I get asked a lot about traditionally stored and wetter pu’erh. I like to drink these teas and it’s unfortunately a type that lacks a lot of the exposure in comparison with young pu’erh or ripe pu’erh. Most pu’erh focused vendors don’t offer this type of tea and the ones that do, it typically makes up a small part of their catalog.. Pu’erh offers a broad array of unfamiliar tastes to the western palate that can be different and a unique experience for new drinkers (see ripe pu’erh or young raw), but sitting atop that list is traditionally stored pu’erh. That lack of exposure isn’t the case in areas around southern China, where pu’erh has been consumed for much longer than anywhere else and traditional storage has historically been the default.
- The vast majority of tea at a certain age underwent traditional storage (including many famous teas), and if you’ve sampled sheng of a certain age you’ve probably tried it.
Pu’erh as a Fermented Beverage??
In the western tea world, there’s a lot of raw pu’erh consumed young or close to its conception. You can debate whether this is bona fida pu’erh or not, but they really haven’t undergone any sort of significant fermentation process. With traditionally stored pu’erh there’s no debate. The storage is designed to ferment and transform the tea from its unaged or raw form into something smoother, richer, and more drinkable. Like a stinky, moldy cheese traditionally stored pu’erh can be kindly speaking an acquired taste that some find very off-putting. Other people will have a more natural preference towards it.
Let’s compare it to ripe pu’erh, which of course has been fermented. Marshaln has detailed out many of the specifics in traditionally stored tea. Well-stored traditional pu’erh will usually undergo an airing out period where it is left to rest for at least a couple years before being sold and consumed. In-comparison ripe pu’erh is like a far faster version of the process.. It undergoes a much quicker (and more intense) fermentation process over the course of 45 days, where it is essentially composted before being left to rest and air out before being pressed and sold. From a certain lense, these processes really aren’t terribly different by design. There can certainly be poorly stored pu’erh tea just like there can be poorly fermented cooked tea, but people should think twice about being overly dismissive of traditional storage as undrinkably moldy.
In the marketplace, older teas that have been stored more dryly will generally fetch a higher price point than the traditionally stored versions, which permanently changes the character of the tea and depresses the resale value.
- With traditional storage there’s also a significant range, ranging from light to relatively heavy.
- The availability of traditionally stored tea out west is severely lacking compared to a place with a long history of pu’erh consumption like Hong Kong.
Practical Tips. Judging, Airing it Out.
Marshaln published a post a year ago I highly recommend on dealing with traditionally stored teas. Here’s a few more practical tips/reinforcements from his post.
I remember when I was first being exposed to traditionally stored teas one of the trickiest things to differentiate was the character of the tea and the storage. There’s not an easy answer to this, but the storage tends to be most prevalent in the initial infusions. Don’t give up on the tea too soon. If you dislike it, rinse it a few times and keep dumping infusions until you encounter a brew you find more palatable.
Another practical way to improve the experience is to air the tea out for a while. I usually break up a chunk of my cake into near maocha form and then put it in some cheap Daiso stoneware. Breaking it up gives it more surface area and airs out more quickly than if you left it in the cake form. I’ll typically give that piece at least a week or two in the tin before I brew it. There’s plenty of different and non-nefarious reasons why a tea might improve from airing out. Maybe you tried the tea from an aired out sample cake and the tea you bought got shipped directly from the vendor’s storage. Don’t freak out and give the tea some time to breathe a bit.
There’s a couple ways to judge the intensity of the storage. These things aren’t binary and there can be a large range of conditions for traditionally stored tea.
- If the leaves are mulched together and are dark. Those are signs that it’s seen some pretty heavy humidity at some point.
- Mold. If there is visible mold on top of the cake, this can be brushed off with a toothbrush. Break into the cake and if there’s mold on the inside that’s also an indicator of the storage. Usually mold will develop on the outside of the cake first, and then the inside. Don’t freak out – this is a fermented tea and does not mean you will die from drinking it. I’ve consumed, survived, and enjoyed teas with visible mold (after airing out) that had visible white stuff upon arrival. Mold is relative and if a tea is too moldy or has yellow spores, don’t drink it.
- By smell. These teas will usually have a pretty distinctive smell. Another reason to air it out.
- The wet leaves are very good at helping to tell the story of the storage. After you’ve finished your session, dump the leaves out and take a look. These can be telltale signs for how the tea was stored. Darker will usually mean that the tea has been stored in more humid conditions at a certain point. It might be aired out and taste clean, but it has undergone some stronger storage. Try the same with some of your ripe and note the similarities and differences between the wet leaves.
The above aren’t really unusual and aren’t necessarily red flags. A couple bad signs:
- Your throat. If a tea gives a sort of rough, scratchy astringency it can be a sign that you should consider not drinking the tea.
- A bad body reaction. I’ve had one experience with an older tea giving me a mild form of anaphylactic reaction. While, I’m not quite sure what the exact cause is, it’s obviously something you don’t want a repeat experience of.
- Overly strong in any of those characteristics above. These things all work in a range, if a tea is irredeemably nasty, musty, and loaded with spores on the inside and outside than the tea may not be worth your while.
So when is a traditionally stored pu’erh “finished”? Or ready to drink?
This is an interesting question, and I’d be curious to hear how more experienced people answer it. I don’t see the idea of a tea being finished tossed around very much in western circles. A lot of young tea gets circulated out west and it’s usually older = better. That being said, if you go into a shop with some old teas on display, they’ll often be shrink wrapped. This is to preserve the current condition of the cake.
It also depends on the actual storage of the tea. There are some heavier stored teas, where the tea need time to air out and clean up. There are more lightly stored traditionally stored teas, where the tea might benefit from additional time to age and mellow. For me personally, there are some traditionally stored teas I own that are as young as 12 or 13 years old that I’m perfectly OK with drinking on a regular basis. Is it at its peak or finished? I’m not really sure, but I am perfectly OK drinking and enjoying it..
This also brings up another question, will a tea (without obvious processing errors) peak and then start to decline at some point? I don’t really have a great answer either but I do suspect the answer is yes that most teas will decline at a certain point, although it may be a point that doesn’t come as easily with dry-storage and is likely to be very tea-dependent.
A couple common related questions…
- If you buy new or naturally stored semi-aged sheng. Will it turn out the same as older traditionally stored sheng? No. Why? Because the storage is not the same. There aren’t many dry-stored teas of a certain age available, these teas aren’t ever going to evolve to be the same.
- How long before my raw tastes like my ripe? Never.
- Do ripe and traditionally stored raw pu’erh taste the same? No. While there are some differences outlined above, the processing and storage results in different products.
- Is all tea stored in HK (or Taiwan) traditionally stored? No. Because HK is associated with wetter storage this is sometimes assumed. It’s not an accurate assumption at all.
- Why isn’t my cake 357g? The tea changing in weight over time is a pretty normal thing. The weight change all depends on a number of factors like the age, storage, where it was in the tong, etc. Oftentimes when aged teas are sold in east Asia, they’ll weigh the tea to show the current weight of the tea.