I think that every tea drinker has the same problem. What is the best way to store all of the tea that we accumulate? The main enemies of tea leaves are heat, light, and moisture. There’s a handful of exceptions to that rule but this applies to most categories of tea. I find that a lot of people tend to keep tea in their kitchen but that’s not always the greatest location. Heat and strong aromas from cooking can accidentally ruin your tea-vestments. I’m pretty sure that the puerh cake that I have on display in my home will taste like bacon someday.
How to Store Tea
Tea frequently comes packaged in paper bags with fold-over clips. While these do block out light, your tea is still very susceptible to changes in the environment. If several teas are stored together in one area their aromas will tend to commingle and get all muddled. This is especially true with strongly scented teas like jasmine and lapsang souchong.
For years tea shops have displayed and sold their teas in glass jars but the truth is that this does the tea a great disservice. UV degradation has not been studied much but both sunlight and artificial light can have a negative effect on tea. If you do opt to store your tea in mason jars or other glass vessels, I highly recommend getting crafty and using food safe paint to block out the light.
They come in a million shapes, sizes and designs but tins are generally the best options available to most tea drinkers. I find that they work even better if the tea is kept within an inner bag. Ideally, you’ll want to have as little empty space inside of the tin as possible. This limits the amount of oxygen that your tea is exposed to. Some tea drinkers like to keep the tea in a larger tin and then use that to refill a smaller container, preventing the bulk of the leaves from being exposed to air during frequent use.
Although I drink almost exclusively loose leaf tea, these same concepts can all be applied to tea bags.
Should I freeze or refrigerate my tea?
I wouldn’t recommend freezing or refrigerating your tea unless can have a dedicated unit just for tea. Tea is very susceptible to absorbing the smells around it (hence why it can be scented with jasmine and other florals). No one wants their green tea to taste like Chinese food leftovers! The one exception to that might be matcha. The shelf life is relatively short so refrigeration can help extend that if it is kept in an airtight container. There is some concern about condensation forming on the tea so you’ll need to be watchful to avoid spoilage.
What about puerh?
Puerh and other dark teas are some of the few exceptions to these rules. Air is essential to the aging process. Letting a musty or fishy cooked puerh breath can make an unpleasant tea much more drinkable. That being said, light and strong aromas should still be avoided. Sheng and Shu should be stored separately since their tastes and smells are very different. There are many schools of thought on how to best store puerh at home. In many ways, we are still learning because the climate here in North America can be so different from that of Asia.
Some pu-heads opt to store their tea in earthenware crocks. These can be hard to come by where I live so I haven’t experimented with that yet. Still, others build pumidors in order to carefully control the humidity level. There is some risk of mold so cakes need to be rotated and frequently monitored.
For most people, plain brown paper bags (odor-free of course) will usually get the job done. Cloth bags are also available from a number of retailers. I don’t usually purchase large quantities of puerh myself (in part due to the number of samples I receive for review). Otherwise, I might have to come up with a more long term solution.
Should I break up puerh cakes or leave them whole?
The answer really depends on your goal. For long term aging, I believe it is best to leave the cake whole. For tea that I’m drinking now, I’ll usually leave in the cake and just break off pieces as I go. The one exception would be a tea that needs airing out. Musty shu can very much benefit from being broken up.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Let me know how you store your tea in the comments!