As some of you might remember, a couple of years ago, I co-hosted of a tea-themed podcast.
On the above episode, we had a guest—James of TeaDB—to discuss puerh storage. I contributed nothing to the episode, save for a couple of queries and quips here and there. James was star informant on the subject of storage. Toward the end of the ‘cast, the question was posed to me, “How do you feel about your puerh storage in a box?” (I had mentioned that was my “preferred” method.)
I replied with, “I still don’t care.”
As long time readers might know, I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with puerh. I like it, I’ll drink a good one if it’s in front of me, I cover it on the blog if I run into an interesting story about it, but it’s not often a tea I go out of my way to pursue. Unless it happens to be a puerh-style tea from some far-flung location; like India, for example. However, over the last decade or so of my tea appreciation, legit puerh beengs (cakes) have arrived at my doorstep. And I’ve stored them away. In a box. Rarely to be heard from again; I didn’t drink the stuff much.
When I moved for the fourth (or was it fifth?) time, I ended up having to conserve and consolidate space. That meant stuffing the lion’s share of my tea in my one closet. Sure, there were other teas strewn about the house, but the ones relegated to relative obscurity (or lesser priority) were closeted.
A couple of puerh cakes did end up in the cupboards of the small nightstand that housed my gong fu tray. They only saw action on special occasions, though, or when I needed catharsis by way of the cup. On one particular night, I had a craving for a certain agarwood-laden shou puerh cake in my care. I couldn’t remember the last time I broke it out, but that day called for entertaining a hankering. I tore open the wrapper without much delicacy . . . and . . . white spots dotted the cake.
I’ll spare the faint of heart the triggering image. Without exaggeration, I was horrified. First reaction was pure denial. Maybe it was some aspect of the cake I hadn’t examined, or shreds of the wrapper. Using the zoom of my phone’s camera answered that question. Nope, this was mold.
I opened up a shou cake that was right next to it in the nightstand. Same thing; white dots. I opened up another cake that was next to it; this time, a 2013 sheng. Same thing, li’l white dots. My heart raced.
Throughout my tea nerdery, I’ve often made fun of this very scenario. I sometimes imagined what it would be like if someone who took all necessary puerh preparations still ended up with a mold outbreak. While I, in my hamlet of indifference, had pristine beengs stored like Christmas ornaments.
Well, apparently, I was paying the price for that cavalier attitude. I immediately tossed those three cakes and broke open the puerh box. I went through each individual cake with a squinty eye, a flashlight app on my phone, and another phone’s (better) camera phone zoom. For nearly three hours, I poured over each individual cake, sample, sliver, and chunk.
By the end of it, over half of my puerh and heicha ended up as compost.
The rest of my teas? All of them were fine. Even the Indian shengs—the ones I thought mold would love to munch on—seemed impervious. Aged oolongs, too. Every puerh/heicha in my care prior to 2013 had to be disposed of. There were exceptions, such as older teas I just received in the last five or six years—a 25-year-old Hunan heicha I got in 2014, for example. Generally, though, the oldies were euthanized . . . and that hurt. Not because of the cost—hardly—I’m a blogger. Most of these were sent to me for brand coverage and storytelling. Only one of the tossed cakes, I’d purchased myself. The sentimental value lost . . . hurt.
The question remained, though, where did this mold outbreak start?
I searched the closet, pulled back some furniture, and it didn’t take me long to find the source.
Back in 2014, my sister and I lived in an apartment complex with a serious mold problem. My bookshelf rested near a single-pane window. When it rained—which it does a lot of in Oregon—moisture would seep through the window, into the apartment. My room wasn’t the only one with this problem, but I had it worse, thanks to having three thin windows with dodgy sealing. Slugs even found their way into my room once.
Anyway, one fateful day, I smelled something weird coming from the bookshelf. I peered at the area between the shelf and the wall, and it was just a sea of black. That and the wood felt wet to the touch. By having the bookshelf so close to the wall—a wall that was so close to a single-pane window—I’d inadvertently created the perfect mold motel.
I remember cleaning the wall and shelf like crazy. To the point where I thought I took care of all of it. Sure, I took care of all the black mold. But, apparently, the white stuff made it past the cleanse.
In a panic, I told one of my housemates about it. He calmly pointed me to a bottle of Clorox and a Magic Eraser. I went to work.
In the span of an hour or so, I bleached the hell out of my closet. Yes, I moved all the tea. By the end of it, my room smelled like a corporate bathroom after a janitor shift. The side of the book shelf, the wall, the wood floor, the nightstand; everything had been bleached, and then rubbed over again with heavy-duty cleaner.
The tea? Oh, that was “stored” elsewhere. As in, wherever I had space. And there, they will remain. As to the puerh and heicha? I divided those up into three boxes.
And I told myself it was time to give them to someone else. Multiple people, if necessary. People that actually knew what the hell they were doing with puerh.
While I learned, firsthand, the importance of proper storage. I also found out, secondhand, that I’m not one to go that extra step for tea types I barely drink. Those that do put in the extra effort for refitted fridges, canisters, humidity gauges, Boveda packs, and all that arsenal? More power to ‘em. I haven’t the patience or preference to put that much effort into puerh. I envy those who do.
A fitting aside: at the end of all of this, during my nightly Bible reading, I ended up starting chapter 14 of the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. As I read on that night, I stopped about halfway through the chapter. And I laughed. Hard.