Questions and answers about pu’er tea.

 

Tea can be confusing, I completely understand. This page will serve as a place for me to answer some common questions about pu’er tea. I will update it with more information as I learn more. If you have any questions that aren’t answered below, please let me know.

 
 
 

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Where Is Pu’er Tea Grown?

The trees that are well-known for making pu’er tea, Camellia Sinensis variety Assamica, are famous for growing within Yunnan Province, China. Indeed, the Chinese government claims that in order for tea to be labeled pu’er tea, it should be grown within Yunnan province. Although pu’er tea has a long history of being grown and processed in Yunnan, nowadays tea processed in the same style is grown in many other regions as well.

Assamica variety tea trees grow natively in northern Vietnam, northern Laos, northern Thailand, and Myanmar. All these locations produce pu’er tea. Even Taiwan produces a small amount of pu’er tea. Pu’er tea can also be made with other varieties and species of tea tree, beyond just the Assamica variety and the Sinensis species.


Is Pu’er Tea Grown In The Forest?

The vast majority of pu’er tea is grown in gardens or “terraces” made up of many rows of small to medium sized bushes or trees. These terraces often look very similar to the gardens that make most other kinds of tea.

Some pu’er tea is grown in gardens planted by humans in decades past, with trees that have now been left to grow naturally, often surrounded by native plants. Tea from these gardens will be more expensive than terrace tea. And a comparatively tiny amount of pu’er tea is made from trees truly growing in the forest, either propagated naturally or abandoned by humans long ago. This tea will usually be even more expensive due to the difficulties involved with collecting the leaves and its rarity.

Tree trees growing naturally, as opposed to tea grown in terraces.


What’s The Difference Between Raw And Ripe Pu’er?

Both raw and ripe pu’er start out being processed in the same way. The leaves are picked, withered, pan-fried or fixed, rolled and sun-dried. At this point, the processing for raw pu’er is essentially complete. However, ripe pu’er is made by taking these finished leaves and creating a “wet pile” with them. This is a process that was invented as recently as the 1970’s, whereas raw pu’er has been around for much longer.

Up to hundreds of kilograms of tea leaves will be piled up, sprayed with water, covered by tarp and allowed to ferment. These piles will be monitored for temperature and humidity to ensure the microbes and fungi naturally present within the leaves are given the right conditions for rapid growth. After multiple weeks, the fermentation is complete and the leaves have been completely transformed.

Fresh raw pu’er (left) is usually much greener in color than aged raw pu’er (middle). Ripe pu’er (right) has received it’s dark brown color from the wet piling process in a matter of a few weeks.


Is Raw Pu’er A Sun-Dried Green Tea?

One of the distinguishing factors of green tea is that the enzymes responsible for oxidation are completely deactivated. Most green tea is thoroughly fixed, often from multiple sessions of heating or baking, so it does not have the same potential for aging. Raw pu’er tea, however, is still capable of oxidizing due to the fact that it is only pan-fried and dried in the sun (instead of high-temperature baking). And because raw pu’er isn’t baked, the microbes and fungi naturally present within the leaves are allowed to continue developing as it ages.

With that being said, there aren’t really any clear distinctions between raw pu’er tea and sun-dried green tea. Factors such as picking standard and the variety or cultivar of tree used to make the tea can be helpful to identify. Some cultivars may be better suited to one or the other.


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Is Pu’er Tea Oxidized?

All tea oxidizes to a small extent in a process often referred to as spontaneous oxidation. This process begins as soon as a leaf is plucked from the tree and can continue until the kill-green or fixing phase. However, only some tea is intentionally oxidized. Oolong tea is intentionally bruised, rolled or shaken to oxidize the leaves to the desired amount. Black tea is intentionally rolled to fully oxidize the leaves.

Raw pu’er tea undergoes a small amount of spontaneous oxidation while it withers and up until it is pan-fried or fixed. It is very similar to a green tea in this regard. Although ripe pu’er starts with the same material as raw pu’er, the wet piling and fermentation process breaks down the leaves, allowing them to further oxidize. This process results in ripe pu’er being heavily oxidized.

However, aged raw pu’er tea may also be heavily oxidized. Since raw pu’er tea is sun-dried, the enzymes responsible for oxidation are not completely deactivated, allowing it to continue oxidizing as it ages. Therefore, raw pu’er tea not only experiences microbial development as it ages, but it also oxidizes as it ages.

Leaves withering before being processed into raw pu’er. Spontaneous oxidation is already occurring.


Can Other Types Of Tea Be Aged?

Any tea that hasn’t been thoroughly fixed or baked will have the potential to age in a similar way to raw pu’er. White tea is a great example since it is just withered and dried. It hasn’t been fixed or baked at high temperatures, so white tea still has the potential to both oxidize and develop microbial communities over time. This is why it is common to see white tea pressed into cakes - it can be aged just like pu’er tea.

Of course other teas will still “age”, just in markedly different ways. Green tea that has been thoroughly fixed or baked will change over time, but instead of undergoing a transformation similar to raw pu’er, it may just slowly become less fresh and more stale. Roasted teas, like many Wuyi oolongs, will benefit from a year or more of aging, as this will allow the flavor of the roast to subside and become more balanced with the natural flavors of the leaves. Ripe pu’er will benefit from a year or more of aging as it will allow the “wet-pile” taste to subside.

All teas will change over time, some will just have better results than others depending on what material the tea was made from and how it was processed.


Why Is Pu’er Tea Compressed?

The tradition of compressing tea dates back hundreds of years. Compressed tea could be transported and traded more easily than loose leaf tea . For a long time it was also simply the traditional way to drink tea - steeping loose tea was not always the norm.

A piece of compressed tea would be loosened, toasted over a fire, ground into a powder, and then whisked into hot water. This method of grinding tea into powder has left its legacy in the form of the Japanese tea ceremony which makes use of Matcha, a type of powdered green tea.

Nowadays, tea is compressed for a variety of reasons. It is still much easier to ship small tea cakes across an ocean than it is to ship the equivalent of loose tea (which would take up significantly more space and therefore cost more money). It is also much easier for vendors and consumers to store tea cakes due to their small size. And perhaps most importantly, compressed tea ages differently than loose tea.


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Does Compressing Tea Affect Its Flavor?

Compressing tea will have both short term and long term effects on the flavor of a tea. The level of care taken when compressing the tea may also be important. Is the water used to steam the tea clean and pure? Is the tea compressed by machine or stone? Each step of processing is important.

In the first few months after a tea is pressed, the tea may be noticeably less aromatic and flavorful. It may need time to “acclimate”. This is normal, and after some time it should regain it’s aromatics and flavor.

Compressed tea may taste very similar to the original maocha at certain stages of aging, but the two versions of tea will age differently in the long-term and therefore taste different. Compressed tea has less surface area than the equivalent amount of raw tea, and will therefore oxidize more slowly. The difference in microbial development is uncertain.


What Is The Ancient Tea Horse Road?

The ancient tea horse road was a vast network of trading routes that connected China with Tibet and beyond. It is said that the aging potential of pu’er tea was discovered because of the long and arduous journey it took on this route, subject to varying weather conditions for months at a time.

Tea was one of the many commodities transported among these paths. Just a portion of the central route is represented in a simplified map below - you can see how it connected the very south of Yunnan with Tibet’s capital, Lhasa.


When Is Pu’er Tea Harvested?

Pu’er tea can be harvested for a large portion of the year. Depending on how old the trees are, the type of garden and the growing conditions, the first harvest of the year in Yunnan often begins in late February or March, when Spring begins. It is sometimes harvested throughout summer and into autumn. Different gardens may be harvested for tea more or less often, depending on the preferences of the tea makers. Many tea makers will use the same gardens to make different kinds of tea depending on the season.

An important marker of seasonality for pu’er tea is whether the rainy season has begun. The amount of rain in the gardens will have an impact on the growth of the leaves and the taste of the tea. Early spring is the dry season with less rain, when the flavor of the tea will be unaffected. Towards the second half of spring and into summer, rain becomes common and the taste of the tea will change. Many people prefer tea that was harvested when it hasn’t recently rained and before the rainy season has begun. This tea almost always commands a higher price, as the presence of rain during or shortly before harvest will adversely affect the quality of the tea.

At the same time, extreme drought can cause significant damage to both the trees and the tea harvest. Due to global warming, it is becoming more common for a lack of rain as spring approaches to prevent healthy growth of the trees. When this happens, the harvest is limited, and the quality of the tea may be affected.


Are Pu’er Harvests Stored Separately?

The method of separation between harvests varies depending on who is making the tea and who it is being sold to. If a producer purchases the entire spring harvest from a single garden, the “first flush” harvest from early spring may be mixed in with harvests from the middle of the spring. It all depends on who is making the tea and who is purchasing it.

However, gardens that sell tea to a variety customers may or may not offer distinct harvests for sale. Some of them may go out of their way to separate certain harvests from others depending on the timing and weather. Others may simply make the tea and store it together, without intentionally separating any of the harvests outside of major seasonal markers (such as early spring, late spring, summer or autumn).


Why Is Pu’er Tea Made?

What kind of question is that? Have you tasted how delicious it is?


What Are Some Markers Of Quality For Raw Pu’er?

Pu’er can be judged on a variety of factors, like all other teas. Some are more important than others. For me, the most important factor is how it tastes: the flavor, the mouthfeel, the texture, the aftertaste and so on.

The appearance of the leaf should generally be whole (not shredded or broken) and consist of a bud with 2-4 leaves. This may be difficult to judge for compressed tea depending how tight it is, as the process of breaking pieces off may inevitably lead to broken leaves.

The color of the leaves is not typically important. Amazing pu’er can be green, tan, silver, black, orange, brown and everything in between. The amount of furry down on the buds and leaves may indicate the characteristics of the leaves were preserved during processing, but it is not particularly important.

The color of the liquor is also not typically important. Fresher pu’er will usually produce lighter liquors than aged pu’er. Some may judge the liquor of fresh pu’er based on how light it is, but even delicious fresh pu’er often produces a deep orange liquor. Clear, vibrant liquor is always a good sign as well. The liquor may carry with it some of the fuzzy down from the leaves - this is usually a good sign, and is entirely different than cloudy or murky liquor.

Whole leaves being pan-fried, an essential step that will help define the taste of the tea.

Whole leaves being pan-fried, an essential step that will help define the taste of the tea.


What Is Gushu?

Gushu is a term used to define the age of a tea tree (usually the trees that make pu’er tea). The term literally means “ancient tree”. How old exactly? It depends on who you ask - there is no concrete definition. The minimum age across the board should be at the very least 100 years old, although it can usually mean 200+ years old.

These trees are much rarer than younger trees and therefore much more expensive. The vast majority of pu’er tea comes from young bushes grown in terraces, even though much of it ends up being marketed as gushu. Older trees will often have more depth of flavor and a sweeter profile, but it’s impossible to make statements across the board. Some gushu is bad, and some terrace pu’er can be great. The terroir and processing are just as important as the tree itself, if not more.


What Should I Look For In A Tea Description?

Most tea companies don’t provide enough information about the tea they sell. The more information you have about harvesting, processing, and characteristics of a tea, the better. Some recommendations to look for:

  • What does the tea look like? Always look for high-resolution, clear images of the tea leaves. If the tea is compressed, the images should show the complete front and back of the cake, along with the wrapper. Some vendors will only show partial images of tea cakes in order to upsell samples taken from them.

  • Where is the tea grown? The more specific the location, the better. Many white teas, for example, are from Fuding, Fujian in eastern China. But that’s still a huge area, and doesn’t provide enough information. Waizhai Village, Fuding tells you exactly where the tea comes from.

  • When was the tea harvested? Every tea should have a year associated with it, otherwise you don’t know how fresh the tea will be. The harvest season also has a significant impact on the taste of the tea. Many Chinese and Japanese teas are most valuable and posses the most sought-after flavors when harvested in Spring. However, depending on the region and the type, incredible tea is harvested throughout the year.

  • What do the gardens look like? Pictures go a long way when understanding how the tea was grown. Pristine rows of tea bushes look nice, but I prefer gardens with naturally growing tea plants surrounded by native vegetation.

  • How was the tea processed? Many types of teas have fairly standardized processing, but the details can make a big difference. Whether the processing was done by hand or machine will also likely have a noticeable impact on the taste.

  • Who made the tea? Unfortunately, this is often the most overlooked aspect of the tea. I think it’s the most important, though. Making good tea usually requires years and years of experience, and every craftsman or craftswoman leaves a unique mark on the tea.

The more information you have about the tea your drinking, the better you can learn about how tea growth and processing affects the quality of the tea. In this way, drinking tea can become a much more engaging experience.


How Do I Read Recipe Codes & Batch Numbers?

Historic factories like Menghai, Xiaguan and Kunming create incredibly famous examples of pu’er tea with recipe codes. These 4 digit numbers identify the tea and provide important information about the tea. Keep in mind that many other brands will produce teas using the same recipe codes - not necessarily to create fakes, but to indicate the tea was blended in the same style as that of the original.

Recipe Code Graphic.png

How Does Leaf Grade Affect Pu’er?

Sorting leaves by size is a practice typically only used by larger factories with a machine-based line of production. Most small batch pu’er will not have any grade associated with it. Small batches usually have a semi-consistent picking standard, and so the leaves are usually not sorted outside of separating the huang pian (ugly or misshapen leaves that haven’t taken well to processing).

When grading is in place, the leaf grade isn’t necessarily correlated to quality - it simply indicates the size of the leaves used in a production. In my experience, pu’er with a higher amount of buds and young leaves will present brighter notes while pu’er with a higher amount of older leaves will present rougher notes.

Below are two raw pu’er productions from BajiaoTing Factory. Can you guess which one has a higher grade of leaves used and which one has a lower grade of leaves used? Notice the high ratio of brightly colored buds on the cake on the left - this one has smaller leaves and more buds, and has a lower average grade. The cake on the right looks a bit rougher from the amount of older leaves used, and it has a higher average grade.


 

More Coming Soon.

Thank you for reading! I’m always open to feedback and suggestions.