March 18, 2010

A storage experiment


I had a fun little time yesterday breaking up a couple cakes for storage in some recently-purchased yixing containers. Though I've heard from a number of online retailers that you can store pu-erh in yixing jars, it wasn't until recently that I heard a couple of really intriguing accounts about the specific effects that just a few months' storage in clay jars can have on pu-erh: the tea will become rounder, smoother, and a lot mellower in flavor, I'm told. Now that I think about it and have had another look, I have to give Bret at Tea Goober credit for mentioning this a long time ago--sometimes I have to hear things from a few sources before the skeptic in me can be persuaded, though. Plus, I hadn't actually had someone explain to me until recently the exact effects of yixing jar storage.

The yixing jars come from Golden Teahouse. It's been a while since I've ordered from them, but they had the best prices I could find on smallish yixing canisters. As it turns out, they're actually pretty small. I didn't measure precisely, but they're probably only 300 ml at the most. It's not too big of a deal, though--it just means I don't have to invest as much tea to fill up the container! Also interestingly, although I ordered 2 of the same product, the jars have slightly different clay colors: one is more on the purple side and the other is redder.

To fill the jars I used the Zhong Cha Big Leaf 90's bing and the 90's unwrapped brick from my Skip4Tea purchase. The main reason I got all excited for this experiment is because the supposed effects of yixing storage are exactly what I want for these two teas--I don't consider either of them mature yet, and they both have enough harshness that they aren't especially pleasant to drink. If the jars can accelerate the aging in the short term and take the edge off the bitterness (and hopefully the smokiness, especially in the case of the brick), then these teas could become pretty good everyday pu-erhs without waiting several years. Since I'm not overly enamored with them, it won't break my heart if the experiment doesn't produce life-changing results. The really fun part is that I've still got plenty of each original cake left over, so comparison will be easy. I think 3 months is a reasonable time frame, so we'll check back then. Anybody out there have any experience with yixing pu-erh storage in the short term, or more interestingly, the long term?

If this works out well, I've got a few teas I'm more excited about that could use a little aging acceleration--it would be nice to have a few more teas in the rotation so I'm not drinking up the expensive stuff quite as fast! For now, the thing I'm most excited about isn't tea but--you guessed it--music. Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé has been bouncing around my brain, speakers and headphones the past week. I'm attending a performance at the Seattle Symphony tomorrow night and I don't think there's another piece of classical music I'd be more excited to hear live (ok, maybe Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, but Daphnis et Chloé is longer, and it's got a full choir for goodness' sake!). Ravel is often overshadowed by Debussy when it comes to the impressionist music movement of the early 1900's, but for my money it doesn't get any better than Ravel's ballet--that swelling crescendo and the whole Lent section has got to be 4 of the most gorgeous minutes in music history, as far as I'm concerned (my neck is tingling just thinking about it). It's a shame how many people could sing John Williams' Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park themes from memory but have never heard one of the pieces from which he has continuously borrowed so heavily in all its glory. *Ahem,* Tea! (Maybe I need to start another blog...)

As for the blossoms, it's hard to believe how early spring came this year in Seattle; probably about a month earlier. Reminds me of the almost laughably melodramatic "The Birds" from Peter Hammill's solo debut Fool's Mate. There was much better work to come...despite the fact this early spring brought blossoms too early for Chinese greens, the weather has at least remained nice enough that the blossoms have lingered awhile without being hailed off of their trees.


TeaHawk said...

That's a great account of aging it, I'll love to hear the results. I don't have experience with aging in yixing myself, but I've bookmarked & reposted this, maybe it'll send some yixing pu-erh masters your way.

And I love the Ravel/Williams comparison. I'm trying to work it up into a pu-erh/Lipton thing, but it's just not happening. (Ravel > Debussy, at any rate)

Bret said...

I hope you like the results from this experiment. Don't forget to let the tea breath every now and then (removing the lid for a while)it can also get dried out if it's abandoned in the jar for months on end. I think thats the reason for putting a piece of cloth between the jars body and it's lid. This wont make a bad or hum drum tea into a good tea but what it can do is turn down the volume on some of the more gruff flavor aspects that a tea might have. Good luck!

Zero the Hero said...

Hey guys,

Belated thanks for stopping by.
TeaHawk, the symphony was great--I decided to go back for the next performance on Saturday. The first several rows were $9 tickets, so how could I pass it up? Glad I returned, too, since the performance was even better the second night.

Bret, I was hoping you'd chime in. What's the longest you've aged a tea in a yixing canister? I have to admit I do love experiments like this.

Bret said...

Ummm, a couple of years. I,m sure they could have hung out for years but my teas don't seem to last that long. But keep in mind you still need to store them in the same manner as storing a cake, fresh air, humidity and temps are still an issue. You cant just leave em in there un-attended to for months on end. By the way, a plain old brown paper lunch bag pretty much serves the same purpose. I have several of these with loose tea inside and I just label the outside of the bag as to it's contents. Good luck!

Sir William of the Leaf said...

How does wet storage vs dry storage affect the tea?
I have yet to look into or experiment with that.
Have some insight?

Zero the Hero said...

Hey Will,

Pu-erh storage is a huge subject so I'll try to be as brief as I can. Generally, pu-erh's aging speed depends on a number of factors--humidity, airflow and temperature being the most important.

"Wet" storage describes the high-humidity environment of places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and other Chinese/SE Asian locales where pu-erh is traditionally collected. If the humidity is uncontrolled the tea can taste "worn-out," become very moldy and/or develop a distinct taste from the storage, but if it's ideal the tea will mature at a reasonable taste and the harshness will diminish, the body will become smoother and the flavor mellower.

"Dry" storage refers more to controlling the humidity (if you're in one of the aforementioned areas) so it doesn't overly affect the flavor OR storing the tea in a part of the world where the humidity isn't as high. In the best case, dry stored teas take longer to lose their astringency, bitterness and/or smokiness, but their flavors usually remain more vibrant after aging. There's also a danger that the tea's aging won't really progress much if the storage is too dry. That said, there are all sorts of degrees of dry and wet storage, and most people have a preference as to how far either way is ideal.

In the case of this post, yixing canisters are reputed to either a) diminish the negative characteristics of wet-stored pu-erh by allowing it to air out a bit without losing strength, or b) hasten the aging of an immature pu-erh by the same means. I'm hoping it'll be good for both, but we'll see! Tea Goober, Maitre_Tea and MarshalN have all posted some enlightening info on the subject of airing out teas on their blogs.

Hope this helped!