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I embarked on my tea journey when I studied abroad in China in 2008 and traveled around Taiwan that summer. I'm here to share my experiences and offer my own opinion, advice, and comments on tea.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Vast Sea of Pu-erh

I'm beginning to understand why so many blogs dedicate most of their space to pu-erh, instead of say... sencha or matcha. More so than other teas (IMO), pu-erh is the one most "famous" but at the same time the most misunderstood. Compared to most other teas, which more or less have a shelf life, pu-erh is a collectible tea, which speaks to the collector-geek that secretly resides in us. And finally, despite all the misinformation about it, we still dive head-first into it all because the thrill of uncertainty, the gamble that might pay off. I'm still a neophyte in the world of pu-erh, but the more I read and the more I taste, the more questions I have. Things that I took for granted beforehand, like processing, are now closely scrutinized by my mind. So here are some of the biggest questions I have, and although I'm not naive enough to think there's a definitive answer or a singular truth, I hope that I can at least understand the subject a bit more.


From what I understand processing of the tea is fairly straightforward, and although I don't know the exact details, I do know that the temperature of kill-green and intentional oxidation are a big deal to some people. To former, at too high a temperature, creates green tea...which doesn't age well (though carefully done could work). The latter, when over-done, creates a delicious brew similar to Oolong, which is not desire either. For some reason pu-erh can manifest hong cha-esque qualities, but I'm not sure what causes that or if it's good/bad. I think maybe if it's overly oxidized it becomes hong cha. Something I've heard from a tea friend of mine is how careful were processors back than in the 50s, when the legendary Marks came into being. Were people back than as careful about kill-green/oxidation as they are now? Was the entire process as mechanized back than as it is now? Will a slight bit of oxidation actually kill a pu-erh in the long run? And how much oxidation is too much?

One step in the processing of pu-erh has got me thinking the most: the steaming that takes place to soften maocha before compression. How does the steaming temperature affect the aging of pu-erh? I recently posed this question of the pu-erh LJ, and someone said that a slice of bread can be steamed but it will still grow moldy. So microbes and fungus and whatever can survive the steaming temperature or are introduced somehow after the steaming. If steaming shouldn't kill these microbes than how will pu-erh age if it's broken up? Will it even age at all? I've broken up the cake of my 2008 Xiaguan "Instant Sensation" and stored some of it in a clay jar. I didn't break it up into individual leafs, but little chunks here and there. We'll see how/if it ages.

Related to this, if the bacteria/microbes that are helping a pu-erh age come the surrounding air...than will pu-erh aged in our homes ever be as good or be as aged as stuff from Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc.? It will probably be 10 years or so before we start to see what parts of the world outside of China have the "best" conditions for aging. Even if we all have our humidors and water trays, if the air is different...will our home-aged stuff ever be "as good" as stuff from Asia? Perhaps specific fungus/molds/etc are introduced deliberately...and each factory has its own secret "blend" of this stuff.

Or maybe the bulk of aging isn't done by fungus, microbes, etc. I think BBB pointed this out somewhere, but we know that these things are present, but we don't know if they're actually doing anything. So maybe the aging process is just the slow break-down/"rotting" of cell walls over time.

So no real answers here...just endless speculation. Thoughts, anyone?


Bret said...

Ive pondered these same issues myself a time or two. I dont know for sure but I think that living in Austin with it,s fairly high humidity most of the year, my puerh should age just fine. I check on cakes maybe twice a year and there is a definate change in color. I dont worry about it too much. I think your broken up cake should age well, why not? Maocha ages well. In fact faster than compressed tea. Ive read so much stuff about aging puerh and the info is just all over the place but I tend to agree with the people that are of the opinion that the less human intervention, the better. Pu stored in artificially created invironments are vastly inferior to naturally aged teas. After all, all the "great" vintages were stored very casually. An article I recently read by ex Menghai master blender says that he personally buys teas that enjoys drinking now. Meaning while they are young. Why buy something that you dont enjoy now in hopes that you will like it 20 years from now? Art Of Tea magazine always has lots of articles about this same issue. It,s funny because a lot of the time the "experts" dont agree on so many of these issues. So who knows, I buy the teas that I enjoy drinking now and "if" they age well, great. There really is no way to know for sure which teas will turn out to be amazing aged teas, so much of the changes that the tea goes through is out of our control anyways. In summary, even after reading what all the experts have to say about this the final conclusion is a big whopping "who knows" nobody does for sure, not even the experts.

Maitre_Tea said...

Yeah, I tend to be very open-minded by how my cakes turn out, and I constantly remind myself not to make too much of an investment, because it would really suck if they all turned crappy in about 5 years. The fact that even the experts can't agree is both comforting/saddening. Comforting because if the "expert" doesn't know than who does, but at the same time it's saddening because it would be nice if there were a clear-cut answer to things.

I really should buy a few copies of the Art of Tea, just to get more information than I would normally get from trolling the blogosphere. But I'm afraid it'll only worsen my TAD and TWAD.

I think I worry a lot about the aging of cakes because I live in a really dry environment. Even with four trays of water humidity is only 58%. I'm not living indefinitely in CA so I'm glad. I wonder what place in the US has the "best" natural environment for aging...

BTW, I didn't know that humidity got that high in Austin...I thought it was more dry/desert-like down there. Anyway, your samples are on the way. They're not labeled by name, so it'll be a fun guessing game. I also threw in some of the 80s Wang Zi from Nada.

Bret said...

No, Austin is no desert. Very green and lush. Humidity is usually around 85% if anything I worry about it being too humid here. Through the summer months it,s typically 95-100% humidity. Thanks for the samples I,m looking forward to exploring. I havnt been buying any puerh lately, been drinking lots of oolong and green teas. Yeah you should definately get some of the AOT mags, great source of info, but be forwarned it will make you want to buy more and more tea with it,s tempting tea pics.

Anonymous said...

Even though the tea is steamed, not all of the microbes die instantly, it depends on the steaming time or actual temperature of the tea specifically.
The steaming stops further enzymatic reaction in the tea leaves by "deactivating" these enzym at higher temperature, lets say above 70°C. Now we speak about microorganisms which are known robust, so I won't say that steaming really kills the entire microbes instantly.
From my limited knowledge in microbiology, the microorganisms involved in the aging are widely spread all over the world. Only their distribution proportion differs, but generally these microbes exist everywhere also in your home. Therefore some people told me that in warm humid area, letting the tea aged in the open air will be faster than putting in a jar or box. I guess it is related to microbial exposure to the oxygen (aspergillus is highly aerobic) as well as adherence of additional microbe from the free air. From scientific POV, aging something fast will mean also we will loose something; so it depends on how you store.

Hm.. My guess the aging isn't simply slow break-down of cell walls. If it's really so, only temperature and oxygen influence the aging the most. In reality humidity influences the aging process the most. So I guess the microbes really do their work to age.
Now why is the aging so slow?
- Because basically tealeaves contain very very minor nutrient for microbe to grow and therefore only a few, such as aspergillus can grow over it. Bread/wheat contain nutrients which can be digested by many microbes, so it is easily got spoiled as anything can grow on it.
- Microbial activities (biotransformation) involving fungus is generally the slowest one among others. Aspergillus is a fungus.

Personally I also collect whatever cakes which I enjoy and store them as well, because without sacrifice, one can't get anything. It is part of the fun, so why not participate in this game?
I've read an article written by Aaron Fischer, in which he drank a tea which of not very superior quality but he really enjoyed it at that time. So he didn't regret spending his bucks on it.
The message I got is.. it is not a matter of who has the best tea, instead it is a matter of each individual at each condition/time to enjoy the tea up to the fullest.


shibumi said...

Hey Maitre,

Just wanted to say I've been enjoying your blog lately... you are careful and analytical, and I'm not too surprised I think you and I ask many similar questions, and that only time will answer a lot of them.

I enjoy the collecting aspect of puerh - more than the random sampling of '09 and '08 cakes - and hopefully in 20 years someone will still want my late '90s 7542s even if they haven't aged that well. There is a recent write-up on Teamasters of an auction. I think from a investment standpoint it will be interesting to see how the market prices different vintage years into the future. I think I've secured enough tea for drinking over the next couple years, although nothing like Cloud saying he has a supply of Simplified Characters to last him a lifetime!

Oh BTW, on aging - the different containers make a huge difference... Trying to normalize for everything but storage, even 1 month of different storage makes the 2 teas way different. If you have time you can do a small experiment- place your puerh in your yixing- then brew it a week later, side by side with regular storage puerh- and you will see what I mean.

Maitre_Tea said...

Thank you all for your comments and insight on this murky subject!

I also agree that it's important to "have fun" with collecting pu-erh, but I probably say that because I haven't invested enough money to have a stake in their aging. So I think it can be a little naive to invest in tongs of stuff with the confident expectation that they will all age well. I think in my tea journey, the advice I take is often the most humble advice.

I also think that our viewpoints are heavily influenced by our position/experience. I've been lucky enough (but not as lucky as others...) to have tried and tasted fairly aged pu-erh, so I can see why the old stuff gets the hype it does. But somebody whose only experience is a really bad shou tuo is going to have a different mindset. So I think it's important in pu-erh to always keep sampling, even if you think you know it all already, because there's always something new to learn.

shibumi said...


I'm quite aware that my tea, despite my carefulness, may not end up being that good, merely as a factor of my location. I know I have no guarantees on the storage- but I hope that my cakes/beengs have enough popularity I may still see some appreciation, if I choose to go down that road later. Have you ever heard the parable about the cowboy and sardines? Anyhow...

I think what puzzles me the most is that people are stocking up on tea, firstly with no plans to sell, and secondly without ever having an aged puerh. When someone buys three tongs of something, but then proclaims that they've never had a tea aged more the 7 years, or worse, that that they don't like aged tea, I really wonder.

Plus, I think it's easier to predict how a tea will turn out when it's been aged for 7-10 years, rather than 1-2. I do love trying new teas and am not opposed to sampling something before I purchase, but I don't have such an appetite for the younger teas anymore, so my sampling options are fairly limited. Too bad I don't live in China :-)

Maitre_Tea said...


I'm sorry if my comments seemed like an attack on you, I just meant it as a general comment about the mindset of some individuals that you mentioned in your second paragraph.

PS: I find it hard to believe that someone would dislike the old stuff...unless your only experience with aged sheng was horribly wet-stored or fake stuff

shibumi said...


it didn't seem like an attack :-)

we should discus over some delicious '90s 8582...

my response was more just to vet that I know I'm rolling the dice with storage not occurring in HK, but I'm willing to take the chance. I don't think it's healthy to maniacally obsess over the storage, just accept your choices- all my friends in China just throw it up on the shelf.

Maitre_Tea said...

I think it's kind of amusing to think how obsessed we can get here in the west about our tea. It's like when you introduce a friend to a hobby,and that friend gets into the hobby more than you do...

the same applies to brewing too, IMO. Whereas over here people obsess over water temperature, brewing time, etc. but in the tea shops in China they just wing it.

Maitre_Tea said...

Also, if the steaming doesn't kill off all the microbes/fungus, does that mean that one could lightly steam a tuo (so compression is slightly looser) and it will continue to age? I may experiment with a cheap tuo...