dry vs. wet storage

One of the intriguing characteristics about pu-erh is that its quality and aged appeal become more prominent with time. Being one of the 3 most important factors governing pu-erh’s quality, storage of pu-erh is a meaningful topic to be brought up for discussion.

The dry and wet storage of pu-erh refers to the methods of keeping the pu-erh after it has gone through the complete production process; it starts from maocha, which is produced after withering, roasting and sun drying the leaves from Yunnan’s native big-leaved arbor tea plants known as camellia sinensis var. assamica. Compared to loose leaves, compressed forms of maocha are more commonly stored for their ease of loading and transportation.

For dry storage method, pu-erh is kept in arid and well-ventilated indoor environments similar to those found in Kunming, Yunnan. Due to high elevation and low latitude, the climate in Yunnan is subject to intense sunshine and cool temperatures, with large daily fluctuation and low yearly variation. After spring season in Yunnan, newly produced pu-erh cakes are placed into storage facilities with less than 80% relative humidity to allow for natural post-fermentation. Dry storage pu-erh tends to take on a cleaner appearance with a more reflective surface due to the fur present on the surface of the tealeaves. The liquor brewed is of vibrant red colour, has a more full-bodied taste and leaves a calescent feeling in the mouth. It also has a stronger aged aroma compared to wet storage pu-erh.

For wet storage method, the newly produced pu-erh products are kept in damp, dark and highly humid (with relative humidity greater than 80%) environments, often found in basement or underground facilities. This storage method was popularized by tea merchants in Guangzhou and Hong Kong back in the 1970s. During this period, large shipments of raw or final products of pu-erh were exported from these regions supplying international markets. Many of their storage facilities were the basements of factory buildings that were especially humid during the monsoon season. Wet storage pu-erh tends to have a darker and more muddled appearance. It produces liquor that is maroon in colour, similar to red wine. The taste would be comparable to that of the damp forest floor, has strong humidity, sugarcane sweetness and leaves a smooth feel in the mouth. Wet storage pu-erh generally has a sweeter taste compared to dry storage pu-erh.

Note that wodui is different from wet storage. Developed in 1973 in Kunming, wodui is a process engineering method known as pile-fermentation that shortens the natural but lengthy post-fermentation time. Instead of storing compressed forms of pu-erh, it uses loose-leaf maocha as raw material. Every aspect of the wodui process, including temperature, humidity, air and enzyme growth is scientifically monitored. It is a post-processing that renders rice-milk-like smoothness and sweetness similar to flavours of lao sheng pu-erh.

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pu-erh wrapper

Have you seen the onionskin-like paper that we use to wrap our pu-erh? While using plant-based eco-packaging for all our products to strive for a sustainable practice, we'd like to talk more about this traditionally handcrafted paper produced by Dai minority group in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan.

In 1734, Yin Jishan (the governor of Yunnan-Guizhou Provinces) proposed tea regulations to Yongzheng Emperor. The central government of Qing approved the proposal and established Yunnan Chafa (Yunnan Tea Law) in the following year, which specifically regulated the form, weight, packaging of pu-erh tea for ease of transaction and taxation in local sales and export trades. Pu-erh once traded and transported on the ancient tea-horse route were wrapped with the same handcrafted paper.

The production of this paper starts with harvesting inner barks of paper mulberry. They are soaked, boiled, pounded into paste, and then sun-dried to sheets. The long wood fibers give very good durability to the paper, therefore this paper had been used for pu-erh wrapping and calligraphy for centuries.

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understanding bingdao

Bingdao, historically recorded as Biandao, is a word in language spoken by the local Dai minority group, meaning a village stockaded with bamboo fence. All Pre-1960s records documented the village name as Biandao, which was a better representation of the pronunciation. Bingdao literally means “icy island” in English, and frankly is often mistaken as Iceland by people who are not familiar with pu-erh.

Nowadays Bingdao is an administrative village known as Bingdao Cunweihui governed by the village committee of Bingdao. Bingdao Cunweihui governs 5 naturally formed villages – Bingdao Laozhai, Nanpo, Bawai, Nuowu and Dijie. A small river named Nanmeng runs through this region. Bawai and Nuowu locate on east-bank mountaintops and the other 3 sit on top of west-bank mountains. Difference in the plant orientation and soil components 0f mountains on both sides of Nanmeng River delivers distinct flavours of tea, even though they are just one river apart. It is necessary to differentiate which one of the 5 natural villages the tea is originated when selecting Bingdao pu-erh.

Bingdao is a place renowned in the Yunnan tea industry. Situated at 1400-2000 meters mountaintops, it is the one and only high altitude village occupied by Dai minority group in the Mengku town region.

When Hantingfa took his position as the new Tusi to govern the Mengmeng (Shuangjiang) county in 1480, Bingdao already existed as a village. New county chief Hantingfa sent Bingdao Dai tribes to Xishuangbanna and had the tea seeds brought back in 1485. The Dai people planted these tea seeds in Bingdao which establish the 500 year-old tea growing legacy.

Bingdao Laozhai used to be the private tea garden for the chief’s family. According to Dai elders of Bingdao Laozhai, no one was allowed to export Bingdao Laozhai’s tea seeds without chief’s permission; violators were punished by imprisonment. Possessing this pu-erh was considered a prestige. Bingdao Laozhai pu-erh was only shared amongst the higher ranks and was used as tribute and dowry to enhance relationships between the different tribes. In 1760 (the 25th year of Qianlong era in Qing dynasty), Mengmeng’s chief Hanzhuangfa united with Shunning’s chief by marrying his daughter to him. As part of his daughter’s grand dowry, Hanzhuangfa included several hundred kilograms of tea seeds from Bingdao Laozhai. This was recorded in Mengmeng chief’s family archives. This book of family archives was written in ancient Dai language and stored in the Yunnan Provincial Archives, only scholars proficient in Dai history are able to read and comprehend.

The large-leaved arbor tea trees in Bingdao are characterized by their broad, thick and supple leaves. Bingdao Laozhai pu-erh’s bitterness and astringency levels are extremely low and have pronounced honey-like flavour. Another unique characteristic of this tea is that it taste even sweeter when cooled, while most others would taste bitter. Pu-erh from Bingdao Laozhai is honoured as the “queen of pu-erh”.

Every year, only a total of approximately 1000 kg of ancient tree pu-erh is produced from Bingdao Laozhai. Due to its premium quality, rich history, high reputation and limited supply, pu-erh from Bingdao Laozhai had always been highly sought after. Almost all of Bingdao Laozhai pu-erh will be sold before the harvest even begins and you will be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to sell you pure, single estate pu-erh from there. This severe lack of supply and high profitability has created incentives for pu-erh from the other 4 nearby villages (Nanpo, Bawai, Nuowu and Dijie) or other tea mountains to be marketed as Bingdao Laozhai pu-erh. It is not uncommon to see many Bingdaos in the market selling for less than $100, but their authenticity and quality will be highly questionable. Therefore, it is important to get this tea from reliable and trustworthy sources. It is considered a privilege to own genuine single estate Bingdao Laozhai pu-erh, just like how wine collectors pride themselves on having a bottle of 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild.

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what is pu-erh?

Pu-erh is a type of Chinese tea well known by its traditional history. The earliest presence of pu-erh tea can be traced back to the Shang dynasty. When it came to the Tang dynasty, pu-erh emerged to become one of the main commodities. Its popularity continued throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Xishuangbanna autonomous prefecture, Simao city and Lincang city are the home to the tea trees from which the leaves are picked to process into pu-erh. The production takes place in the same regions. The finished tea product is distributed and traded in Pu’er county of Simao city, hence the name “pu-erh”. 

In March 2003, the Yunnan Provincial Bureau of Standards released the definition of pu-erh tea, stating that pu-erh tea is "sourced from large-leaved camellia sinensis var. assamica from several regions within Yunnan province, produced by post-fermentation and presented in loose or compressed forms”. This is the official definition of pu-erh tea published in China thus far.

A more detailed classification of pu-erh can be defined as 3 related categories, namely sheng, lao sheng, and shou. Yunnan pu-erh is picked only from native big-leaved arbor tea plants known as camellia sinensis var. assamica. Sheng pu-erh is produced after withering, roasting, sun drying. At this point the loose-leaves are generally called maocha. The pressed sheng come in many forms, such as bing, tuo and zhuan (which means cakes, mushrooms and bricks respectively). Young sheng’s flavour has notes of bitter, astringent and vegetal, which make it more comparable to green tea. 

The second category is known as lao sheng, or aged sheng. It basically is a sheng pu-erh that has been kept in storage for a period of time that ranges from years to decades. While it’s being stored, the oxidizing reaction of enzymes with polyphenols, sugar and protein from the tealeaves slowly takes place. This natural process is called post-fermentation, which transforms pu-erh’s flavours over time. As the tea’s quality and aged appeal become more prominent with time, accompanied along are the increasing rarity and appreciation of the price.

The rising popularity and price of lao sheng catalyzed the birth of the third category. In 1973, a new technology that could fast-forward the natural post-fermentation was put into production in Kunming. It was researched and developed at Kunming Tea Factory, which was a part of Yunnan branch of CNNP. By using pile-fermentation under controlled temperature and humidity, the new process engineering method known as wodui shortened the post-fermentation time that once took years or decades to within months. It renders rice-milk-like smoothness and sweetness, which characterize the flavours of lao sheng.

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