Storage Methodology & Odor-Free Storage. Things to Watch Out For in a few Popular Western Storage Methods.

One pumidor-related topic I contemplate is the correct way to think about the chosen container. Given we store a tea at identical temperature and humidity (say 70F/65RH), if we store the same tea for five years in two different ways, a food-grade plastic box versus an old wine cooler, how much will they differ? What about an odor-free wood cabinet or a crock? Or a natural solution in a humid place? Should we just be thinking about the container and methodology as a vessel to get the desired temperature and humidity, provided it can hit a few checkpoints (dark, odor-free)? Or is there something inherent with the choice we make here that can make a substantial impact to the finished product even if we’re able to store the tea otherwise identically.

To answer the above question.. I do tend to think that the teas will age fairly similar (but probably not identically) given the same temperature and humidity. My guess is that a third variable, airflow may have some impact, but I’m not sure how much impact the materials will have if they’re all odor-free.

Tea Session
Tea Session.

Odor-Free. Not as Simple as it Sounds.

A couple storage topics (dark and odor-free) rarely get discussed. There’s a consensus that both are necessary for proper storage. They also both sound relatively easy to attain. Dark storage certainly is. But what if odor-free is not as simple as it seems?

This is an area I’ve been forced to re-evaluate my own prior, previously assumed knowledge after trying a few of the longer-stored western stored pu’erh. As anyone that has stored a shu cake with sheng in a pumidor knows, tea can pick up odors very quickly. Probably even moreso when we restrict airflow in a contained storage box or pumidor.

Of the admittedly small selection of western-aged tea I’ve tried, the most common flaw was a surprising one for me. Sure, the storage was dry but I kind of anticipated that. An alarmingly high number of these home storage setups have picked up some distinct aromas that I had not tasted in most Asia-stored pu’erh picked up from storage.

A few of the cases:

  • A couple openly documented cases are the YYX stored in wine storage and wooden cabinets.
  • One alternate theory could be that being odor-free is a myth. Do your best to keep the tea away from smells, but many teas stored in Asia also have a distinctive aroma too. Think about traditional storage or Yang’s storage (YQH). There’s something unique about it. How much of that is natural tea smell and how much is coming from the storage environment itself? Perhaps I’m simply not used to smelling what a western home’s storage can impart?

Wood

Wood is a natural material and it can offer a low maintenance, classy appeal that some of the more DIY options lack. It’s used for aging cigars and wine which gives it a nice precedent in related fields. Pumidor is a word derived from humidors, which are used to store cigars and are predominantly made out of wood, frequently cedar.

Basic wood cabinets, a wine cellar w/wood drawers, wicker baskets, a wood cabinet made for cigars.. These were the chosen containers for some of the earliest western-stored tea. Whether you call it a pumidor or not is unimportant, but wood storage constitutes a number of documented odor pickups we know about.

Perhaps most concerning, is that this storage aroma wasn’t necessarily obvious when hobbyists started storing the tea. Storing tea in an odor-free isn’t 2019 knowledge. It’s been common knowledge for a long time and many of these woods were supposedly neutral. People in 2004 or 2005 would’ve known this. For cigars, picking up a cedar or wood note isn’t that bad and perhaps desired. In pu’erhs case that would be unusual and even if you’re OK with it, don’t expect others to be.

There’s a couple western pu’erh enthusiasts I’ve chatted with that think storing tea in any sort of wood is a bad idea. My own view isn’t quite so extreme – I think if you can find something that is truly odor-free it might work. But I do think you should be careful (get some second opinions) and make sure your storage isn’t a frog slowly boiling and ruining your long-term retirement stash.

Fridge & Wine Cooler

Fridges and wine coolers have gotten quite popular in the last decade. Most of the earliest pu’erh people didn’t choose these options. But they’ve become quite popular since and from my informal observations are some of the most common pumidors. Why? I suspect it has to do with accessibility and insulation. Most people including college students know how to get their hands on an old fridge. Fridges also offer decent insulation without having to fuss or mod it, despite some questionable style points.

However, these aren’t free of concerns. Making sure that the fridge is aired out and odor-free is the first step. You should be patient with this and air it out for a month or two if you have to, but even after that’s done, you’re not necessarily worry free. Many refrigerators contain and use gas as part of its process. It’s possible that your fridge will at some point off-gas and release chemicals. This is scary sounding. And while I don’t think it’s guaranteed to happen, I’ve heard this happening to people storing pu’erh. If you are using an old fridge with Freon this is probably a larger concern than if you have a newer model.

It’s important to keep in mind that storage is a very long game. Most pu’erh enthusiasts with these sorts of storage systems, see themselves doing it for at least a decade. If you’re storing it under these terms, you don’t just need your fridge to survive one year. In 10 or 20 years a lot can go wrong. If you choose to go the fridge route, you should make sure you check periodically for off-gassing.

Popular Pumidor Containers
Popular Pumidor Containers.

Plastic (Bins or Bags)

This is another method that’s been quite popular in the last decade. Much of what applies to mini-fridge/wine cooler storage does here as well. Airing it out is an important and necessary step. Making sure tea is not exposed to light is also important if you’re using a clear box. 

One nice thing is that there’s no concern with fridge chemicals. However, there’s concerns with the plastic itself. With growing concerns of it leaching into food, I don’t think it’s crazy to research a bit before storing your tea in this way. On one hand, it’s not like we’re microwaving our tea in plastic. But we are potentially storing tea in there for a very long time. Is this an issue? The answer isn’t obvious.

Complicating matters, it’s not fair to paint all plastic with the same brush. There’s many different types of plastic, food-grade plastic, microwave-safe plastic, etc. Plastic is also just a reality in modern life where the vast majority of us are exposed to it, which makes this more of an issue where you want to limit rather than totally eliminate exposure.

Similar to other storage methods, there’s some that think all plastic is a terrible idea and you should never store tea in it. I tend to think food-grade plastic will be OK and don’t think this is something that is going to have a huge, demonstrable impact on you. That being said these concerns are worth at least thinking about before you go for the cheapest, plastic bin you can get your hands on.

The Alternatives: Crocks & Yixing Jars

The obvious alternatives to these pumidors are crocks and yixings. Assuming you don’t do anything silly, these may be some of the safer forms of storing pu’erh. They also share some of the appeal that wood does, in being less of an eye-sore. The obvious issue is that these don’t scale as easily and aren’t as naturally passive. If you have 20 cakes, this is fine but when you have over 100 this starts to be a problem where you are forced to check on and add humidity to 15+ crocks or yixings. This isn’t an unsolvable problem by any means, but for some it’s a bridge too far.

Crock
Crock.

This entry was posted in Aged Pu'erh, Article, Raw Pu'erh, Ripe Pu'erh. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Storage Methodology & Odor-Free Storage. Things to Watch Out For in a few Popular Western Storage Methods.

  1. shah8 says:

    It should not be a big trouble to simply replace all the plastic bags every few years.

    Some plastic bags do decay and slowly give your puerh a nasty character.

  2. Leonid says:

    What about a glass jar — doesn’t leach like plastic.

    • James says:

      Two main issues with it. (a) Light (easily solved). (b) scales up poorly for people with large amounts of pu’erh and requires more maintenance to monitor and control humidity.

  3. Karl says:

    James,

    I have heard that refrigerators can be rendered safe by the removal of the compressor systems to avoid the off gassing issue. My solution, a decade ago was to acquire an antique ice box refrigerator from 1910. Besides being beautiful quarter sawn oak it was lines in porcelain covered steel and had wire racks. It’s worked so far and I am happy with it. It will be interesting to see how all the different storage solutions play out.

    • James says:

      Hi Karl,

      Good point. I think in theory this is true, but I’ve also heard that removing these can be a real pain. This is all secondhand and a bit beyond my own DIY capabilities.

      -James

  4. Toby says:

    A kind of side point but you mentioned YQH so I thought I’d ask you about something I’ve been thinking about for a while:

    The YQH cakes I’ve got (via Emmett) have all arrived plastic shrink wrapped. Assuming that this is how they are stored in Yang’s storage (and that he doesn’t shrink wrap before sale, which would seem like a lot of work, but I guess it could be the case) and that this shrink wrapping is air tight (not guaranteed, but pretty likely to at least a large extent since few plastics are air permeable). Does that give us more reason to be skeptical of the idea that pu’er needs air flow, at least in so far as you think that Yang’s storage is good and doesn’t impart any off flavours?

    • Toby says:

      Update: I checked with Emmett and he blasted both my assumptions. Turns out the cakes are wrapped for sale, and are stored without the plastic wrap by Yang (in tongs). Yang also says the plastic is not sealed, though whether that is because it is air permeable or he just doesn’t want to guarantee it I don’t know. Guess I’ll just have to keep experimenting with sealed storage.

      • James says:

        Sounds as if your question is answered. Having seen Yang’s storage I can confirm what Emmett says that it is not sealed. To me it classifies as fairly natural storage.

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