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Pu-erh Aging and Storage

Pu-erh teas of all varieties, shapes, and cultivation can be aged to improve their flavor.

Physical properties

jas-2007-menghai-7672-ripe-pu-erha2.jpgThe tea's physical properties will affect the speed of aging as well as its quality. They include:

  • Leaf quality: The most important factor is leaf quality. Máochá that has been improperly processed will not age to the possess the same quality as properly processed máochá. The grade and cultivation of the leaf also greatly affect its quality and its aging.
  • Compression: The tighter a tea is compressed, the slower it will age. In this respect, looser hand- and stone-pressed pu-erhs will age more quickly than denser hydraulic-pressed pu-erh. An example of hydraulic-pressed tea are some of the Xiaguan teas; the "T" series teas are particularly tightly compressed.
  • Shape and size: The more surface area, the faster the tea will age. Bingcha and zhuancha thus age more quickly than golden melon, tuocha, or jincha. Larger bingcha age slower than smaller bingcha, and so forth.
  • Tong wrapper: When preserved as part of a tong, the material of the tong wrapper, whether it is made of bamboo shoot husks, bamboo leaves, or thick paper, can also affect the quality of the aging process. The packaging methods change the environmental factors and may even contribute to the taste of the tea itself.

Environmental factors

Just as important as the tea's properties, environmental factors for the tea's storage also affect how quickly and successfully a tea ages. They include:

  • Air flow: Regulates the oxygen content surrounding the tea and removes odors from the aging tea. Dank, stagnant air will lead to dank, stale smelling aged tea. Wrapping a tea in plastic will eventually arrest the aging process.
  • Odors: Tea stored in the presence of strong odors will acquire them, sometimes for the duration of their "lifetime." Airing out pu-erh teas can reduce these odors, though often not completely. So, don't store your tea in your kitchen where you cook or near anything with a strong odor (unless you want that odor in your tea).
  • Humidity: The higher the humidity, the faster the tea will age. Liquid water accumulating on tea may accelerate the aging process but can also cause the growth of mold or make the flavor of the tea less desirable, so 60-85% humidity is recommended. There is some argument about whether tea quality is adversely affected if it is subjected to highly fluctuating humidity levels.
  • Sunlight: Tea that is exposed to sunlight dries out prematurely, and often becomes bitter.
  • Temperature: Teas should not be subjected to high heat since undesirable flavors will develop. However at low temperatures, the aging of pu-erh tea will slow down drastically. There is some argument about whether tea quality is adversely affected if it is subjected to highly fluctuating temperature.

Halting the aging

A good, well-aged Pu-erh tea is not evaluated by its age alone. Like all things in life, there will come a time when a pu-erh tea cake reaches its peak before stumbling into a decline. Due to the many recipes and different processing methods used in the production of different batches of pu-erh, the optimal age for each type of tea will vary. Some may take 10 years while others 20 or 30+ years. It is important to check the status of aging for your tea cakes to know when they peaked so that proper care can be given to halt the aging process.

Although low to moderate air flow is important for producing a good quality aged raw pu-erh, it is generally agreed by most collectors and connoisseurs that raw pu-erhtea cakes older than 30 years should not be further exposed to "open" air since it would result in the loss of flavors or degradation in mouthfeel. The tea should instead be preserved by wrapping or hermetically sealing it in plastic wrapping or ideally glass.