A Tea Addict's Journal

Storing is for the long haul

January 29, 2013 · 13 Comments

A few months ago a reader of the blog emailed me with a problem. She is newish to puerh, and has been buying some cakes since 2011. She bought some clay jars to store the teas in, and in the hopes of speeding up the aging process, decided to try to add a bit of humidity to the jars to make things go faster/age better. This much sounds familiar – lots of people do similar things, especially if they live in drier climates, because, well, they worry about the tea not aging properly. These are the jars.

Then the inevitable happened – first, signs of yellow mold, which can be dusted off easily and stopped the addition of humidity to the tea (by some method of adding water to the clay and let the clay soak it up, I believe). Then, a more invasive problem appeared – bugs, little bugs, that were all over the cakes, especially one, but it was showing up on others too. She threw out the most heavily infested one, but now almost all the cakes have bugs in them, and they move fast and run away from light, what to do?

In desperation, she emailed me to ask – what’s a good way to handle them? She threw one of the cakes with bugs away, but there were more. Another she put in a freezer, hoping that it will kill the bugs. Was microwave a possible way of killing them? Something else?

I think a little perspective is useful sometimes, because I’ve met others who have had similar reactions before. Puerh, when you buy them new, are, well, an investment of sorts. If your plan is to store them and drink them in the future, chances are your time horizon is years, if not decades. If that’s the case, even momentary infestations of all kinds of nasties will go away. Some, like mold, may leave a permanent mark on how your tea tastes. Others, like little bugs, will barely make a dent in your tea, if you manage to get rid of them. So, when you run into problems like this, the first thing to do is not to panic, unless you spent your life savings on the tea and your life depended on it. If it’s just a hobby – there are ways to fix the problem. What not to do is to overreact and put the tea in, say, the microwave and permanently destroy it. That will really end the tea’s aging potential and cause irreparable harm.

Since in this case it was obviously the wet jars and the attendant humidity that was causing the problem, I suggested the reader to take all the cakes out of the jars, and then separate the cakes into two piles – ones with bugs and ones without. The ones without, just store them on a shelf or something. The ones with the bugs I suggested perhaps putting them somewhere, spread out, and just let them air out. Usually, bugs like these that live on puerh cakes tend to love the humidity, and are mostly after the paper. Once it gets too dry they will go away, especially if it’s not a dark humid space. I had bugs like this on some bricks I bought some years ago, and after a few months all the bugs were gone, and I didn’t even do anything special to get rid of them.

So, happily, the reader wrote back to me a few weeks ago saying that the bugs were, indeed, all gone. No more problems, and the tea is probably a bit dry, but certainly better off than in some uncontrolled humid environment with a high risk of mold and bugs. They’re going back into the jar, but without any added humidity this time. I think the aging will be slow, but there’s only so much you can do with natural climate.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered folks with storage problems that were man-made. Usually the root of the problem is the desire to somehow replicate a more humid, hotter environment so the tea will age faster, but that is not so easy, and the risks of failure also increases dramatically when you pursue such projects. I am an advocate of simple solutions, such as, say, adding a bowl of water to a storage cabinet, but anything more and I’d be weary. If you do pursue such projects, monitor the changes very closely. Mold can grow on all kinds of places, but on tea cakes, they generally start at the end of the stems, so watch those carefully. They can also be in some corner of your storage unit in that long forgotten tuo sitting in the back – and that can fester and kill your whole stash.

You can never really replicate the storage conditions of a giant warehouse with hundreds of jians of tea. Just today I was walking by Lam Kie Yuen and saw them loading up a truck for delivery. There were probably 200 jian of puerh in that truck, meaning there were close to 17000 cakes in there. Storage that amount of tea and storing 20 at home are not the same thing, and they have decades of storage management experience to back them up. So, proceed carefully, and if anything goes wrong, don’t panic. Airing out the tea for six months will solve most of the problems.

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13 responses so far ↓

  • ira // January 29, 2013 at 2:30 am | Reply

    Thank you for the “don’t panic” advice. My first reaction would have been to throw away all the beengs if they have bugs! This article is very interesting and exciting to read. What did you do to attract bugs to your bricks from years ago? Or they were undercover agents from the tea vendor?

  • Will // January 29, 2013 at 2:40 am | Reply

    I have a feeling I have some bugs recently too (though my storage is not super duper humid). I have been trying to figure out if there’s a way to kill the bugs with inert gas in a small space (a few cakes at a time). I’m pretty sure it would work (museums do it); the hard part, of course, is building or finding some kind of apparatus to actually accomplish this. The alternative is to let my humidor dry out, which I have no problem with; the hard part, though, is re-humidifying it carefully without having too much fluctuation while things are catching back up.

    As you may remember, I have vacuum-sealed cakes before, in hopes of killing bugs / eggs that stowed away with some cakes I brought back from Taiwan.

  • Will // January 29, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Reply

    Well, I see some pantry moth type webbing inside certain wrappers, but I think it’s probably better safe than sorry – if there are bugs hiding out somewhere and I don’t get them, they’ll re-infest the whole thing pretty soon.

  • psychanaut // January 29, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Reply

    This reminds me of an article I just read the other day which talked about a recent crop of venture capitalists that are pouring lots of money and hype into the R&D of more authentic tasting meats. This immediately made me skeptical, for a variety of reasons, but the real kicker was how both the author article and the people quoted kept referring to these bio-engineered products of various gum, plant oils, and soy as “healthier” than meat, something entirely natural which we have evolved to eat over millions of years. The writer and economist/philosopher Nassim Taleb refers to this as “naive interventionism.” i.e. creating additional potential problems in the process of trying to manipulate or linearize a much more complex set of naturally occurring variables that may or may not actually need intervening (but we strive to replicate or control A into B).

    I am fine with keeping my puer on the shelf on cabinets in CA. If I wanted to store them in a traditional way, I would send to somewhere with an appropriate climate, rather than trying to induce the conditions in my home.

  • TwoDog // January 31, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Reply

    Another point, which I think the article doesn’t touch on enough, is that large factories/storage houses have this same problem, with or without adding humidity. I have opened freshly pressed ripe puer cakes that have colonies of bugs. I have opened traditionally stored puer cakes from Guangdong that have a little bug party going on. I recently wrote about a little grub who made his home in a traditionally stored cake, which had to my knowledge been out of storage and sealed for several months. The point is that bugs are not a huge deal. The advice “don’t panic” is sage advice indeed. A little airing out and the tea is very drinkable.

    That Cheshunhao cake is a good example. That cake had to have bugs on it at some point(s) during its journey. I have seen some clusters of off white specks on it that are not mold/bloom related. Any how about the tea? It’s good.

    Bugs just don’t matter that much. Everything we eat on a daily basis likely has some trace of bugs. We share the planet with them and they like to occasionally find residence in puer tea. So…don’t panic.

  • Tsubo // February 1, 2013 at 5:25 am | Reply

    “they move fast and run away from light” … so they live in a dark AND humid place … were they little and long ? Then it was Lepisma saccharina … also called fishmoth, urban silverfish or just the silverfish … they come from the house, who have certainly already humid and dark places and go to a darker and damper place WITH food, because they eat rotten wood … at that time humid tea leaf is perfect …

    No needs to look for the asians cake-hidden bugs, invasive westerns bugs will do the same job of eating your cakes if you store them in humid and dark places …

    For the silverfish, remove one of these two parameters and you will have no invasion ! For storing, no need of exposing your cakes to the sunlights, they avoid “spotlights” like the plague … so don’t use clay jars for storing wet or put one or two permanently working bulmb in !

  • Martin // February 9, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Reply

    This was a very interesting read and filled with useful information for long term pu-er lovers. Thanks!

  • DM // February 11, 2013 at 10:36 am | Reply

    Insects can be killed safely and cheaply with carbon dioxide. I’ve done it more than once, though not on tea: flour weevils, feather mites – most kinds of vermin. Even flying squirrels.

    Just put the infested material in an enclosed space – plastic bag, cabinet, closet with cloth stuffed into cracks – with a large chunk of dry ice. Then wait a couple of days. Needs to be repeated after existing eggs hatch, but before they mature into egg-laying adults – say a week or so.

    One caveat – don’t stick your head into a space full of CO2; one good breath is enough to cause unconsciousness. Air out larger spaces before entering.

    Dry ice is available in bricks or pellets cheaply – about a pound a pound, in the UK – in most parts of the world (www.dryicedirectory.com, e.g.), and can be transported in a beer cooler or wrapped in a blanket. It’s often sold by ice companies and ice-cream shippers, and can often be had for the asking from any university chemistry department – they use tons of the stuff. Handle with cloth gloves, though old pros don’t always bother. And get enough to throw a spare chunk into a party punch-bowl. Leaves no residue, and won’t affect the tea unless you let humid air deposit moisture on chilled cakes.

    • Lena Zegher // March 4, 2013 at 8:56 am | Reply

      Wouldn’t this create the problem of leaving the dead bugs in your tea?

      From my reading of the post, if you let your cake dry out the bugs will migrate rather than simply die in the cake.

  • Carmen // February 13, 2013 at 7:46 am | Reply

    Simple solutions, indeed! I guess the biggest mistake in storage tea, especially pu-erh is trying to replicate a natural environment in an artificial one. These sort of accidents/problems may appear. I really enjoyed your article and your advice. Pu-erh is indeed a long term investment, but it’s worth it!

  • DM // March 4, 2013 at 11:05 am | Reply

    What’s a few dead bugs, more (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Food_Defect_Action_Levels) or less? Especially where something like 90% of all the cells in our bodies are non-human anyway. Aside from the Hygiene Hypothesis, suggesting that obsessive cleanliness may be (very) harmful to people’s health, an excessive concern for non-pathogenic insects seems incompatible with living in nature or enjoying natural foods and drinks. Eat a few fried grasshoppers, knock ’em back with a shot of wormy tequila, be happy.

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