How Dry is Kunming Storage & What Does That Mean For Western Home Storage?

“At least it’s not Kunming storage.”
“Stored in Kunming….. Maybe it’ll be ready in 50 years.”
-Anonymous Pu’erh Heads

Kunming has developed a reputation as the whipping boy of storage locations. Anyone who’s sampled a tea aged in Kunming knows it’s way different and tea is much slower to change than something like dry Hong Kong storage. There’s a sizable group of pu’erh people who consider Kunming a pu’erh purgatory where tea neither ages nor dries out.. So let’s avoid Kunming and store all our pu’erh in Guangdong or Malaysia. Not so fast.. Yunnan itself certainly isn’t a desert, with places that are known to have decently hot and humid environments, such as Menghai County or Jinghong. Kunming is even described in the climate section of wikipedia as having a “mild climate”. So how dry is Kunming storage really?

Kunming Stored Teas

A pair of Kunming Stored Teas.

How Dry is Kunming? And the Importance of Temperature

Avg. Temp 1Q Avg. RH 1Q Avg. Temp 2Q Avg. RH 2Q Avg. Temp 3Q Avg. RH 3Q Avg. Temp 4Q Avg. RH 4Q Avg. Temp Avg. RH
Kunming 50.7 63 65.3 68.3 66.2 82.3 53.1 76.3 58.83 72.48
Jinghong City 69.1 66 79.8 72 79.5 82 70.4 80 74.70 75.00
Hong Kong 63.3 78.7 77.8 82.7 83.1 80 71.1 71 73.83 78.10
Kuala Lumpur 82.7 80 82.7 81 82.6 79.7 82 83 82.50 80.93
Seattle 44 75.6 53.3 69.1 63 62.3 47 79.5 51.83 71.63
New York 37 60.1 61.7 61.1 73.3 66 51 64.8 55.75 63.00
Las Vegas 53 39.3 76.3 20.9 88.3 23.9 57 37 68.65 30.28
Miami 69.1 71 78.1 71.7 83.1 76.3 74.5 73.7 76.20 73.18

While Kunming is drier than the other places in Asia, it’s really not an exceedingly dry place.. Its humidity shifts seasonally, but peaks at 82.3RH in July-September and averages 72.48RH throughout the year. Simply put, that’s really not that dry compared with western conditions.. Kunming is on average more humid than Seattle, NYC, and Las Vegas and just barely less humid than Miami (73.18). This contradicts the popular thought of Kunming as the driest possible storage. For instance, Jinghong and Hong Kong stand at just 75RH and 78.1RH on average, a significant, but smaller than the standard belief.

This also highlights the importance of temperature. While Kunming is surprisingly humid it is considerably cooler (58.8F) than all of the areas in Asia. While most of us puheads know temperature is important to storage, the terms “wet” and “dry” and our own manipulation in pumidors have more implications towards humidity rather than temperature.

  • Seasonal changes are also an important factor and some argue that a key characteristic of Malaysian storage is the lack of a seasonal change.
  • Hot and dry is probably worst as it should dry out the cakes faster than cold and dry.

Variation

There can be a large amount of results from one place depending on how the storage is executed. Consider…

  • One of the landmark cakes for dry-stored tea (88QB) was dry-stored in the signature place for traditional storage (Hong Kong). Even though Hong Kong is a single location that is hot and humid, there’s huge storage differences between definitions of HK Traditional and  HK Dry.
  • Wet and dry are relative terms. What HK dry means to one person, may mean something entirely different to someone else.
  • Malaysia is the most consistently hot and humid locations for pu’erh storage listed above, and many of the teas that come out of there do reflect that. Yet I’ve also had pu’erh stored in Malaysia that taste both drier and cleaner than “dry stored teas” from Taipei or Hong Kong.

So if a place can vary that much, where are these Kunming wet or intentionally more humid teas? I suspect part of this is the human element and the need for time. Beengs don’t age in test tubes overnight and it takes time to get results and alter setups. Kunming did not have much of a history of storing tea or even drinking pu’erh until fairly recently. A lot of the original thoughts in Kunming storage seem to have been geared towards keeping the dry, clean, and well ventilated. As most pu’erh people that have tasted multiple storages know, the results for this sort of approach differ dramatically from the HK/Taiwan equivalent.

Are Us Westerners Doomed for Tea Storage Purgatory?

The west is a big and diverse place, making it difficult to put the entire western world’s storage into a single bucket.. Generally speaking most people live in colder and drier conditions than eastern storage conditions. Even with our pumidors, are most of us best doomed for Kunming-like dry storage as a best case scenario? Given the short and sparse track records of westerners drinking and storing pu’erh in the west, it’s not really possible to answer that question.

A place like Seattle is both colder and drier on average than Kunming. If you setup a warehouse identical to Kunming warehouses, we wouldn’t really expect the tea to age much faster. That being said, I don’t know any hobbyist that has a tea warehouse in the west. The idea behind pumidors and other western storage methods is to be able to control the humidity and temperature in a more enclosed environment. Will the sealed nature of pumidors help to keep the temperature and humidity high enough for more consistent aging than our image of Kunming dry? Time will tell..

  • Pumidors will be affected by seasonal changes in a different fashion than a warehouse.
Home Storage Parameters

Seattle Summer Day Home Storage Parameters.

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19 Responses to How Dry is Kunming Storage & What Does That Mean For Western Home Storage?

  1. Hey James, great article and subject. I’ve been getting more serious about my pu’er storage over the past 8 months, and I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about storage conditions. In particular, though I agree that temperature and humidity are both very important factors in ageing tea, at least in some parts of the West it’s not so much outside conditions that are important but indoor habits. For example, I live in Quebec, where temperatures outside swing over an average year between -4F and 86F (I’m converting from Celsius and hope I’m not screwing up). However, most homes here are heated at least 8 months per year. This means that the average temperature my pumidor is subjected to is a fairly stable 72F through most of the year. This also implies that most of my efforts are dedicated to maintaining humidity levels inside my pumidor (I aim for about 72%, but I have yet to see how this will work over very dry winter months, I also happen to prefer somewhat drier stored teas). So while it may appear useful to compare conditions between cities in the West and the East, I think it is also important to consider how the teas are stored, and in particular, that it is probably much easier in the West to replicate almost any conditions at the scale of a pumidor. This might also mean that warehouse storage in the West would not be the best strategy to ageing tea.

    • James says:

      Thanks for the comment. Agreed that external temperature vs. indoor temperature is certainly a very important distinction to make. I think the biggest home storage red flag I’ve seen are people storing their tea outside in a shed/garage in a climate that gets very cold. I’ve also heard of people trying to replicate cave-like conditions and going as far as cooling their storage down.

      I think the main purpose for comparison is to emphasize just how difficult it is for many of us to replicate conditions in more humid places in Asia.

    • shah8 says:

      I dunno. I’ve gotten the consistent impression that being at a high latitude tends to have a deleterious effect on stored puerh. Something to do with day-night swings? Local microflora? Who knows.

  2. Dylan says:

    Here’s to hoping all our storage works out alright in the end! 🙂
    I’m sitting at ~70 degrees F with a constant 78-83% RH, and all my teas seem to be aging alright. It gets hotter in the summer down here in Georgia, which is when I’ve noticed all my puerh really starts to live it up.

    • James says:

      Thanks for chiming in. Those sound like impressively high parameters for living in the US!

    • shah8 says:

      My climate is less humid than Kunming, and I do seem to get better results than the few examples of Kunming storage I’ve had (I’ve really have had very few!). What won’t happen is any browning, but I’ve definitely have had my thickening, an aging aroma, and lowered bitterness and astringency.

  3. Nick3141 says:

    James, any chance you could also add a table with all the temperatures converted to Celsius? Really interesting article (Kunming is not actually dry, all in all!), but looking at those temperatures is like looking at Chinese characters 🙂

  4. Double B says:

    Thanks for the article James, good topic to touch on. I would bet that Yunnan Sourcing and ChaWang are storing their tea with the tongs still intact, which I think can considerably affect the overall aging process. No doubt I would keep the cakes tonged up if I was storing all that tea, it’d just be too much hassle otherwise. That being said, I often feel it’s hard to get a good read on what a tea actually IS if it has been stored there for a number of years. YS/ChaWang house teas I can usually get a good read on (most of them being less than 5 yrs old, still packing some water cause their young). But I’ve sampled a lot of the older Hai Ling Hao teas from YS, and they can tend to be a little dried out in my opinion. After I’ve held them over in my storage for a month or two, they tend to taste a LOT better, seem to have more nuances/aroma, etc, just better overall. The tea is not too dried out to be revived, and it’s not like it’s bad at all, just seems that my storage does help them come alive a little more after being in Kunming for extended years.

    Man, I’m finding out KY is just crazy humid. Lots of folks have problems with shower or just home mold here, we just get a lot of rain and some pretty significant heat too. I find I really get the best results if I can keep the temperature higher than the humidity. Sometimes this means I am taking all my tea out of the pumidor and putting it in a hall closet, just to get it into a less humid environment. But when, the dead of winter hits, the house is too dry and they need to go back in the pumidor. I really have to keep an eye on mine, when they get a little too wet, they can tend to lose flavor and aroma, but I think that’s from too much moisture and not enough heat. It’s a big job moving all that tea when I have to!! Overall I am glad to have enough humidity to keep them moving along though.

  5. Charlie in Richmond says:

    Although Malaysia has high average humidity, I’m currently trying to stay away from it. Using the calculator that James posted (http://www.dpcalc.org/), it says that at 75 deg F and 85% RH, mold can occur as quickly as 6 days! This summer I let my pumidor get up to 85% (73 deg F) and I started getting a funny smell and my teas were upsetting my stomach. I quickly opened the lid and reduced the humidity. I recently found two of my cakes (W2T ’07 Repave and ’08 Often) had acquired mold. This makes sense to me since they both were warehouse finds that sat around for years as maocha. All that sitting probably made them predisposed or pre-moldy… at least that is my latest theory:-) Hence, I’m going to avoid these types of teas (random maocha laying around for years) and 85% RH.

  6. John says:

    I am no microbiologist but I think Shah8 is on to something with the idea of local microflora – I suspect we are under-estimating the role of local fungus, bacteria and yeast. Think of beer and sourdough bread for example which seem to be quite sensitive to local microflora. I have noticed that the tea from some vendors and tea houses has a unique and identifiable storage flavour (especially in the early steeps) that might be more a result of local microflora then the temp and humidity per se. After all it is probably not the temp or humidity that changes the tea directly – the temp and humidity support or suppress certain microflora which in turn act on the tea. There is such a complicated and dynamic system of life unfolding on our cakes! The Netflix show ‘cooked’ has a really cool episode on fermentation which discusses the role of microflora in food production.

  7. Tyler says:

    I live in Seattle, and store my tea in a cupboard on the top floor of my house. The humidity stays at a relatively stable 58%, and the temperature hovers around 68F pretty consistently. The only thing I do is to occasionally open the doors to let air flow into it. I have a cake of Lincang Impression (2012) from TU, that I have had stored for about two years now. I recently got into the cake to try some of it, and I thought it was good. Very fragrant and sweet. So, I’m not sure if the storage cabinet I’m using is best or ideal, but it doesn’t seem to be harming the tea I have in it.

    I’ll be curious to see how things continue to age.

  8. Deven says:

    Great read! Down in Fl my tea seems to change slightly(over the past year) though as we all already know, time will tell. I do not think Miami would be a good place in Florida to store tea my suggestion would be along the gulf and more inland with less salty air. Also how do you think the pollution problem HK faces affects the tea storage?

  9. philip says:

    OK–so perhaps I’ll be the crazy one here. I am in Sacramento Ca and it is hot and dry during the summer and…well….with the drought here winters have been unreliable and so not uniformly humid. I keep my teas in a cabinet with a jar of water. I do not have a meter to measure humidity. After 5 years of storing pu, I have certainly noticed that the cakes stored longest have aged and changed dramatically. Each time I test a cake it is noticeably different. I have a 2007 cake that was undrinkable when I bought it–really! It was something to spit out. 5 years later, just before throwing it out, I tasted it, and now it is one of my favorites. The astringency is almost gone and it’s sweet with strong stone fruit flavors. Did I store it like a real Hongkonger or Kummingite? No. Did the cake change and become really delicious? Yes it did. Did it become delicious in the precise way that a tea might taste if it were stored in some tropical locale? Who knows? And, frankly, who cares. It is a really awesome drink.

    I suppose that perhaps, I will venture an opinion, with the understanding that this is the hypothesis of a neophyte with little experience, and so is perhaps presumptuous: Perhaps it doesn’t matter where the tea is stored; it will age differently depending upon place. No one type of aging is better than another. They are just different. Who’s to say that British Stilton is inferior to French Roquefort. They are different. The proof if the tea/aging is in the tasting. And in the tastes of the taster. I don’t like skunky tea. Some do. Vive la difference!

  10. MarshalN says:

    You have to remember that RH is the measure of humidity given the temperature – in terms of actual moisture in the air, a high temp with relatively low RH may still have more water in the air than a low temp with high RH. So, RH alone is not very useful if the temps are low.

    Also, heating a home will do all kinds of things to your air, drying it out being the most obvious. Unless you try to counter that by adding humidity, your tea is going to be stored very, very dry.

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