I remember a heated conversation in the mid 2000s about the emerging popularity of paper tongs. I was at a Korean Tea house which mainly sold puerh tea and we were stirring around drinking puerh and the topic was tong wrappers.
At this point in time the popular puerh factories such as Menghai Tea Factory, Xiaguan, and even Haiwan, I believe, were starting to wrap a lot of their tongs in paper bag like wrapping instead of the traditional bamboo leaf tongs. Even just two years before wrapping tongs in anything other than the traditional bamboo leaf was almost unheard of. The only paper tongs I know of earlier than 2006 is the 90s GuangYun Gong productions. Therefore the topic of conversation at the time was one of speculation…
On a very practical level there was conversation of whether the paper wrapped tongs would befit the aging of puerh or hinder it. Some thought that the paper tong offered more protection against odours, pests, and excessive moisture. Others were concerned that if the paper tong was exposed to excessive moisture it would do the opposite because paper absorbs the water and it would leave the puerh cakes tasting like wet paper or worst mouldy mildew tasting. Some like the idea of the better air sealing feature of the paper tong for the outcome of aging and others thought that the better air flow and natural breathable nature of the traditional bamboo tong would provide better aging in Korea.
Interestingly, one mentioned the energetics or Qi of a paper vs bamboo tong. He said the nature of the bamboo tong was from renewable bamboo leaf and was naturally breathable. It would impart an enlivening energy into the puerh when it ages. He said the nature of paper was from a dead tree and was suffocating. It would impart a stagnant and dying energy into the puerh when it ages. Also there was discussion on the micro biome or symbiotic relationship between tea leaf and bamboo that would maybe be lacking in paper imparting a different aging outcome.
To this day I still don’t know the answers to a lot of the questions that this discussion generated. I don’t know of any wearhouser or collector who has acquired the same production in both paper and traditional bamboo tongs to compare the impact of the different types of tong storage. Often puerh factories use different cake wrapping to indicate different batches or to differentiate commissioned productions. Any factory production with both paper and bamboo tongs might also be used as an identifier of different materials or batches. They could also indicate production batches with the same material going to different wearhousers in different areas and climates and that will obviously age quite differently.
The only time this is ever mentioned in the English puerh scene is when referencing the 2013 Xiaguan Love Forever Paper Tong. However, there isn’t a written record of comparing these two. It is often written that the paper tong was used to indicate better materials used in the cake which includes some aged Banzhang material. I’m not sure if it’s true. Does the traditional bamboo tong version not contain this material? Or is the difference due to purely storage differences or the result of the less desirable effect of the bamboo tong? If the better material was used for the paper tong version then did the person who made that batch or the person who commissioned it believe that paper would impart better aging outcome for the difference in materials? Or for the storage conditions the better materials would be stored in long term?
Most of the questions from that conversation 15 years ago around that tea shop in Korea remain. Maybe I’ll never know the answers. But sometimes it’s wonderful to think of such things…