A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries tagged as ‘traditional stored puerh’

The Authentic Taste of Puer Tea and Transnational Interests

May 15, 2020 · 10 Comments

The title of this post is the title of the paper that I’m linking to. Written by Yu Shuenn-Der, the deputy director of the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, the paper is basically a very good critical summary of the recent history of the puerh fad. If you’ve read this blog with any regularity in the past, it should be of great interest to you.

You can find the rest of the issue for the journal here, which includes two other papers on contemporary tea culture.

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Weird blends

April 18, 2018 · 2 Comments

When you’re here to eat dim sum, the first thing that happens is you sit down, and they ask you what tea you want. Usually, your choices are as follows: shoumei, shuixian, puerh, jasmine. Some places offer some low grade tieguanyin instead of shuixian, but those are your basic choices.

So I was with some friends and we went to this place we’ve never been. Instead of actually getting a choice, they just plopped down some jasmine for us – which was very unusual. I think it was because we were chatting in English before sitting down, so I guess the staff figured we didn’t speak Cantonese and wanted to avoid dealing with us.

So I asked for some puerh instead. They quickly swapped the teapots and gave us what looked like puerh. So far, so good. Except when I tried to drink it, it tasted really, really weird.

At first I thought it’s a bad tea – some restaurants use really cheap, bad tea to save on money (even though they charge you $2 USD per person for the tea). Then, after a couple sips, it really became obvious something was really wrong. We mostly avoided the tea from that point on, and near the end of the meal, I pulled out the leaves.

It’s pretty clear here that something weird is happening. Some of the leaves are the typical puerh leaves – dark, wiry, somewhat stiff. The rest however are something different. The green stuff – what was it? I took a look, and it seemed like the tea is some kind of really low grade tieguanyin or something similar.

The question is – why would anyone do that? I have two theories, but neither are very satisfying. The first is simple – they made a mistake. That seems highly unlikely, because one look at the leaves and you’ll know it’s off. Of course, maybe they mixed it by accident and simply don’t care – it’s possible.

The other is that this is some really misguided idea of blending the teas thinking that this is a good idea – that the tieguanyin will help raise the aroma of the tea, while the puerh gives it body and bass. Well…. that simply didn’t work in this case. It was really, really weird tasting.

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Dealing with traditionally stored teas

February 24, 2016 · 6 Comments

A reader wrote in recently asking me about how to handle cakes that have been traditionally stored. The cake has obviously been through some traditional storage, as you can see here

First of all, it’s useful to get a sense from looking and smelling the cake to see how heavy the storage was – how wet, for how long, basically. There are some hints. You can smell it. You can observe the amount of mold on the surface, although that’s not a good indicator because some people actually use brushes to brush off most of the spores. You can also open the cake up a bit to see what it looks like inside – if it’s really white inside or not. Really heavily stored cakes also often have some warping – they get so wet that they warp under pressure of all the other cakes on top and sometimes around them. This doesn’t look too bad.

The reader actually had two questions – will this cake contaminate the other cakes he owns, and how to deal with this – to make it get better, I suppose?

The first thing to note is that since mold can grow on anything, just putting your moldy cake in the same storage space as your other cakes is not automatically going to cause mold on other cakes, unless your storage environment allows it to happen (wet, basically). At 30% RH, that’s not going to happen to this reader’s storage situation. It could, however, impart a bit of a smell to the other cakes in the same container, so my advice was to put it separately, perhaps in something like an unsealed cardboard box, and just forget about it. This comes to the second point – often times the biggest problem with these traditionally stored teas, especially if they haven’t been out of their wet storage phase for too long, is that all you can taste is the musty, damp forest floor smell. The rich flavours that you can get from traditionally stored teas aren’t apparent yet, especially the sweeter flavours. To get rid of the sometimes pungent smell, the best way to deal with it is to just let it air out a bit. This is the one time when you do want a bit of airflow or at least air exchange. It takes time, but eventually the really obvious musty smell will go away and you will have something that’s more drinkable. These are probably drinkable now, but it should get better with age.

I also have friends who would brush off the spores themselves, although for your sanity and health I’d do that outdoors. Get a new toothbrush and just lightly brush them off. It really won’t change much of anything but it might look better, and to some people that’s actually an important psychological step in dealing with the tea, it seems.

When drinking traditionally stored teas, it’s often not a bad idea to throw away the first two steeps. A good old friend of mine who grew up drinking these often said the real taste doesn’t start to show up until about steep five. There’s a certain truth to that – everything before is really the storage talking. Definitely rinse the tea, probably twice, before trying it. If it’s still super pungent, you might want to let it sit some more, or throw away another infusion. Part of the fun is learning how they transform, and traditionally stored teas change in ways that are more obvious than naturally stored teas.

Finally, I should add that one of the most interesting things you can do is to try to find traditionally stored cooked puerh – they are actually quite different, and richer, than naturally stored ones, which tend to be rather boring. The traditional storage process also tend to get rid of the nasty, pondy taste. They also come cheaper. I’m not sure if any vendor out there is selling something like this, but if not, they should look for it because I think there’s a market for this stuff.

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Drink your tea now

April 4, 2014 · 10 Comments

Many of you reading this are probably sitting on more tea than you can consume in your lifetime, or at least some multiples of years, if not decades. For those of you who fit that description, I have a story for you.

A relative of a family friend recently passed away due to a heart attack. It seems like he was interested in a number of things, tea being one of them, and teapot being another. I was called in to take a look at what’s there, to see what can be done about it. I brought along a couple of friends who are tea vendors, since I wasn’t going to buy what could be a couple hundred cakes of stuff.

Turns out there weren’t a couple hundred cakes – there were maybe 60 or 80, plus some random liu’an, so on and so forth.

You can see some of the cakes here. You might notice a few things, one being that almost all of the tea is still shrink wrapped. The second is that they all look old. These teas seem to be purchased from multiple vendors over a number of years, but probably bought no earlier than maybe the early 2000s or so. Some of the teas are supposed to be 70s or 80s tea, more are 90s or maybe early 2000s. Some are cooked, others raw. It’s not a big collection, but it’s a collection.

And the guy never got to drink any of these.

Among these cakes is one, placed in a box on its own. We opened it, and before us was the classic Red Label wrapper. When I picked it up, however, it felt funny – too light, and the cake’s shape is not right. Upon further examination, it is pretty clear that this must’ve been a fake, and not a very good one either. The price he paid, however, was real – the price tag was still on it from a department store in Hong Kong, for the grand price of $120000 HKD, which is about how much a cake of the 50s Red Label would’ve cost about 8-10 years ago. These days it’s more like $100000 USD a cake.

It’s still shrink wrapped too.

It’s hard to tell what kind of condition most of the cakes are in, since they’re wrapped so carefully from the vendors. It’s pretty obvious that most of them are pretty wet – some terribly so. The cakes that were not shrink wrapped were on the heavy side of traditional storage, to the point where they would be rather heavy going for those who are not used to the taste, and would depress the relative resale value. But it seems like the guy liked it that way – he has a lot of cooked tea, and heavy-going seems to be his preferred profile.

Of course, I don’t know what he’s drunk, so maybe he consumed most of his teas already. He passed before getting to 70, so while he wasn’t exactly young, he wasn’t very old either by today’s standard. The Red Label, I suspect, was a pride and joy, and he kept it separately because he paid dearly for it. Even though it’s a fake, or maybe precisely because it’s a fake, he was the only one who was going to be able to really enjoy the tea – he would think he’s drinking the real thing, and since we know that paying more for wine gives you more enjoyment for it, I think the same pattern probably applies to tea. He would’ve really loved the taste of the cake, thinking that one session is costing him upwards of $2000 USD.

Many of us sit on tea that we say to ourselves “I’ll drink it for that special occasion” or “I’ll wait till later before I enjoy it” or “I can’t bear the thought of drinking all of it.” Well, don’t let that hold you back, because chances are you are the only one who’s going to enjoy it. We can always delude ourselves to think that maybe our kids, or relatives, or whoever, will like tea, but more often than not, it’s just not the case. At least here in Hong Kong, there’s the option of selling it back to people who are in the tea trade (my vendor friend seems to do it a couple times a year – called by various friends of friends, etc). Good luck doing that in the States or Europe. So, drink up!

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Temperature, humidity, and storage

August 30, 2013 · 14 Comments

I just got back from Southern Germany, where the land is flat and the beer is good. The weather was beautiful. I also came back with chapped lips, which led me to think about storing puerh tea in these places.

There’s a general consensus that the higher the temperature and the humidity the tea is stored in, the faster the tea changes. People disagree as to whether that’s a good thing or not, and some of it comes down to personal tastes (some people like their tea young tasting for reasons I don’t understand). Above a certain point, the high temperature and humidity will induce mold, which is generally seen as less desirable this day and age. However, under normal circumstances in natural settings, it is difficult to generate enough moisture to attain the level of humidity and temperature used in traditional storage facilities (we are talking +30C and relative humidity of 90% or even higher, in a tightly packed enclosed space). If you store your tea naturally, in an environment in which human beings are comfortable and not exposed to the elements, your worry shouldn’t be mold.

Instead, I think the worry should be too low a temperature/humidity. The problem, at least on an anecdotal level for me, is that tea stored too dry will begin to exhibit undesirable traits such as roughness, thinness, and lack of aroma, in addition to just not changing (or changing very slowly). I am presuming that the whole point of storing your tea is that it changes and ages – for those who want their tea young and fresh, you can stop reading now.

The dryness-induced changes are usually not very obvious problems, and may not even be apparent until you tried it side by side with a tea stored in a more optimal environment, at which point it becomes really clear that the tea stored in really dry climates is lacking something. Opinions are mixed on whether that can be revived, but it’s not at all clear that it is easy to do so without running risks.

Leaving aside why exactly higher temperature and humidity seems to allow teas to age in a more interesting manner, I suspect that it is not as simple as pointing to your humidity gauge and saying humidity is high in you neighbourhood. Since both of these factors are actually related to one another, I will attempt to talk about this in more absolute terms.

Hot air can hold more moisture than cold air. That’s just a matter of fact. Relative humidity in general is a poor indication of the amount of moisture in the air at any given time, unless you also give a temperature reading. So, if you look at this chart, you’ll see that at 30 degrees Celcius and 50% relative humidity, the air still has more moisture in it than 15 degree Celcius and 100% relative humidity. At the same time though, we know that the air has more capacity to suck in moisture – so it can dry things out faster. Experienced hands here who have long stored tea all believe that it is important for the tea to breath through the seasons – meaning that it goes through wet and dry periods. The winter, when it’s dry and cold (relatively) here, is when the tea rests. Then spring comes, when it’s quite wet, and then the summer, when it’s hot, and by the fall, it starts drying out again. And the cycle repeats itself. Slow changes in the climate seems to beget changes in taste.

I remember when I came back to Hong Kong one time during my study overseas, I noticed that one of my tongs of tea was moved to closer to the window, and this being early spring, it was extremely wet and warm in Hong Kong. The tong was almost wet to the touch – the tea, while not quite soaked, was certainly not dry. I moved it to a higher location on the shelves and, now, years later, the tea is no worse for wear, and in fact is quite nice last time I tried it. It has also certainly aged from when it was first purchased, when it was a green, young, rather bitter thing. That’s what we want after all – for that bitterness to recede and slowly replaced by aged tastes of sweetness.

So when I was in Germany, I noticed that the weather was quite warm, but it was very, very dry. It also gets cold rather quickly at night. Of course this is far from desert like climate, but it reminds me of Beijing, where the weather can also be pretty dry and warm. In my experience, places like that produce really badly stored cakes – they literally feel dry when you drink them, and are usually devoid of fragrance and flavour. Heat with too-low humidity is no good – the ones I’ve tried where they have been stored in high heat, low humidity places tend to be really, really nasty. When people use the term “dry storage” they really meant it in relation to “wet storage” or what I like to call traditional storage. It’s not “bone dry” storage. That’s what you do for mummies. I think the reason it’s dry during the day is because of the low temperatures at night, the moisture condenses, and over the course of the day as it heats up, the humidity drops because temperatures go up – and before there’s a real chance for the moisture to be evaporated again, temperature drops again at night, keeping things fairly dry during the day. I’m not sure what this does to tea, but I suspect it’s not a great environment.

Having said that, I generally think it’s not very wise to build elaborate pumidors to try to artificially inflate humidity for your storage. The reason is simple – it’s very risky, and you can easily cause mold or other undesirables. What you can probably do without much harm is to take precautions – don’t let too much airflow into your storage area, maybe add a little water container that has little risk of spillage. I really wouldn’t do more than that.

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2003 Menghai 7542

March 20, 2012 · 12 Comments

I went tea shopping this past Saturday, hitting a few of the old, venerable teashops in the Sheung Wan area of Hong Kong. Sheung Wan used to be where the Chinese section of the city began, and to this day it is an area that is best known for Chinese medicine and dried seafood stores. Among them are a number of older teashops that have survived the test of time, some having been around for decades or more. They are, in some ways, the best places to shop for tea in Hong Kong, because it is here that you can find real, Hong Kong style tea. Visitors to the city may have a little more trouble navigating these places, but they are, by and large, friendly establishments and you’ll find things here that are not available anywhere else – whether it be Taiwan, China, or overseas.

One of the teas I picked up is a 2003 Menghai 7542. It was cheap, and at least at the tasting I had at the store, it was good. I thought I’ll give it a spin and bought one.

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The tea is traditionally stored, but only lightly.  There’s no obvious evidence of mold or anything along those lines, and smells only faintly of the storage. You can see the surface of the tea is changing colour to a greyish brown. It looks a few years older than the Yiwu girl puerh, for example, but it probably should anyway. The tea, once I chipped off a chunk, is very choppy. Early 2000s Menghai (or any factory, for that matter) tend to have fairly uneven quality control, and some cakes can be quite high in chopped up leaves. This is one of them.

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I christened my newly acquired shuiping with this tea, and after two infusions, you see this darkish brown liquor that is the hallmark of a traditionally stored tea. The tea is still somewhat bitter, but is already exhibiting sweetness and a pleasant taste. It is slightly sour, as they often are at this sort of age, but I think it has started to round that corner and is yielding more pleasant tastes than not. Compared with the traditionally stored Lao Tongzhi, for example, this tea is not only better stored, but also better, period.

The tea was sold with no wrapper. Their sample cake had the regular CNNP wrapper, and I am wondering if I can get more wrappers from them for the purpose of storing these things. Otherwise, it can become a bit of a pain, because I don’t want my tea wrapped in plastic (even though it’s loosely, non-airtight at all plastic).

PhotobucketAs you can see, the tea is all chop. It didn’t stop the tea from brewing many infusions without losing too much power, however, so it bodes well for the future. It’s time to stock up again, if I can make more space for it.