In China, fermentation is a vital part of the food culture. Sauces and condiments, tofu, pickles, wine, and even nuts. You will find at least one fermented ingredient on every dinner table in China. It is no wonder that fermentation made its way into China's extensive and well-developed tea culture.
In ancient China, it was believed that fermentation is a gift from the gods. Ceremonial fermentation rituals were conducted, some of which still last to this day.
Technically every tea type can be aged. Even the freshest green teas! However, these teas require more time and skill to age, since they inherently have more moisture. You might be surprised by how flavorsome a well-aged green tea might taste. However, these teas are usually left for fresh drinking. After all, there is genuinely nothing like freshly harvested green tea, and not many would want to wait and see if their experiment bears delicious fruit.
The case is different when it comes to pu-erh. No tea ages quite as well as pu-erh tea!
It is said that the vast diversity of microbes and bugs found in Yunnan's tea gardens is what makes Chinese pu-erh so conducive to fermentation.
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Taste The Pu erh Tea Before Aging
Even if you are new to tea and don't have much experience with drinking aged tea, let alone aging it, we always recommend you start somewhere. Purchase a pu-erh cake which is conducive to aging, and store it away. As you drink more tea throughout the years to come, your taste will inevitably change and develop. It is always the case — the more quality tea you drink, the more your tastebuds and nose will be able to distinguish new and unique flavor profiles. After years of aging, when you finally brew the carefully kept pu-erh tea, you will surely be surprised how the taste transformed. And even how your perception transform.
Break off a piece of the pu-erh cake and do a tasting before aging it. Keep a journal and take precise notes on the subtleties of the taste, mouthfeel, smell, and color of the brew. Refer to those notes years later when you are drinking your aged tea.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, drinking aged pu-erh daily slows down the body's aging process. Older people drink pu-erh, believing it will bring them longevity and balance the chi in the body. Drinking well-aged pu-erh is often combined with tai chi, meditation, and breathing practices.
Our Wild Tree Guo Gan Gushu Raw Pu-erh Tea (2019) is exceptionally well-suited for aging!
Aging Your Own Pu-erh Tea
Start off with a sheng pu-erh cake.
Raw pu-erh is best for aging as it is originally less processed than ripe pu-erh.
Make sure to have a room or space with about 60-70% humidity.
This is the ideal humidity level to keep the cake and its natural bacteria healthy and thriving, without risking infesting it with unwanted bacteria.
Geographically the best areas to age pu-erh tea are Southern Chinese provinces, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, as well as some other neighboring countries with similar humidity levels. If you live outside of this region and wish to age your own tea, you must keep good track of the humidity levels in your home. An area that is too dry will not produce a well-aged pu-erh.
If the humidity level is too high, mold can easily overgrow. Too low and aging will not occur.
Always age pu-erh in cake form.
We do not recommend aging loose-leaf pu-erh. The compression of the cake helps to lock-in the good bacteria, giving it an adequate living environment. Aging loose leaf pu-erh gives higher chances of the wrong bacteria entering, or the pu-erh leaves becoming too damp.
Store your pu-erh cake away from strong odors.
Don't keep it in a pantry full of spices or coffee. Placing an open container of baking soda or even charcoal (usually used in China) close to the pu-erh will help absorb unwanted odors.
Store the tea in a dark, cool place.
A closet with a neutral scent is ideal. Make sure the temperature remains around 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit (15-27 Cº). Keep the door slightly open to ensure proper air-flow.
Store the cake in something breathable.
Something like a paper bag or the original wrapper that the cake comes in. Don't transfer the cake into a tin box or zip-lock bags.
- Do a taste test every few years.
When aging pu-erh tea, break off some of the cake every three years or so for a tasting. This way, you can see if the aging is going well or not. Based on the condition and taste of the tea, you may want to adjust the storage conditions.
Tea is aged in cycles of 5 years. Pu-erh that has been aged under ten years is easy to tell apart. Many tea enthusiasts can quickly tell the difference between a 3-year-old pu-erh and a 5-year-old one. After about ten years of aging, it is slightly harder to determine the exact age of the pu-erh. This is when the flavors start to mature, loosing all unwanted sharp tastes, earthiness, bitterness, and dampness. If you have the patience for it, it is well worth the wait to age your pu-erh over 10, 15, or even 20 years.
The longer pu-erh is aged, the more precious it is considered. Consequently, the price of the pu-erh tea cake will also grow. It requires patience and a proper well-monitored environment to age tea. Aging your own pu-erh cake will give you the opportunity to share precious, well-aged, and delicious tea with tea friends throughout years to come without worrying about the expense!
Mold! Has My Pu-erh Gone Bad?
Not necessarily! A general rule of thumb — white mold is ok, while black, green, blue, and orange mold is not ok. If your pu-erh has a thin layer of white mold, that is not a problem for the aging. If there is a thick layer and it grows fast, this may signify an environment that is too humid or damp. Try to gently scrape the mold and consider storing your cake in a slightly drier environment.
Do you have experience with aging your own tea?
Let us know in the comments below!
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