March 11, 2019

Our Experimental Pu-erh Room 9 Months Later, Plus a Border-Crossing Tea from Thailand

Our Experimental Pu-erh Room 9 Months Later, Plus a Border-Crossing Tea from Thailand

Our experimental pu-erh storage room in Connecticut has been open for about nine months, so I wanted to share an update on how it’s treating the tea.

For newcomers, here’s a quick refresher: Unlike most kinds of tea, which are best consumed fresh and stored in a cool, sealed container, pu-erhs (and the whole heicha category) are often aged for years or decades before drinking, and they thrive in warm, moist climates. The heat and humidity encourage the growth of ambient bacteria and fungi that, over time, mellow, darken, and sweeten this type of teas’ overall character. The northeastern U.S. is much colder and drier than the regions historically associated with aging pu-erh—such as Hong Kong and Malaysia—so last year I built a climate-controlled room designed for storing heicha. 

I began the project with middle-of-the-road parameters: around 70° F (21°C) at 55% relative humidity. These days, I keep the room closer to 75° F (24°C) and 63% humidity. From time to time, I retrieve some pu-erh from the room to taste. The initial results have been encouraging: Nine months isn’t very long for bingchas and baskets destined for long-term aging, but I have noticed the leaves are much more fragrant than those stored in a regular room. Mostly I’m happy to see nothing is going wrong; the teas smell rich and alive, and I haven’t spotted any mold growth, which would be a sign of excessive humidity.

Pu-erh Tea 1

Pu-erh Tea 2

Pu-erh Tea 3

Pu-erh Tea 4

The biggest challenge of maintaining a pu-erh storage room is having enough tea to fill it. Heicha likes a certain atmosphere, and a certain amount of density is needed to achieve this. (At home, you could try keeping your bingchas in close proximity to each other in a dark, aroma-free enclosed space, such as a cabinet drawer or insulated cooler.) Even as I move more tea into the room, it’s still 90% empty—so I’ll need to add more biomass to make the most of this budding microclimate. 

To that end, I recently had some tea sent over that I purchased in the early 2000s: cakes of pu-erh made by a Chinese family in northern Thailand. A friend of mine and the producers has been storing it near Chiang Mai ever since.

Since it’s made from leaves grown beyond the bounds of Yunnan Province, this tea can’t technically be called pu-erh. But the native Camellia sinensis trees in Thailand, just on the other side of the border, don’t know that, and the tea was processed the same way as a pu-erh would be. As with any origin-protected product like champagne or prosciutto di Parma, famous regional teas will always have outliers beyond the geopolitical borders of the day.

Now that I’ve been airing the tea out for a few months, it smells clean and sweet, and seems to be well on the road to maturity in flavor. I’m excited to be reunited with this tea—the aged taste and character are undeniable. It was pressed in 1993, from old assamica leaf grown on Wawi Mountain. Interestingly, the bingcha appears to be a blend of roughly 60% shu- and 40% sheng-style leaf. Pu-erh producers sometimes make hybrid cakes like this to get the best of both worlds: shu-processed leaves bring smooth, sweet flavors and a rich body, while sheng leaves contribute brightness, fragrance and complexity. Our 2004 Jingmai brick, for instance, uses this blending to good effect. Unscrupulous merchants looking to make a quick buck will sometimes sell one of these mixed pu-erhs to unsuspecting customers as a decades-old, 100% sheng pu-erh, which draws a much higher price on the collector’s market—and if you aren’t an experienced pu-erh drinker, you might never know the difference. In this bingcha, however, the blend is well balanced and while it’s lovely to drink now, I look forward to seeing how it develops.

My supply of this tea is small, but I want to share it, so we’ve broken one bingcha into 14-gram samples. From now until the stash runs out, every order for one of our compressed pu-erh teas will receive a free packet of this 1993 tea. We’ve dubbed it Midnight Marauders, in honor of the A Tribe Called Quest album that came out the same year. If you like aged teas with unusual pedigrees, we think you’ll like it too. And give the album a listen while you drink—it’s great tea music.