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Mystery Pu Erh Tea – a Key to Yunnan’s Oldest Tea Tradition

Mystery Pu Erh Tea

– A Key to Yunnan’s Oldest Tea Tradition –

Pu Erh Tee Collage

Pu Erh Tea is a tea resulting from a post-fermentation process, obtained through a processing method developed during China’s imperial age in the province of Yunnan. Today, Pu Erh tea is also manufactured in other tea producing Asian countries, such as in north Thailand. Post-fermentation in this case means a processing, where the tea leaves, after being dried and rolled to streaks, undergo a microbiotic fermentation process. Because of the dark, reddish color of the leaves as well as the infused tea beverage, Pu Erh tea in China is often referred to as “dark tea” or “red tea”.

Ripened/cooked Pu Erh tea from north Thailand: noble packaging nobly packaged Pu Erh Tea cake in Doi Wawee, north Thailand

Pu Erh tea is available in form of loose tea leaves or in compressed form (for example: bricks). Principally , two different kinds of Pu Erh tea can be distincted: “raw” Pu Erh tea (sheng Pu Erh) and “ripened” or “cooked” Pu Erh tea (shu Pu Erh).

shu Pu Erh cake, Doi Wawee, north Thailand exposed

Mystery Pu Erh Tea

Which tea lover doesn’t know it, the helplessness that we are – especially in the initial phase of getting into Pu Erh tea – time and again experience when confronted with the task of evaluating such a tea? When is a Pu Erh tea good? When is a Pu Erh tea valuable? When is a Pu Erh tea old, or considered as appropriately aged or “ripe”? Must a Pu Erh tea be old – or valuable – in order to be good? Why there are so many different forms (loose leaves, different pressing forms: bricks, cakes, disks, bars, balls) of Pu Erh tea? Should a Pu Erh tea be pressed, or is the loose leaf form just as good?

Red color of infused Wild Phoenix shu Pu Erh Teabright red infusion of Yunnan Ancient Phoenix Pu Erh Tea

Other teas – green tea, black tea or even the processing of Oolong tea, coming in different forms and often being extremly complex – appear to be comparably accessible to us. We learn something about different tea cultivars, types and varieties, cultivation altitudes and areas, which part of a tea plant is picked for best quality at which time of the year, we hear things about the drying and fermentation of tea leaves, about their processing, and: we find the various criteria of evaluating a tea at the very end of the chain – when drinking the tea – perceivably reflected in it’s taste. Same thing with the price: whether picking standard, season, processing or trade form, in most cases each of these quality criteria cannot only be directly related to the taste of the resulting tea, but also to it’s price. And exactly this pattern doesn’t seem to work with the evaluation of Pu Erh tea.

Loose leaf Yunnan sheng Pu Erh teaAncient Purple Pu Erh – loose sheng Pu Erh tea from old tea tress in Yunnan

It starts with the fact that when buying a Pu Erh tea we usually learn rather less about cultivar, picking standard and season or other quality factors preceding processing. Instead we receive information about age and pressing form as well as about whether it is a “raw” (sheng) or “ripened / cooked” (shu) Pu Erh tea. And as soon as we get to the point, where we begin to believe that we might have understood the basics of the theory, we suddenly notice that a cooked, or ripened, “shu” Pu Erh tea is sometimes 5 years old, and sometimes 20, and also quite often without indication, which usually means that it is from this or the previous year, which brings us right back to the start, as we actually had just learnt that a Pu Erh tea will only be “ripe” – and thereby shu – after a 5 years ripening period.

Ancient Fermented Wild Phoenix Pu Erh Tea- disks 7g discs of pressed Phoenix shu Pu Erh tea

Then the thing with the taste. Of course, taste is always a question of taste. Still, I certainly speak for a larger group about tea drinkers, if I say that the taste of a Pu Erh tea, whether sheng or shu, very often doesn’t reflect the supposed quality criteria and corresponding price level, at least not in a direct manner of the kind where we could map our taste experience on an imaginary one-dimensional scale between attributes as simple as “good” and “not good”.

Loose leaf and pressed Phonix shu Pu Erh teashu Pu Erh: comparison loose leaves and abrasion from pressed disk of the same tea

In the author’s opinion, in order to attain initial access to the perceived complexity around the mystery of Pu Erh tea, one will have to essentially understand 3 things:

  1.  The historic background of the Yunnan Pu Erh trade
  2.  The special characteristics of Pu Erh tea processing
  3.  Certain mechanisms involved in the modern marketing of Pu Erh tea

Dark red color of infused Doi Wawee shu Pu Erh teared infusion color of Doi Wawee shu Pu Erh tea

Pu Erh Tea Trade Historic Background

“Pu Erh” is a city (and prefecture) in the south Chinese province of Yunnan. The processing of the large-leaf, tree-form sub-variety of Camellia Sinensis native here, “Qingmao, can be traced back to the 3rd century AD. Starting with the following turn of the millennium Pu Erh tea became known far beyond the borders of of Yunnan and China through the “old tea road” or – more commonly – “Tea-Horse-Road”, one the most significant landmarks in Chinese trade history. A 4000 km long trail through rough terrains and mountainous landscapes, on which the tea traders from Yunnan carried their Pu Erh tea on mules’ back northbound via Burma and across India until Lhasa in Tibet, where not only – due to the cold and harsh climate there – a strong local demand existed, but from where the tea in the course of the centuries and with the development of the international trade and transport facilities also increasingly was shipped to destinations worldwide. There, the tea traders traded their tea against horses from Tibet, which they could then use as valuable trading goods and trade against other commodities. The trip from Yunnan to Lhasa and back took them a whole year, with a capacity of no more than 90 kg of tea per mule.

Herein might lay one major initial factor for the tradition of pressing of Pu Erh tea to cakes or briquettes. Those of you who have seen a kilogram of loose tea leaves on one pile once will easily imagine that 90 kg of loose tea impossibly fit on the back of a mule. So, the pressing of the tea into a less voluminous form initially might have mainly served the purpose of optimizing the load capacities on that old trading route, or generally in those old times. It is often discussed, whether the pressing – or even the pressing form – is a quality criteria for Pu Erh tea or not. After his studies of several, widely differing sources, the author of this article has come to the opinion that the pressed form, compared to the loose form, apart from having become a characteristic of Pu Erh Tea especially in the perception of westerners, definitely influences the characteristics and taste of the Pu Erh tea, but is no quality criteria as such, i. e. though the ripening process in pressed Pu Erh tea is differing from that in loose Pu Erh tea and also resulting in a different taste, but this difference cannot necessarily be classified as either “better” or “less good”.

Loose leaves of ripened /cooked Lincang Pu Erh tealoose, ripened Lincang shu Pu Erh tea: extremely delicious and surprisingly cheap

Due to the ca. 5 years of storage under controlled conditions involved, especially the processing of cooked Pu Erh has long been a great effort and the ripened tea accordingly expensive. However, in the beginning of the 1970’s a method to accelerate the ripening process of the raw Pu Erh tea was developed, thanks to which the ripening process of Pu Erh tea can be reduced from said 5 years to a few months. This has caused a significant price difference between shu Pu Erh teas produced according to the traditional method and such being processed according to the new procedure. Agan applies: wether a Pu Erh tea is “naturally” ripened according to the traditional method for the said 5 years or according to the new procedure, seems to provide no objective quality criterion, at least not, if qualitly is measured in (subjectively perceived) “good taste”. In our own degustations of “shu” Pu Erh tea, ultimately a Lincang Pu Erh tea ripened according to the modern method established as our clear (taste) favorite, but it needs to be said here that we didn’t include Pu Erh teas of highly exclusive price categories in these degustations, as such tea would have disqualified as a first representative of the Pu Erh tea category in our line of “Great Teas of China” for cost reasons in the first place. However, we did have the opportunity to try quite some naturally ripened Pu Erh teas of different ripening stages, and – strictly adhering to our principle of “best taste and quality at affordable prices” – still got stuck with said Lincang Pu Erh tea, which revealed itself to us as a sheer blessing in taste, while being very moderately priced, and therefore excellently suited for newbies to Pu Erh tea and die-hard Pu Erh tea lovers alike.

Bulang Gushu ripened Pu Erh tea - bright red infuseion colord“Bulang Gushu” shu Pu Erh tea infused: bright red color

Pu Erh Tea Processing

The base material of all Pu Erh tea variations is the so-called Maocha, a non-oxidized green tea that is obtained form a large-leaved Camellia Sinsensis species as can be found in southern Yunnan, Burma and northern Thailand. The “raw” (sheng) type of Maocha goes through a natural fermentation process due to (controlled) environmental influences, whose duration is generally indicated with an average of 5 years for a ripened shu Pu Erh tea, while this process today in many cases is accelerated by means of the above-mentioned specific processing method introduced in the early 1970s.

  • Maocha: The freshly picked tea leaves are first spread out to wither and dry in the sun. Then they are roasted, traditionally in are in a large Chinese wok in order to stop the enzymatic fermentation process. The roasted tea leaves are finally rolled into streaks, which are once again dried in the sun.
  • Raw Pu Erh tea: The Maocha is subjected to a secondary oxidation and fermentation process, which may require several years, until the desired result is achieved.
  • Ripened/cooked Pu Erh tea: As an alternative to the natural, 5 years long fermentation process, the fermentation process is accelerated by storing the tea leaves under controlled warm/humid conditions, while under constant re-piling, turning around and moistening, thereby promoting the formation and activity of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi), pretty much the same way as with the composting of biodegradable materials. This process usually takes between 6 months and one year.
  • Pressing: The dried Maocha is portioned and the weighed portions lightly steamed in order to achieve a more cohesive consistency. In the old times, the resulting units were then pressed with a hand press, in ancient times a stone press, until the lever press prevailed soon after being introduced, and now increasingly with hydraulic presses, in various forms such as cakes or bricks. Often when pressing a motive is coined in, which can include the manufacturer’s logo and / or the date of pressing or the ripening period. The pressed (or loose) Pu Erh tea may then further ripen for decades.

Typical for Pu Erh tea producers is the production and sale of both variants, whereas logically each Pu Erh tea initially exists in its raw form and each such sheng Pu Erh tea will ripen to gradually become a shu Pu Erh Pu Erh tea in the course of the years. Our understanding of Pu Erh tea and the processes involved is in particular impeded by the introduction of the said procedure of accelerated ripening, as in this case the cooked Pu Erh follows upon its raw variant with only little delay in time and the reduced storage and control cost price effect in much less significant price differences, compared to the traditional method. In the old times, the method to get hold of a both good and cheap shu Pu erh tea was that of purchasing a fresh and inexpensive sheng Pu Erh tea and then either storing the same for as long as it took to achieve the desired ripening level, or to consume the tea over the years and thereby become a witness of the continuous changes within it caused by the fermentation process. Naturally, this is still a fancy of many Pu Erh tea lovers today, who are hording true treasures of various types of Pu Erh teas of different age and ripening degree in their tea cabinet, in order to enjoy them from time to time.

"Shan Tea" - northern Thai sheng Pu Erh tea after 2 years of ripenening“ShanTea” – loose sheng Pu Erh tea from north Thailand after ca. 2 years of ripening

We have made (and are still making) this experience with the raw (sheng) Pu erh tea that we procure from an ethnic Shan farmer residing in the border area between north Thailand and Burma, where his family moved from Yunnan during the 1940’s. Clueless as we were, when visiting his tea village” in the no-man’s land between Burma and north Thailand, we bought a large amount of a wonderful raw Pu Erh tea, harvested from wild growing tea trees in that area and processed according to the Shan farmer’s old family tradition that we gave the name Shan Tea and whose ripening process we have since been witnessing with increasing interest and astonishment. Of course, we are also offering this tea to our customers at Siam Tea Shop, many of which are similarly fascinated by the ongoing development of the same. What initially was a bright (almost green) sheng Pu Erh tea with a yellow to orange infusion color and strong physical stimulation effects, has been more and more developing to an increasingly mild and very pleasant tasting tea that besides the leather-like aroma typical for shu Pu Erh teas now delights with a taste blend of dried fruit such as figs, dates and plums.

Chinese / Thai writing with Doi Wawee shu Pu Erh tea packagingmuch information – in Chinese and Thai

The Marketing of the Myth

Even preceding the modern global trade platform, the Chinese have quickly recognized the western fascination for Asia’s – and in particular China’s – old myths, ancient culture and rich traditions. As a consequence, the “mystery Pu Erh tea” as such is rather promoted than sought to be lifted. An exemplary view on the Pu Erh tea offer available online returns a sheer abundance of types, degrees of maturity, quality levels and price classes. The plunge in at the deep end, the rather random trying of individual teas out of that vast offer and the processing of the information coming with such teas, initially rather increases the confusion than contributing to its dissolution. Though the packaging, often essentially consisting of a monochromatically printed wrapper paper – and in many cases the tea cakes themselves in the form of stamps and engravings – normally offer a plenitude of detailed information about origin, age and even the quality grade of the base tea, all such information is often available only in Chinese language and letters or is otherwise encoded in a way that makes it more or less inaccessible for the common westerner. Of course, in a global economy, where product packagings are commonly printed with information in several or even many languages, such present, but hard to interpret or uninterpretable information rather serves (or aims at) the nourishing of the myth than the actual satisfaction of information needs.

The traditional pressing form of Pu Erh teas, cakes or bricks, has in most recent times diversified in a rather untraditional manner: Besides the mentioned traditional trade forms, Pu Er tea is today pressed to figurines, and/or geometrical or artful shapes of all kinds, among others, whereas often the suspicion suggests itself that the visual effect and the therewith stimulated perception are playing a greater role in such designs than the actual quality of the tea, or the latter even serving the purpose of camouflaging a low tea quality and justifying higher prices. At the same time, many Pu Erh teas are still offered in loose leaf form. In respect of the fact that no mules are needed anymore today to carry the tea from A to B, this seems entirely legitimate and by no means necessarily detrimental to a Pu erh tea’s taste, at least not in the author’s admittedly meek experience.

Tower of pressed shu Pu Erh tea in Doi Wawee, north Thailandmented

tea shop decoration of pressed shu Pu Erh Tea

Then, I keep encountering offers of Pu Erh teas that are supposedly 20 years old or even older, with no means whatsoever of verifying whether this is true or not. Would I be able to tell the difference between a 5 years old, 10 years old and 20 years old Pu Erh tea? I wouldn’t. Virtually impossible, at this stage of getting acquainted with this complex type of tea, unless the 20 years old tea would simply prove to be rotten, of course. It will surely be interesting to follow up this question and keep watching those few Pu Erh teas I keep in store right now and whose actual age is known to me. So, it might be advisable not to finish our Pu Erh cakes, bricks and loose leaf teas – especially sheng Pu Erh’s, but also shu Pu Erh’s – at once, but keep them instead and drink them over time to see how they develop.

The author himself, at the time of this publication, has discarded each theoretical approach to the degustation and evaluation of Pu Erh tea, at least for the time being, and has instead decided to judge especially Pu Erh tea on no other basis than his own taste and to mainly classify the same on the said one-dimensional scale somewhere between “delicious” and “not delicious”. However, my experience with tea in general so far tells me that it is entirely possible that the consequent pursuance of this approach in the long run could very well return insights that might eventually lead to the gradual modification, further development and diversification of that approach. Altogether, the world of Pu Erh tea is offering tea lovers, including myself, a more than rich world that will certainly prove worth exploring.

Ripened Lincang (shu) Pu erh tea in preparation