Monday, June 24, 2013

Tasting my way through the pumidor

I continue to bang through the tea cakes in the pumidor, often several a day, making note of what I find and endlessly fascinated by the whole process. When I started this endeavor a couple months ago the first thing I noticed was that the teas seemed to be weak and subdued pretty much across the board. I also noticed that the terrific aromas that used to emanate from the pumidor were now also subdued and quiet. The only difference I could find (aside from the passage of time) was a change in RH. When I first started down the path of controlled humidity I'd set the RH around 70%, but for reasons I've already covered here I dropped it to 55% many months ago. So, curious to know if the subdued character of the teas now might be related, I recently (slowly) bumped the RH back up to around 63%. Within a week (even with just a few degrees of change) the cabinet was smelling heavenly again. Still, the teas have yet to respond when brewed. I think this is due to the length of time it takes for the humidity in the cabinet to penetrate the cakes in the cabinet. I've noticed that it takes a couple of months for the humidity to stabilize inside the cabinets, so my guess is that the initial bump in aroma is due to just the surface of the tea cakes responding, but the interiors of the cakes will take some time to catch up. As always, time will tell.

You've probably noticed that I'm no longer dedicating whole posts to waxing poetic about specific teas. Lots of different reasons for this, but I'm going to break from that norm here. Might as well mention some of the teas that have impressed me as I taste my way through the cabinet. This is not meant to be a roaring endorsement or guarantee that you or anyone else will also find merit, it's just a mention of what I've been drinking (pretty much randomly removed from the shelves) and what I've been enjoying.

2005 Seven Sons on top, 2006 Douji on the bottom
A few years ago, a wise tea drinker with decades of experience with puer showed me some tea cakes that had staining around the edges of the wrapper. He told me this was a good sign and signified an active tea. Of the teas in my cabinet, this 2006 Douji Large Leaf sheng (pictured above) is the most edge-stained of all. I pulled it out recently to give it a taste. I admit I had high hopes it would shine, so was surprised to find the taste and aroma to be quite subdued (again, this could be due in part to what's mentioned above). But nearly every tea has it's strengths and weaknesses (some have no strengths at all, like a 1997 Feng Qing mini-tuo I sampled recently, and once in a rare while you hit on one that seems to have few, if any, weaknesses). Despite the subdued aroma and taste, this Douji impressed me with it's viscous silky mouthfeel and a deep, strong and spreading qi. Overall, it reminded me of what I've come to associate with truly old tree sheng, with it's subtlety accompanied with thick mouthfeel and deep qi. But the qi was short-lived and not as long lasting as some others I've had. This leaves me with questions -- how much of the character profile I've been attributing to "old tree" is really more correctly attributable to large leaf varieties? It seems another branch has sprouted for me on the path of learning puerh.

Another tea I enjoyed a great deal recently was a 2005 Seven Sons Wide Arbor sheng (also pictured above). It had turned the corner toward aging, exhibiting a terrific sweet woody aroma, good complexity and was full of vibrancy and strong activity, to boot. Really pleasant all around. I'll be looking to pick up several more of these if they're still available (this one was from Best Tea House in Canada). It'll be interesting, though, to compare the newly purchased cakes to the one I've been storing since first acquiring it a few years ago. As with most teas I sit with, I'm left with more questions to explore -- how much of the sweet aged character of this tea is due to how it's been stored here at my house? Will the new cakes I purchase taste the same and be as enjoyable as this one? It's another "buyer beware" scenario.


  1. Thank you for sharing Bev! My new tea cabinet is about to be ready to load this week. As it will hopefully allow work with RH and temperature, all experiences and opinions are welcome. With changing of strong-weak smells, I found it quite interesting in my recent cabinet too- sometime it is really nice and strong and sometime almost none smells at all, (almost) no matter what my room hygrometer says...

  2. Nice to hear from you, Petr! How exciting that you're also filling a cabinet and will be working with humidity, as well. It will be interesting to learn of your discoveries. When I built mine and filled it I had very little room left on the shelves to add more tea. It was packed very tightly. I've heard some people say that this matter of how densely packed the teas are can be very important. I don't know how or if this would affect the strong-weak aromas, but it's something to consider. I've also heard people theorize that barometric pressure can have a big effect, especially on the aroma of a tea. I've been loosely watching this myself but haven't yet made a study of it (recording it daily etc).

  3. Hmmm....I'm curious about the effectiveness of such pumidors in dealing with relatively drier climate.

  4. The jury's still out. This is all just one big experiment, and I'm not sure that any conclusions can be made just one year in. I can definitely say that teas stored in the pumidor have mellowed more and lost some of that 'edge' that the same teas stored on a shelf in the house (which averages about 40-50 RH thanks to indoor heating and a/c). Does that mean they're better? I wouldn't necessarily say that. Right now I'm focusing more on issues of air flow, and am currently of the mind that teas do better when protected in some way from too much exposure to oxygen. Keeping teas in the tong, or in a clay container, seems ideal (even in a humidity controlled environment). I'm also experimenting with using ziploc bags and heat-shrink (food safe) wrap, but it's still very early to say much about it.

  5. Air pressure definitely has an effect on aroma and flavor. One of the reasons Twinings made an extra strong black tea for British Airways. I think temperature & RH play a role in regulating or promoting different microbial colonies on your cakes, hence the lag in response to changes in RH.