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By the time your collection starts to grow faster than you can drink your tea, you might be asking yourself how you should store your loose Pu Erh tea correctly. You want it to age properly, don’t you?
Pu Erh tea can be stored as cakes or loose, which has different effects on its aging process and taste. Both methods have pros and cons, which entirely depends on your personal preference.
SHORT ANSWER – Storing Loose Pu Erh Tea
Loose Pu Erh tea is more sensitive to temperature, light, humidity, and foreign smells than pressed. Pu Erh tea should be stored at room temperature in a dark, odorless place with humidity between 50% and 70%. The aging process of the tea can be manipulated by choosing the right storing conditions.
Why Should You Store Your Pu Erh Tea?
Have you ever tried a raw Pu Erh tea that was extremely bitter, adstringent and nothing more? Under the right storing conditions such a harsh tea will slowly transform into a wonderful fruity-sweet tea! Choosing the wrong conditions may render your beloved Pu Erh collection undrinkable.
Together we will explore the effects of different aspects of storing both loose and pressed Pu Erh tea and learn how you can intentionally influence the aging of your tea. The described conditions and methods apply to cooked Pu Erh tea, too.
Advantages To Storing Loose Pu Erh Tea
There are advantages and disadvantages to storing loose Pu Erh tea compared to lightly pressed cakes or the extremely compressed Pu Erh tea bricks. While bricks can hardly be broken apart, you could easily pick apart your Pu Erh tea cake into loose Pu Erh for storage.
The main reason why Pu Erh tea does not lose taste but transforms its taste are micro-organisms.
You see, Pu Erh tea is very much alive and needs air to change over time. The advantage of storing loose Pu Erh tea is that it is exposed to more air and will be transformed faster with far less care needed.
What gives loose Pu Erh storage its advantage in storing also is its biggest disadvantage. Higher exposure also means that loose Pu Erh will more easily react negatively to temperature, humidity, and foreign smells.
The place and container you choose to store your tea is far more important with loose teas in general.
Effect Of Storage Conditions On Loose Pu Erh Tea
Exposure To Air
As stated, the micro-organisms that are contained in Pu Erh tea need air to breathe. Most teas you buy will have gone through a firing process to kill the contained micro-organisms, but some survive that process.
With most green teas it is not desired to keep these alive, so storing the tea in cool places withing air-tight containers makes sense.
With Pu Erh tea we want these micro-organisms to flourish and reproduce. They break down the bitterness and harshness and produce different aromatic compounds that deliver a far more complex taste. For them to transform your tea, you need to provide enough oxygen.
This can be done either by ventilating your storage container regularly or by choosing a storage container that naturally is permeable for oxygen – like unglazed, porous clay containers. Even regular plastic bags let oxygen pass through, so be careful with your fresh Japanese Shincha!
Exposure To Light
While the controlled and regular exposure to air is very important, your tea should never be exposed to light. Especially sunlight and the contained ultraviolet light can irreversibly break down the organic molecules that give your tea the taste.
This process is different than that which the micro-organisms will do since the decomposition through light is not targeted and will therefore not result in the development of any fruity or sweet flavor.
When tea has been exposed to sunlight for too long, it will have lost most of its taste. Since loose Pu Erh has more surface area exposed, it is even more vulnerable to light.
Choosing The Right Temperature
The storage conditions of Pu Erh tea are very different from those of green teas. Since you do not want a green tea to change too much in taste, you could store them in the fridge until you want to drink it. With Pu Erh tea we deliberately want the tea to change for the better over time.
The micro-organisms in Pu Erh tea reproduce best at room temperature. Your tea will be perfectly fine with any temperature between 20 °C and 30 °C (68 °F to 86 °F).
Try to keep the temperature constant and avoid any storage close to a window or heater. Temperature fluctuations will slow the aging of your tea.
What Humidity Does For You
For the micro-organisms to survive, they need some humidity. If your Pu Erh is stored too dry, which would be anywhere below 40-45% relative humidity, the growth of micro-organisms will be slowed dramatically.
This will result in your Pu Erh tea aging much slower than you intended, so you might want to keep an eye on the humidity of your storage container.
If you store your loose Pu Erh tea above 70-75% relative humidity, you will risk the development of mold, which will completely ruin your tea. There are some people out there that still drink Pu Erh tea that has formed mold, but I suggest you never do that!
Generally, a higher humidity correlates with a faster aging process and is beneficial if kept below 70-75% relative humidity to prevent mold.
Pu Erh tea that was stored with less humidity will age slower, but develop more fruity and sweet notes, while Pu Erh tea that was stored under wet conditions will develop more earthy and hay notes.
Depending on your taste you would want to adjust the humidity, but keep the humidity roughly between 45% and 70%.
How To Keep Foreign Smells From Destroying Your Pu Erh
The worst enemy of any tea is the contamination through external smells. You should not store your tea directly in the kitchen or any other source of odors.
Ideally, Pu Erh tea is stored in larger containers together with other Pu Erh teas – without ever storing cooked and raw Pu Erh tea together.
If somehow your tea has taken on an unwanted smell, which you are sure does not come from the mold or anything inside the tea, you can still fix your tea! If you place your tea a day in a dark, somewhat cool and very well ventilated area your tea might lose the unwanted smell.
This method also works perfectly fine for tea that you bought that took on smells from the packaging – which happens more than I’d like.
Storing In A Tea Caddy
When storing loose Pu Erh tea in an air-tight container like a tea caddy, you need to make sure that you regularly ventilate to keep the micro-organisms alive. You will also need to make sure that you do not open the tea caddy in any smelly area, as small amounts of tea are far more vulnerable to flavor contamination.
Storing In An Old Refridgerator
You can store quite a lot of Pu Erh tea in an old, maybe even defective, refrigerator. Through the use of wet broken clay chips or a bowl filled with water you can control the humidity, while the refrigerator keeps the temperature constant and the light out.
You will only need to regularly ventilate the refrigerator and keep an eye on your humidity sensor (if you use one).
Storing In Unglazed Clay Containers
This is my preferred method, as I enjoy the more traditional approach to storing tea. Unglazed clay containers can be purchased in many sizes, depending on your needs.
The clay is permeable for oxygen, which aerates your tea without any effort, but most smells are unable to penetrate the tiny pores of this material.
If you choose a thicker clay container, it will help regulate and homogenize the humidity inside while blocking temperature changes through its insulating properties.
The main disadvantage of this storage method for loose Pu Erh tea is that it is not always easy or cheap to find such a container.
Can I Store Loose Pu Erh Tea In An Air-Tight Container?
Yes, loose Pu Erh tea can be stored in an air-tight container. If you do so, make sure that you ventilate your tea regularly and place it somewhere odorless with a constant temperature.
If you store Pu Erh tea in an air-tight container without ventilation for too long, it will not age and develop a more complex taste.
Does Loose Pu Erh Tea Age Better?
Loose Pu Erh tea will age significantly faster if stored properly. If you can control temperature and humidity well, while not exposing your tea to light or unwanted odors, the method of storing your Pu Erh tea can be very effective.
There’s a lot more to learn about tea! If you are looking for a good place to start, I highly recommend the book Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. You can check its current price on Amazon here.