A Winter Nightmare with Puer
There’s been quite a few people, including a major puer shop owner, that suggested I share the nightmare I’ve experienced storing my puer collection over the past few months. Some of you may already know the issues that have been happening, especially considering that I’ve been playing the ’20 Question’ game on Steepster and with other peers in the tea community. In case you’re unaware, the issue is about me vs. puer storage in a humidor — or as others call it, ‘pumidor which means ‘humidor’ but for puer.
What is Puer?
Before we get into any of the specifics, we need to go over a few basics. First, puer is a kind of tea that can be aged and fermented, which slowly oxidizes over a lengthy period of time. There are two kinds of puer - Sheng and Shou. Sheng = raw, which is green tea that’s roasted light enough not to kill all of the active enzymes. Shou = ripe, which is where the tea is fermented over a period of time, and composted for 45 days before it’s ready for consumption. I mainly drink and review sheng, and store many cakes of sheng in an old mini fridge. In the pumidor, I only have young sheng, or raw puer that hasn’t had a chance to age and oxidize properly. Now that you understand what puer is, I can finally tell you where babies come from… or where my nightmare begins.
In my pumidor, I try to keep the temperature and humidity consistent all year long. My favorite combination is storing the tea around 75ºf, and around 65% humidity. Since the pumidor is a mini refrigerator, it’s not always possible to keep it at those specifics. This is especially true when this winter, we went from sunshine and tank tops, to sleet and parkas in the time span of three days. Since the pumidor was kept in a room that consists of 70% windows (and since our landlords are cheap and has old insulation in the attic), that meant that the temperature in the pumidor went from a drastic 75ºf to 50ºf overnight. For a week, the puer slowly started to turn tart and became sour.
After a week went by of cold and uncomfortable pumidor temperatures, I decided to use a hair drier to warm up the inside and outside of the mini fridge daily. And at night, cover it with a blanket. After a week of this, this resulted in an overall 2º difference, and caused the humidity to drop. Unfortunately, over the course of doing this, the humidity slowly fell to a surprising 58%. This resulted in every single one of my teas to taste as dry as soot. For a few more weeks, the puer became more and more unbearable as their profile completely disappeared. Sad to say, gong-fu sessions that I had with top tier teas eventually tasted dry and astrigent, which was a huge disappointment considering that session cost $8.00. The wasted $8.00 session was the breaking point; the point at which something had to change.
Luckily for me, the living room is the warmest place in the house part in due to the fact that it’s the closest room to the central heating system. At that, there’s even a storage closet in the living room that could be closed off from any windows. I took my temperature gauge and measured the heat. To my surprise, the living room closet averaged 10º warmer than the room that the pumidor was currently in. Bingo. Without hesitation, the pumidor was moving.
A week went by as the pumidor was making a cozy new home out of the living room closet. The temperature arose to 70º, but unfortunately I was still having the issue of having a low humidity. Hell, at this point, I gave up and started to drink down more of the oolongs that I acquired earlier in the year. However, a few tea colleagues that I communicate with convinced me to place a small cup/bowl of distilled water in the pumidor. The reasoning goes something like this — since tea is absorbent, it’ll absorb the moisture in the air thats given off by the cup of water. In return, the tea wouldn't be dry anymore and things sound start going back to normal. In retrospect, I should have left it alone.
Now that I thought I got everything under control, I decide to leave the storage alone for a week to give the tea time to rest. Since all of the changes were so drastic, I ran the risk of shocking and killing any active enzymes in the tea, thus disabling it from aging. When I thought all of the troubles were over, a new problem arose that affected every single one of the teas: leather and mushrooms. Yes, fucking leather and fucking mushrooms.
The saga continued when I went to have the first gong-fu session with puer from the pumidor. I tried a high priced beeng of tea that typically tastes of caramel, fruit, and hay. I was shocked to find that the tea only tasted like astringent boot leather, with the after taste of mushrooms. I couldn’t even finish the session because of how overpowering the taste of basement was. This tea wasn’t even a year old, and up to this point, only tasted like heaven in a cup. I went back to check the humidity in the pumidor, and it only went up from 58% to 61%. The temperature was still sitting at 70º, but somehow the humidity was greatly affecting all of the tea. I immediately threw out the cup of water, and continued to sample a wide-range of teas from the pumidor. Every single one tasted like wet leathery boot. Form the less pricy teas to the outrageously expensive teas. All of them tasted exactly the same.
At this point, I decided it was time to reach out for some help. After talking to several tea colleagues, the general consists was that the puer absorbed too much water, and for whatever reason, developed a funky odor over the course of the week that all of the teas picked up on. This only left me with one final question: What the fuck should I do now? For the past week and a half, I’ve been airing out the pumidor by fan, and I made sure that it got fresh air daily. Eventually, the leathery boot mushroom notes started to slowly disappear and the sweet, fruity taste of sheng puer started to come back. All of the teas started to regain their original profile, and even started to taste complex and sweet again. With a blast of fresh air, the tea seemed to be happy. For now at least, things are going back to a new normal and the nightmare is over.
With much reflection, I’m able to share with you what originally went wrong, and hopefully my advice will be helpful for someone else out there. Initially, the issues all started with the first temperature drop in the pumidor. Instead of moving the puer to a warmer spot in the house, I panicked and made things worse. From there, it was a chain reaction that lasted for nearly two months. When one thing happened, I acted quick to try and fix it. That only sparked another reaction that affected the tea, then caused me to panic and make a quick fix, etc. Thankfully I took a deep breath and took some time tor reflect, and now that I can finally see this saga for its bigger picture, here are some tips hat can help you in the future:
If you think you can control puer, you're only kidding yourself. Puer is so much like a domesticated house cat; You can work with it but only on its own terms
Invest in a hygrometer, and a good one at that.
When cooler weather comes around, relocate your puer collection to a warmer part of the house. If your collection is too large to move, then create a makeshift pumidor that will carry enough tea to hold you over until warmer weather comes back around.
You don't own your puer - it owns you. Like a kitty cat.
Although adding water to your pumidor may give moisture to your puer, it doesn't necessarily add moister to the air. Check your tea regularly because if your tea absorbs too much moisture, it could potentially grow mold.
Men - go clean the dishes that you left in the sink before your girl gets home (not tea advice but advice that will make your relationship significantly better).
Leave your puer alone in the winter months. Seriously. If you live in a cooler climate where your puer can be affected in the winter months, then invest in some good oolongs to hold you over until spring/summer.
Your puer is a house cat. Now go pet it.
"Blissfully Tea Drunk"