Pu-erhs are, generally speaking, teas that improve if you let them sit and age for anywhere from 5 to 20 years. Some, though, age better than others. And some must be aged before you dare try them unless you want bitter, astringent tea. Sheng pu-erh, where the leaves have not been “cooked” to age them artificially as Shu pu-erhs are, is that class where fresh is not best. The longer they age, the better they get as a rule, assuming that you start with good young tea. So, how do you age these pu-erh purchases.
Before you embark on your purchase of pu-erhs with the idea of storing them for aging, there are some considerations: your space availability and if you can provide the right storage conditions, your degree of patience (can you really wait years for those teas to improve their flavors?), and your desired level of taste improvement.
Your storage environment should be a clean and not brightly lit (no direct sunlight). You will want a way to keep the area free of strong or distasteful odors but yet have good air flow with fresh air circulating regularly. An area that is kept at about 68–86°F (20-30°C) and at a fairly high humidity level is also good (the microbes in the leaves need that humidity and steady warmth). Some experts also say the more the merrier, that is, a bunch of pu-erh cakes will be better for blocking out those foreign odors. In fact, an entire tong (qizi bing) can be a good idea, where the cakes stay in their original bamboo wrapper. (See Buying Pu-erh by the Tong.)
As for time, you have two options: buy a young tea and be very, very patient; or buy an older tea, paying a higher price for it, and continue to store it a few years more. The first option is supposed to be the riskiest since you may not know how the tea will age. The second option means you need to buy from someone reputable and that you know has stored the tea properly. If you go that young pu-erh route, take care to buy pu-erhs that start with high quality leaves. If you start with an older pu-erh or go for a shu (cooked) pu-erh, the leaf quality won’t be as critical.
Pu-erh Leaves Characteristics to Look For
Since those tea leaves are the key here, you need to know a few things about the ones you’re buying: how they were dried, the ratio of white tips, and if they are wild (that is, from untended trees) or cultivated.
The leaves can be dried in an oven, giving the pu-erh a more smoky quality to its aroma but interfering with the aging process so that the tea will have an initial attractive smell but will go downhill from there (a sign of such leaves is a more reddish color to the liquid). A better option is frying the leaves in a big wok so the leaves, while still having a smoky aroma, will age better. Best yet is the traditional method of drying the leaves in the sun, thus avoiding any smokiness or destruction of aging properties. The tea master has to be careful that some of the microbes (micro-organisms) in the leaves remain so they can act on those leaves during the aging stage. The tea cakes won’t age properly otherwise.
As for those white tips, the trend right now is to have a fairly high ratio in the cake. This makes it more fragrant in the marketplace, but these tips have too much moisture in them and will cause the tea to develop more acidity during storage. Still, the increasing demand for pu-erh as this style of tea gets better known has prompted many producers who get their leaves from larger gardens to include more white tips and even include pu-erh flowers on top of the cakes for a more attractive appearance, catering to those who don’t really know what to look for.
Another big trend is for what are called “wild” teas, that is, the trees aren’t kept cut short for easier harvesting and are usually not tended. They are cultivated in the sense that when people climb them to pluck the leaves, the trees’ growth pattern is affected. There are usually still some white tips in one of these pu-erh cakes but not a majority. These cakes have the reputation for aging best.
Some More Things to Consider
A good young sheng pu-erh will infuse a “thick” but not necessarily bitter liquid (it will give a full mouthfeel). The good teas will have huigan (a recurring minty bitterness that becomes slightly sweet and produces a cool feeling), and this is a key quality for an age-able pu-erh to have. If you really want to do this, compare young shengs from the same year and if possible from the same mountain. Bad teas that have a more straight bitterness will not lose it after aging. A 70-year-old Ding Xing Hao was reported by some pu-erh lovers to still be bitter, as were a 90-year-old Tian Xing Hao and a Big Shui Lan Yin.
Before buying the tea, ask if it was in “wet storage” (in a fairly high humidity environment such as Hong Kong where a lot of pu-erh storage warehouses are located) or in “dry storage” (somewhere less humid – Alberta, Canada, is one such place). An expert can tell by examining the tea leaves and infusing some of them. Speed up aging by breaking your cakes into smaller pieces (sized to fit in your teapot) so that surface area exposed to oxygen is maximized and encourages microbe action and store in a paper bag, cardboard box, or thick unglazed Yixing clay jars (avoid plastic containers). You will shorten the time you can store the tea, though. Also, don’t store Sheng and Shu pu-erhs together, but do group any Shengs together regardless of age and source and group Shus. They will help each other age through this close proximity to each other.
Pu-erhs properly bought and stored and aged will give you many great-tasting and exciting infusions and be the investment of a lifetime.