing some fresh air to leak in, and they provide enough protection from odors and elements.
I put all my loose-leaf tea (including greens) in kraft paper bags lined with a thin layer of aluminized plastic. I store the kraft bags the same way I store cakes – in cardboard boxes. I store highly-fragrant teas separately to avoid flavor loss and changes. The key to success here is airtight containment. All teas except sheng puer should be sealed as tightly as possible and stored in waterproof bags or containers to prevent oxygenation and mold growth.
There are two fundamentally different ways of storing puer: wet and dry. Both methods are suitable for sheng and shu. However, due to local climatic conditions, dry-stored puer is predominant in Europe. I don’t drink that much shu, so I don’t have a lot of experience with storing it one way or the other. But I always have loads of sheng in my house, and I’ve done a bit experimenting to figure out what works best. In my humble opinion, dry-stored puer tastes better. The idea behind wet storage is to accelerate the aging process by promoting fermentation. I appreciate the tremendous effort and skill that such task requires, but I don’t think that it’s worth the trouble. Not in my case, at least.
Needless to say, if you feel like exploring the wet storage techniques, read around the topic and make contact with people who’ve been doing it for a while. You never know which detail will help you along the road.
No one wants to be left without their tea …
The person who contacted me about the shu puer gone bad told me later that he kept the cakes in the kitchen where the tea started to absorb all sorts of surrounding odors. He then moved the cakes to the basement, unfortunately right next to the heat pump, exposing the tea to drastic moisture/temperature fluctuations. I assume that rodent activity may have done additional damage. So it’s hardly surprising that all his tea went bad. Just stick to the simple rules I’ve outlined above, rely on common sense, and your tea will be OK.
Some people like to stockpile all kinds of stuff, including tea. I try not to do that. A few years ago, Roman showed me the benefits of buying tea in smaller quantities more frequently. If I like some tea, I buy enough to last me a month and come back for more when I run out. I even do that with shengs sometimes. I only buy puer that already tastes great. No way I’m waiting 5-10 years in hope for it to transform into something marvelous. It’s simply easier to order a 10 year-old cake straight from my favorite tea manufacturers in China, where it’s been stored in next-to-perfect conditions. I’d also make sure to buy from a trusted source, somebody honest, reliable and with a sensible pricing approach. Some traders charge tenfold for 10-year old tea. And when I ask them if the tea is ten times better than it was ten years ago, I get that awkward silence that makes things very clear. Now wonder the tea investment bubble burst in 2007… once. Seeing how appallingly expensive some sheng puer is getting, a new burst might hit the industry in an observable future.
Interestingly, a similar trend is springing up in the wine industry. Some connoisseurs recommend drinking young wine, despite the age-old belief in that wine gets better with time. Why? For reasons remarkably similar to those I’ve mentioned above.