Did you know that there is a real debate within western puerh circles about what is considered the most optimal home storage for puerh? (here and here). This debate is especially relevant because unless you live somewhere that is warm and/ or humid chances are you will not be optimally aging your puerh naturally in the open air, such as on a shelf in your home or in a cupboard. I suppose there are endless ways you can store puerh but, in America at least, the pumidor (puerh humidor) seems to be the most popular these days. Have you ever wondered why?
I think the first I heard of the pumidor was around 2009. I believe it was a reaction by some of the early puerh drinkers to previous advice from those storing puerh in very different climates in Southern China which even recommended putting the puerh in a cardboard box in a place with good airflow. They gradually found out that this advice was not optimal for the mainly stronger factory puerh that they had accumulated in the drier and cooler climate in the West.
In this 2012 post titled “Ideas of Tea Storage” by Marshal’N, most of the discussion is around the pumidor. In the comment section, Bev, is discussing considerations in building an optimal pumidor which she later posts in detail about on her blog in the following years. What I find most interesting is the almost complete lack of discussion of sealing/Ziploc bagging/ shrink wrapping storage from this time and earlier on English blogs/ forums. I think this lack of discussion, challenge, and vocal opposition to the pumidor during this time lead a lot of people automatically going this route especially those who started drinking puerh at this time (around 5 or so years ago).
What I find most interesting is that puerh storage using shrink wrapping was a common thing in many parts of Asia at this time and years before. There is an argument that says that people who live in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia don’t have a similar climate to Western climates so their option on shrink wrap does not carry the same weight or does not apply to storage of puerh in the West. But what about other climates in China that are closer to ours in the West such as those in Northern China and Korea? What do they consider optimal storage for puerh in their much cooler and drier climates?
It was my personal observation that the more North you travel in China the more you see sealed puerh storage. Surely, I must have come across numerous pumidors in those drier more northern climates? Nope- not even a single pumidor. Shocking, I know. I guess those people in China know very little about optimal puerh storage… maybe they should take a note from those in America who know a lot more about storing puerh optimally? Who knows, time will tell. Maybe someone in America will design the perfect pumidor and market it to the people in China and make a killing? Possibly. I haven’t been to those parts of China in a while, maybe it just took them a few years to realize that their sealed storage is failing their puerh and they have all converted to pumidor? I don’t know this.
What I do know is that Bev who is located in the Pacific Northwest and has one of my all-time favorite tea blogs, Listening to Leaves blog, did make a beautiful, and well thought out pumidor and famously documented it on her blog. She also began to wrap all of her puerh cakes in Saran wrap (aka Cling Wrap, plastic wrap) and place them in her pumidor. She tasted them and made notes on them and documented this. She came to the conclusion that it was the wrapping, not the pumidor, which was most optimally aging her puerh. In the end, despite her great effort, she abandon the pumidor for the wrapped approach. It saddens me that she recently blocked her blog from public view. She is someone whose pallet has developed a very high level of sophistication when it comes to puerh and she has amassed a very large collection of very fine aged cakes, I think.
Personally, I remember watching Mr. Kim, a tea teacher/ teamaster in Korea wrapping up tongs of sheng puerh so many years ago. I remember when I first saw him do this, it was perplexing to me at the time. Why would you want to cover a beautiful traditional looking bamboo tong full of puerh cakes in natural paper in oh so unnatural plastic wrap? This was especially unusual for a man who seemed to do everything the natural and traditional way. I remember the conversation that followed…
I asked him if he was wrapping the puerh to protect it. He said it was to both protect and age it. He explained that Korea’s climate was to cold, dry and very different then South China and that he had to wrap it to preserve the biological environment of the puerh. Sounded reasonable enough to me. So I too wrapped my puerh tight without questioning things too much and that is how most of it stayed for years.
Then at some point when living in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada I unwrapped some of the puerh to see how it was doing. I wondered if it would age better in a type of pumidor storage. At the very least it would be much more accessible than the eyesore which is plastic wrapped puerh… And I could appreciate it more sensually by smelling it and savoring its beautiful fragrant aroma and viewing the beautiful packaged tongs and natural papers. This brought me much happiness.
The pumidor set up I had was pretty basic. I used a sealed chamber in the massive, built-in, hundred year old, natural cedar wood desk in the study and I added my puerh along with a few glass mason jars of water which I rotated. I noticed that this puerh set up was still aging my puerh adequately but the cakes that remained wrapped in plastic wrap seemed to contain more aroma, essence, vibrancy, and depth of taste. The pumidor cakes seemed more mellowed, more spaced out, softened. So, I, just like Bev, concluded that wrapping my puerh would be more optimal storage. Additionally, I was hearing stories of puerh molding out in other peoples’ pumidors. I have never heard of puerh molding out in plastic wrap, have you?
But if you wrap your puerh you are going to completely kill off and suffocate your puerh! You can only seal your puerh for a few months or years tops then you are pretty much just killing it off. The suffocation argument does not hold weight, people who claim this obviously have no long term experience with this sort of storage. Besides why would they have a long history of wrapping/ sealing puerh in some countries if it was detrimental? This argument could also be reversed… Pumidor storage will completely wreck your puerh! If it molds that’s a completely different story. If it doesn’t mold out, its probably going to do alright in pumidor storage. Puerh is resilient, it has more lives than cats. I’m pretty sure that pumidor stored puerh is going to turn out just fine.
With this being said, I suppose, you could even make a case for the pumidor. Its everyday accessibility is much better. There is something so cruel about having something so beautiful and something you enjoy so much that is wrapped up in many meters of plastic wrap! So ugly looking too… This is also rather inconvenient to wrap and then unwrap… so annoying. However, it is also very exciting, a delayed gratification to unwrap a puerh that has been stored that way for months or years- like the excitement of opening a gift or opening a letter from a good friend. The pumidor’s accessibility comes with the convenience and ease of looking, smelling, and checking and enjoying the sensual aspects of its aging- the esthetics of this is quite appealing.
The pumidor fridge is another thing… so American… almost like a beer fridge. It kind of has this appeal I think… “Honey I’m just going down stairs to grab a bing from the fridge”. It has this convenience factor built in. But what if your collection outgrows your fridge? Two puerh fridges and then moving these fridges from place to place, house to house… now it seems more inconvenient than convenient to me. To me I would also be concerned of the exposure to foreign bacteria’s, molds, fungus in an old fridge even if thoroughly disinfected. As mentioned in comments and previous posts, maintenance of the original mirco environment is a very important part in aging puerh and I feel wrapping it does the best job of this.
Another negative to wrapping storage is that it can’t add humidity that isn’t already in the cake before wrapping it. But this can be remedied somewhat by other means like bringing the humidity up before wrapping. Once wrapped it stays that way. Pushing the wetness of storage is something that makes the pumidor appealing but I think because it can’t preserve the micro environment as good, it’s not worth the tradeoff. Plus the risk of mold- not worth it.
Then there is the “time is money” argument. Is a puerh that is tended to meticulously worth more than one that is wrapped and basically forgotten but tastes better? I don’t think so but maybe there are some out there that do. Certainly, there is something to be said about someone who puts their own love, their own Qi, into their tea. Can you feel the love? Certainly loved puerh must taste better than neglected puerh?
In the end though, if you are aging puerh in an environment that is too cool or dry for the improved drinking experience then sealing your puerh with plastic wrap is the way to go. If you value the peripheral esthetics surrounding the aging of puerh, the excitement of checking your puerh everyday, the convenience of accessing your puerh quickly and easily, and if you like thinking way too much about temperature, humidity, and mold then maybe pumidor storage is best for you.
I've read your blog since before the hiat us and again since your return. Always thought provoking but this is the first time that I've had the urge to comment. I am one of the person's you reference with a pumidor that I regularly maintain. I also have open and sealed caked within it. Personally, I have been happy with the aging over the past several years, though I cannot say whether or not it is "optimal". You make several good points and may be 100% correct. I don't know. I am still looking for the definitive report. Being born and raised in the West, I have only limited experience to draw from. My only wish is for my Puer continue to age, tastes good and doesn't mold. So far I'm happy...and my humidity controlled cabinet looks awsome in the den.
Very polemic Matt :)
Sounds like you have sort of "The Middle Way" or at least a compromise of storage. It is very smart to me. Also you kind of have a running experiment going there as well comparing the sealed to the humidor storage. I like how you haven't put all your eggs in one basket, or maybe have some other thought out reason why some are sealed and others just in the humidor.
It seems like you have remedied some of the poor esthetics of ugly looking wrapped puerh too.
Really, I have no certainty if wrapped storage is truly better because I also have not read that definitive report either... hahaha...
But thought I would, at least, offer my current thoughts on storage and a little bit of why I think that way for the record in this moment in time.
Thanks for your continued interest in MattCha's blog.
First post on puerh storage wuxingy... second post polemic... pretty much sums up where I am in my life right now... hahaha
I haven't really read a good argument for the wrapped storage so I thought I had better put something solid out there.
Plastic wrap is actually decently porous. It is gas permeable and somewhat air too. Why you can't use it as a condom and food goes bad wrapped vs a solid heavy duty vacuum sealed bag. That said, there is another mechanism at work here. Maybe some slight insulation or restriction, but I wouldn't call it sealing.
Last week I was drinking down samples. In my weirdness back in 2013, I vacuum sealed some 2011 samples. Drinking in 2018 and they were green young AF sheng, but had gone stagnant. I have full cakes from the same seller and year in my pumidor and it is not green like that anymore.
Yeah I agree with you that plastic wrap isn't completely sealed off. I think you are on to something there. Would I ever vacuum seal my puerh?- no I wouldn't. Have I ever seen vacuum sealed puerh or heard it being recommended? No. Only person I've heard is Hojo. So I think there is something to what you are saying for sure. Another important thing to note is that generally I wrap tongs or cakes together so there is actually space and air and whatnot in there.
I have had similar experiences with completely vacuumed or sealed off forgotten samples. They didn't do as well as the full wrapped tong for sure. I think this is pretty much established by others as well.
Thank you for bringing this up.
Your blog is one of my favorites since I came back- especially the puerh content.
Thanks for the post and your broader contribution to the community.
I do not have an opinion as to whether it is ‘better’ to wrap or store tea in a pumidor. More importantly, I do not have any data that speaks to this question. I think an experiment is in order. ‘Better’ is hard to define. The variables I have heard bandied about are ‘convenience’, ‘potential to damage the tea’ and ‘potential to enhance the tea’. We can dispense with ‘convenience’ because one person’s hassle is another person’s pleasure. There is some hope we can agree on what constitutes damage or enhancement. While we await the results of definitive experiments, I want to take a different approach to this question.
My argument is that the debate about wrapping or storing in a pumidor exaggerates the differences between these two strategies.
Everyone seems to agree that if you have a cold and dry environment where you want to store your tea it is a bad idea to simply leave your bings, bricks and tuos out on a shelf. People wrap or use pumidors to accomplish the same goals: reduce airflow and stabilize humidity at a desired level.
What is a pumidor? A pumidor is a humidity controlled ‘box.’ That box could be a crock, an old bar fridge or…a shrink wrap plastic membrane. How does a pumidor or shrink wrap control humidity? First, you ensure the contents of the pumidor or shrink wrap are at a desired humidity and then you maintain that humidity by reducing air flow with a more air tight (shrink wrap) or less air tight (pumidor) boundary between the inside and outside. You only need to actively add humidity if the contents are too dry to start and/or if the membrane is not air tight enough.
No pumidor proponent would say it is a good idea to store a lonely, solitary tuo in a 20 gallon crock. The idea is to fill the crock, fridge….or shrink wrap membrane with as much tea as you can. This reduces air flow and makes it easier to stabilize humidity. No proponent of wrapping would say you should take a bone-dry cake or a soaking wet cake, wrap it and then put it aside to age. No pumidor proponent would say you should keep adding humidity until your cake is soaking wet. Both agree there is a humidity sweet spot and they more or less agree on what that sweet spot is for moisture content of the tea. One tries to achieve that sweet spot with a more permeable membrane, and therefore sometimes has to add humidity. The other tries to achieve that sweet spot with a less permeable membrane and is less likely to need to add humidity.
Proponents of pumidors or wrapping do seem to disagree on the amount of airflow that is needed to facilitate fermentation, oxidation and any other biochemical changes. But to be clear they both agree that leaving tea out on a shelf in a dry and cold environment will result in too much airflow. Not just because this amount of air flow would make it difficult to stabilize ideal humidity (as already discussed), but also because there appears to be a belief that the biochemical change processes work better when it is not too drafty. I am not entirely sure what mechanism of action is being proposed here…but I often hear people say that from warehouses to crocks to wrapped cakes less air space per unit of tea is desirable. Again, I think proponents of pumidors or wrapping agree on this principle but pumidor people think wrappers take it too far and ‘suffocate’ the tea.
The difference boils down to beliefs about the advantages and disadvantages of (more) airtight membranes. Pumidor people think the wrapping membrane is too airtight and risks ‘suffocating’ biochemical change processes. Wrapping people think the pumidor member is too porous and therefore creates risk because humidity occasionally needs to be added. Wrapping people may also think that more airtight conditions foster desirable biochemical changes. Until we get the results of those definitive experiments I will hedge my bets and keep some tea wrapper airtight and others crock airtight and rest comfortably knowing we have a lot in common.
Your argument is brilliant and I think you boiled things down to the root of the issue.
My mind started to go this way a bit with Clarissa's comment above. In my response to her I deleted "in some ways a bamboo tong of puerh wrapped in plastic wrap is closer to a pumidor than vacuum sealing".
Thanks for simplifying the argument- I think you are right on with it and haven't left anything out. Genius.
Just to add to what has already been said, a big reason to shrink wrap or plastic bag in Asia is to keep high humidity and moisture OUT. Tea degrades very quickly in too high heat and humidity, the top notes are lost. Unless a beeng is iron pressed, cakes may also come apart in higher humidity.
I think there is a clear preference in Asia now for what they define as dry storage, which is still more wet than most western storage. Enough authors have made distinctions between Asian and western conditions and definitions. I don't find it useful to take Asian methods and apply them willy-nilly, "just because they do it in Asia" doesn't make it automatically correct. A full understanding of why these methods work in certain places involves many factors. Does anyone actually ask? Sometimes the answer may be as simple as a factory cake with chopped tea falls out of the wrapper, hence a plastic bag to keep the tea together.
Well i will tell you what I do and would like to hear your thoughts, if you can. My tongs are in their original bamboo wrapper but on top of that i put them inside a fabric bag tightly closed. I really hate plastic. I have them then inside my pumidor. My reasoning is that the fabric bag will reduce the possibility of the fragrance leaving the tea but at the same time allows some limited air circulation. Any thoughts? :)
Definitely think people should question these things...
Am I storing my puerh this way because someone else told me to do it that way or because I truly think it is the best storage? Or because everyone else is storing it that way? Is it based on what I actually want my puerh to transform into? Is it the best storage for my lifestyle? Am I basing my decision on some science? Hearsay? Some teamster, authority, some tea blogger? What does my personal experience with storage tell me? What is the best way to store puerh in my climate, heating, ect? Does convenience or esthetics influence my storage?
Some are actually complicated questions to answer. Especially to someone new to puerh. Probably nobody knows exactly the right answer.
Thanks as always as adding to this conversation Cwyn.
I would guess that adding that extra cloth layer could rhetorically help seal in more essence but I have no experience with them at all. It seems to me like it wouldn't do that much at least compared to plastic wrapping. I wonder if there is any reader that has experience using the cloth tong covers?
Think I saw a picture of BearsBearsBears (Jason) using them.
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