I’ve realized that I’ve written quite a bit about storage, but have not done a focused post on how I store my own tea. This is partially because I’m still figuring out how well my own setup has been working and am not sure if it is even a worthwhile example to follow. But I’ve now been storing tea in more or less the same way for five years and wanted to share where I am with my own storage.
- Simplicity & low maintenance.
- Transform tea.
- Minimize risk.
Simplicity & Low Maintenance – This one is straightforward. I own a lot of tea and don’t want to be constantly checking up on it and checking every cake for mold or progress. There’s an assertion floating around that people storing it in a box are constantly fussing over it, moreso than other storage setups. In my own personal experience, this is simply untrue. Getting a working setup requires thought, but if you want something low maintenance it’s not difficult to achieve. I think you can find ways to fuss around with storage in a variety of setups and don’t find pumidors to be notably more work than alternatives. A simple setup also appeals to me and I’ve been slow at adding new elements or features to it. Controlling more things introduces more complexity and more potential problems.
Transform Tea – My goal is not to preserve the tea, but to mature it in interesting ways. Reduce bitterness/astringency and darken/mature tea in interesting ways without flattening or drying it out. It is no secret that I am a fan of more matured teas. I have very little tendency or desire to drink unaged sheng. This impacts both my buying and my storage.
Minimize Risk – Minimizing risk is a balancing act with maturing the tea. While I like and drink traditionally stored teas regularly, I am not aspiring to create a setup resembling wet storage. Why? It would not be simple and would require significant oversight. And it’s just risky. Given the climate card dealt to me I’d much rather have tea that ages slowly than moldy tea.
Inexpensive – There is a world where I could justify a very expensive storage rig. I do not live in that world. I do not want to spend $2,000 – 4,000 on a wine cabinet. Yes this product exists. My storage containers have mainly been acquired second hand, thanks to the sharp eyes of my bargain hunting wife and mom.
How I Store My Pu’erh
Context: I live in a standard apartment in Seattle with my wife. Space is a concern and my tea certainly takes up a lot of room. We use heat to around 68-70F during the winter and do not have AC. I measure the ambient temperature and humidity in my apartment. The temperature usually ranges from 65-70F for the majority of the year, but can get up to 85F in the summertime. The ambient indoor humidity ranges from 25RH-55RH throughout the year, probably averaging out to 40RH. To my knowledge, I have had no instances of mold.
- A fridge, wine cooler, and two large plastic bins filled to capacity with tea.. The fridge is my most regularly accessed storage, with the bins being the least accessed.
- Some cakes I drink are stored on my shelf (our TeaDB backgrond) for easier access.
- I add humidity to the containers with Boveda Packs and center it around 65RH. If it falls beneath 60RH, I’ll add a pack. I buy the pack of 12 72 RH packs about every other year, which amounts to a yearly cost around $20. Note that the 72RH rating can be a bit misleading, as my storage never really gets to 72RH.
- If my humidity gets over 70 I’ll be a little bit cautious.This only occurs during the heat of summer. It’s unclear if this caution is justified or not.
In theory, if there were a big conditional change I’d watch the tea closely and consider airing it out. This doesn’t happen often but I do keep it under consideration as a first line of defense against mold.
Realization 1: The Tea Maintains itself Well Once Conditioned.
Once the tea is conditioned, the tea does a very good job of maintaining the desired humidity. This has been true for all four containers and is especially true if your pumidor is close or at capacity and has a good seal. One argument I’ve seen lobbed against Boveda is that they’re quite expensive. While there are less expensive DIY solutions, my experience is that once the tea is conditioned to around 65RH, it pretty much stays around there with one pack added per year or so. I suspect this discrepancy is situation dependent, as my ambient conditions are moderate and not as dry as elsewhere. Having a good seal also helps to keep the humidity more stable. If your tea is dried out from whatever your past storage is it may also take a fair amount of humidification to get it to the desired level. As mentioned earlier, my Boveda costs around $20/year a cost I consider insignificant. YMMV.
Realization 2: This is a Long Game & My Tea is 100% Dry-Stored.
Pu’erh storage is not something that can be done overnight. Five years of storage isn’t much and while I feel like there are some worthwhile takeaways from my storage, there’s a lot that is unknown. The teas I’ve retried are on the dry-storage spectrum.
Realization 3: Some Teas That were Previously Dry-Stored are Rejuvenated.
I think this is interesting and may speak towards the short-term conditioning of the tea. If you receive a tea that is on the dry-end, putting it in a pumidor where the humidity is kept a notch higher can have a positive impact on the tea. I’ve observed this in mainly Kunming or Kunming-like aged teas. This may effectively be shelf fatigue working in reverse.
Things I Am Watching
Storage Fragrance of Tea – There’s not a lot of examples of decade old US stored tea, but I’ve had the opportunity to try maybe ten different US storage systems. One cautionary tale is that tea can pick up fragrances. I think this is something that seems simple but can be surprisingly difficult to pick up on. It is possible to get accustomed to the taste of your storage and be oblivious to it. In my mind this is similar to how certain people’s living spaces may have certain smells, but they’ll often be blissfully unaware. Even a faint, but constant smell can seep its way into the tea. It’s a risk that is often underrated for pu’erh, but is very much real. It’s best to periodically get other’s opinions on your tea and storage if you want to avoid this.
The Edges – Many mold outbreaks begin around the edges where there can be a particularly humid corner. This is a risk, since oftentimes people will not be measuring the highest humidity point in their storage. My storage is pretty packed so I think it is more prone to this. When I’m checking for mold, I’ll usually look most closely around the cakes stored at the top, bottom and sides of the pumidor.
Shelf Fatigue/Cakes Drying Out – This is a new one that I had not considered when first setting up my storage. Measuring the cake’s current condition (via humidity) gives me a way to attempt to model this in my head. The idea is that storing the tea just on your shelf in a ziploc will cause the tea to slowly dry out. Intuitively it makes sense and is effectively an argument for why we setup storage systems. While this does not really have an effect on the long-term aging of my teas, it has an immediate impact on the tea I consume regularly.
How Fast My Tea is Aging – This is still an unknown for me. I can rule out some obvious ones like Hong Kong, Taipei, Malaysia.. But is it akin to Kunming replacement level storage? Shanghai? TW seal stored? While I’m convinced it is a relatively dry and slow storage, how slow is it actually? Will I enjoy teas stored in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? This is tea specific and to be determined.
Marco’s Hotbox – I think it’s the most interesting experiment in pu’erh. It has the potential offer of a way to age tea relatively quickly without adding a ton of mold risk. What is the right balance of heat for a setup like his? Time will tell. Currently I lack the space and appetite to do such a setup myself, but I plan to follow closely and see where it goes.
I recently acquired a very large wine storage secondhand. Stay tuned..