Tuesday, April 3, 2018
Pumidor Puerh Storage VS Sealing/ Shrink Wrapped Puerh Storage
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.