Monday, August 13, 2012

Wet Storage Sensitivity

One of my favorite novels of all time is Patrick Susskind's Perfume- a brilliant tale of a psychopath born with a singular sense of smell.  Not satisfied with creating wildly successful botanical perfumes for smelly but wealthy Parisians, he ups the perfumier's craft a few notches by distilling the essence of virgins.  My college roommate who is currently finishing a postdoc on olfactory systems of drosophila tells me that at least in the fruit fly world, virgins do smell more "yummy".  Her current research involves heightened olfactory sensitivity for hungry flies.  Even for hungry humans, our sense of smell is more intense than when we are sated.  Perhaps for this reason, more fragrant tea sessions might be preferred before a meal than after.  But is a more receptive sense of smell better for enjoying wet-stored pu-erh?

I now have experience enough to support both sides.

This Saturday's tasting of two versions of the same 2005 Chen Guang He Tang Menghai Yieh Sheng  both stored under different conditions was a most instructive lesson.  I was lucky enough to receive samples of this Chen Zhi Tong production from both MarshalN and Ira. I initially thought MarshalN's sample was also traditionally stored due to white mold on a few stems but he tells me this is "natural storage" under humid conditions than tradtitional storage. His was admirably enjoyable and I could not detect anything of the wet-storage in the brew.  One whiff of Ira's sample told me his cake was quite mature.  I quadruple rinsed it, then had to throw out the first three brews and still I just could not keep this tea down.   MarshalN helpfully suggested that such cakes could be aired out in the wrapper for weeks to months so I will give the extra wet-stored cake another go in a month if only I can find a place to air out this cake.

Ira, perhaps one of the sweetest of men I've ever had the pleasure of correspondence, wrote me that night and said he couldn't smell very much on the original source beeng.  I tried to sniff the cake again the next morning and couldn't even manage to open the bag as I could smell the offending odour through the plastic bag.  So I asked my husband who graciously agreed to do a test.  To my complete surprise, he dove his nose into the bag inhaling vigorously, even took out a piece to do a contact sniff.  I was quite worried an errant tea leaf might get stuck up a nostril as such was the force of his snuffing.  My husband said he could barely smell anything. I got curious and sniffed the open bag at a six inch distance. The mildew smell was so overwhelming,  it triggered my gag reflex again (sorry dear reader for such details).

Ira's 2005 CGHT has a different wet-storage smell than the 1998 Heng Li Chang or the 2003 Sungsing Bada. Although I wasn't the biggest fan of the 1998 Heng Li Chang,  sniffing the brewed leaves were the most intriguing and pleasurable part of the session for me.  So this CGHT a case of wet storage or poor storage? I enjoyed for dinner tonight a most excellent apple-smoked salami from Olli. I love sniffing that porky musty smell and I never peel my salami's preferring to eat the moldy skin for extra flavor.   I normally love stinky foods cured by mold such as washed rind cheeses. So what is different about the second CGHT?
Then by pure chance a shape of an answer came to me. A friend and I wandered into a used bookstore in downtown Oakland during our lunch hour.  After five seconds of browsing their cartography section, I literally ran outside as the smell of mildew was so overpowering which reminded me of the CGHT session.  Of all the book lover's who were crowding the store, no one seemed to be holding their nose.

A hypersensitivity to mold I think may prevent enjoyment of the majority of wet-stored sheng available in the West.  I read that allergy sufferers and asthmatics can be more sensitive to mold than the general population so readers can write me to see if there is a correlation to appreciation of wet-stored sheng. But those hypersensitive need not lose hope on aged sheng which tend to be wet stored.  Well done wet storage as the samples MarshalN has provided prove to me that I need not be afraid of traditional storage. Good wet-storage can be quite pleasurable, but how do I go about procuring more of this kind of wet-storage?  TBD...


  1. I actually don't think my version is at all traditionally stored (what you're calling wet storage). The sample I sent you is what I'd call natural storage - stuff that's been just left on their own to age, without artificial attempts to speed it up or slow it down. In a moist environment like Taiwan or Hong Kong, a very low amount of mold (as evidenced by bits of white at the stems) is quite common.

    Traditional storage would yield a much punchier tasting cake with a stronger sense of mold and sharper taste. The leaves also look different.

  2. Ah I see where the confusion came from - I think I told you that the pu I'm sending you are all traditionally stored, but I didn't tell you that I was also sending you a sample of the 2005 CGHT, which was a last minute addition. That cake is not traditionally stored, although it was certainly stored in a humid environment with no obvious climate control.