Pu-erh tea can be purchased as either raw/green (sheng) or ripened/cooked (shou), depending on processing method or aging. Sheng pu-erh can be roughly classified on the tea oxidation scale as a green tea, and the shou variant as post-fermented tea. The fact that pu-erh fits in more than one tea type poses some problems for classification. For this reason, the "green tea" aspect of pu-erh is sometimes ignored, and the tea is regarded solely as a post-fermented product. Unlike other teas that should ideally be consumed shortly after production, pu-erh can be drunk immediately or aged for many years; pu-erh teas are often now classified by year and region of production much like wine vintages.
While there are many counterfeit pu-erhs on the market and real aged pu-erh is difficult to find and identify, it is still possible to find pu-erh that is 10 to 50 years old, as well as a few from the late Qing dynasty. Indeed, tea connoisseurs and speculators are willing to pay high prices for older pu-erh, upwards of thousands of dollars per cake.
Pu-erh tea is available as loose leaf or as cakes of compacted tea (see Tea brick).
Pu-erh is well known for the fact that it is a compressed tea and also that it typically ages well to produce a pleasant drink. Through storage, the tea typically takes on a darker colour and mellower flavour characteristics. Often pu-erh leaves are compressed into tea cakes or bricks, and are wrapped in various materials, which when stored away from excessive moisture, heat, and sunlight help to mature the tea. Pressing of pu-erh into cakes and aging the tea cakes possibly originated from the natural aging process that happened in the storerooms of tea drinkers and merchants, as well as on horseback caravans on the Ancient tea route (茶馬古道; pinyin: chámǎ gǔdaò) that was used in ancient Yunnan to trade tea to Tibet and more northern parts of China. Compression of the tea into dense bulky objects likely eased horseback transport and reduced damage to the tea.
While unaged and unprocessed raw pu-erh is technically a type of green tea, ripened or aged raw pu-erh has occasionally been mistakenly categorised as a subcategory of black tea due to the dark red colour of its leaves and liquor. However, pu-erh in both its ripened or aged forms has undergone secondary oxidization and fermentation caused both by organisms growing in the tea as well as from free-radical oxidation, thus making it a unique type of tea.
In China, where fully-oxidised tea ("black tea") is known as "red tea," pu-erh is indeed classified as a "black tea" (defined as post-fermented), something which is resented by some who argue for a separate category for pu-erh as most other black teas tend to be of low standard and status.
The leaves are then dry pan-fried using a large wok in a process called "kill green" (殺青; pinyin: shā qīng), which arrests enzyme activity in the leaf and prevents further oxidation. With enzymatic oxidation halted, the leaves can then be rolled, rubbed, and shaped through several steps into strands. The shaped leaves are then ideally dried in the sun and then manually picked through to remove bad leaves. Once dry, máochá can be sent directly to the factory to be pressed into raw pu-erh, or to undergo further processing to make ripened pu-erh. Sometimes maocha is aged uncompressed and sold at its maturity as aged loose-leaf raw pu-erh.
Raw pu-erh tea (or ), also known as "uncooked pu-erh" or "green pu-erh," is simply máochá tea leaves that have been compressed into its final form without additional processing.
Ripened pu-erh tea is pressed maocha that has been specially processed to imitate aged raw pu-erh. Although it is more commonly known as "cooked pu-erh," the process does not actually employ cooking to imitate the aging process. The term may come about due to inaccurate transliteration due to the dual meaning of "shoú" (熟) as both "fully cooked" and "fully ripened" .
The process used to convert máochá into ripened pu-erh is a recent invention that manipulates conditions to approximate the result of the aging process by prolonged bacterial and fungal fermentation in a warm humid environment under controlled conditions, a technique called wòdūi (渥堆, "wet piling" in English), which involves piling, dampening, and turning the tea leaves in a manner much akin to composting.
The piling, wetting, and mixing of the piled máochá ensures even fermentation. The bacterial and fungal cultures found in the fermenting piles were found to vary widely from factory to factory throughout Yunnan, consisting of multiple strains of Aspergillus spp., Penicillium spp., yeasts, as well as wide range of other microflora. Control over the multiple variables in the ripening process, particularly humidity and the growth of Aspergillus spp., is key in producing ripened pu-erh of high quality. Poor control in fermentation/oxidation process can result in bad ripened pu-erh, characterized by badly decomposed leaves and an aroma and texture reminiscent of compost. The ripening process typically takes anywhere from half a year to one year after it has begun. As such, a ripened pu-erh produced in early 2004 will be pressed in the winter of 2004/2005, and appear on the market between late 2005 or early 2006.
This process was first developed in 1972 by Menghai Tea Factory and Kunming Tea Factory to imitate the flavor and color of aged raw pu-erh. This technique was an adaptation of "wet storage" techniques that were being used by merchants to falsify the age of their teas. Mass production of ripened pu-erh began in 1975. It can be consumed without further aging, though it can also be stored to "air out" some of the less savory flavors and aromas acquired during fermentation. The tea is often compressed but is also common in loose form. Some collectors of pu-erh believe that ripened pu-erh should not be aged for more than a decade.
To produce pu-erh many additional steps are needed prior to the actual pressing of the tea. First, a specific quantity of dry máochá or ripened tea leaves pertaining to the final weight of the bingcha is weighed out. The dry tea is then lightly steamed in perforated cans to soften and make it more tacky. This will allow it to hold together and not crumble during compression. A ticket, called a "Nèi fēi" (内飞) or additional adornments, such as coloured ribbons, are placed on or in the midst of the leaves and inverted into a cloth bag or wrapped in cloth. The pouch of tea is gathered inside the cloth bag and wrung into a ball, with the extra cloth tied or coiled around itself. This coil or knot is what produces the dimpled indentation at the reverse side of a tea cake when pressed. Depending on the shape of pu-erh being produced, a cotton bag may or may not be used. For instance, brick or square teas often are not compressed using bags.
Depending on the desired product and speed, from quickest and tightest to slowest and loosest, pressing can either be done by:
Pressed pu-erh is removed from the cloth bag and placed on latticed shelves where they are allowed to air dry, which depending on the wetness of the pressed cakes may take several weeks or months. The pu-erh cakes are then individually wrapped by hand, and packaged in larger units for trade or commerce.
|Image||Common name||Chinese characters||Pinyin||Description|
|Bing, Beeng, Cake, or Disc||饼茶||餅茶||Bǐngchá||A round, flat, disc or hockey puck-shaped tea. Size ranges from as small as 100g to as large as 5 kg or more, with 357g, 400g, and 500g being the most common. Depending on the pressing method, the edge of the disk can be rounded or perpendicular. Also commonly known as Qīzí bǐngchá (七子餅茶, literally "Seven units cake tea") because seven of the bing are packaged together at a time for sale or transport.|
|Tuocha, Bowl, or Nest||沱茶||沱茶||Tuóchá||A convex knob-shaped tea with size ranging from 3g to 3 kg or more, with 100g, 250g, 500g being the most common. The name for "tuocha" is believed to have originated from the round, top-like shape of the pressed tea or from the old tea shipping and trading route of the Tuojiang River. In ancient times, tuocha cakes may have had holes punched through the center so that they could be tied together on a rope for easy transport.|
|Brick||砖茶||磚茶||Zhuānchá||A thick rectangular block of tea, usually in 100g, 250g, 500g, and 1000g sizes. Zhuancha bricks are the traditional shape that was used for ease of transport along the Ancient tea route by horse caravans.|
|Square||方茶||方茶||Fāngchá||A flat square of tea, usually in 100g or 200g sizes. They often contain words that are pressed into the square.|
|Mushroom||紧茶||緊茶||Jǐnchá||Literally meaning "tight tea," the tea is shaped much like túocha, but with a stem rather than a convex hollow. This makes them quite similar in form to a mushroom. Pu-erh tea of this shape is generally produced for Tibetan consumption, and is usually 250g or 300g.|
|Melon, or Gold melon||金瓜||金瓜||Jīnguā||A shape similar to tuóchá, but larger in size with a much thicker body that is decorated with pumpkin-like "stripes". This shape was created for the famous "Tribute tea" (貢茶) that was made expressly for the Qing Dynasty Emperors from the best tea leaves of Yiwu Mountain. Larger specimens of this shape are sometimes called "Human-head tea" (人頭茶) due in part to its size and shape, as well as the fact that in the past it was often presented in court in a similar manner to severed heads.|
Pu-erh can be green teas if they are lightly processed before being pressed into cakes. Such pu-erh is referred to as maocha if unpressed and as "green/raw pu-erh" if pressed. While not always palatable, they are relatively cheap and are known to age well for up to 20 or 30 years. Pu-erh can also be a fermented tea if it undergoes slow processing with fermenting microbes for up to a year. This pu-erh is referred to as "ripened/cooked pu-erh", and has a mellow flavour and is readily drinkable. Aged pu-erhs are secondary-oxidation and post-fermentation teas. If aged from green pu-erh, the aged tea will be mellow in taste but still clean in flavour.
According to the production process, four main types of pu-erh are commonly available on the market:
In the Qing dynasty government records for pu-erh (普洱府志), the oldest historically designated mountains were said to be named after six commemorative items that were left in the mountains by Zhuge Liang, and using the Chinese characters of the native language of the region. These mountains are all located northeast of the Lancang River (Mekong) in relatively close proximity to one another. The mountains' names, in the Standard Mandarin character pronunciation are:
Southwest of the river there are also six famous tea mountains that are lesser known from ancient times due to their isolation by the river. They are:
For various reasons, by the end of the Qing dynasty or beginning of the ROC period, tea production in these mountains dropped drastically, either due to large forest fires, over-harvesting, prohibitive imperial taxes, or general neglect. To revitalize tea production in the area, the Chinese government in 1962 selected a new group of six famous tea mountains that were named based on the more important tea producing mountains at the time, including Youle mountain from the original six.
Region is but one factor in assessing a pu-erh tea, and pu-erh from any region of Yunnan is as prized as any from the six famous tea mountains if it meets other criteria, such as being wild growth, hand-processed tea.
Determining whether or not a tea is wild is a challenging task, made more difficult through the inconsistent and unclear terminology and labeling in Chinese. Terms like yěshēng (野生; literally "wild" or "uncultivated"), qiáomù (乔木; literally "tall tree"), yěshēng qiáomù (野生乔木; literally "uncultivated trees"), and gǔshù are found on the labels of cakes of both wild and "wild arbor" variety, and on blended cakes, which contain leaves from tea plants of various cultivations. These inconsistent and often misleading labels can easily confuse uninitiated tea buyers regardless of their grasp of the Chinese language. As well, the lack of specific information about tea leaf sources in the printed wrappers and identifiers that come with the pu-erh cake makes identification of the tea a difficult task. Pu-erh journals and similar annual guides such as The Profound World of Chi Tse, Pu-erh Yearbook, and Pu-erh Teapot Magazine contain credible sources for leaf information. Tea factories are generally honest about their leaf sources, but someone without access to tea factory or other information is often at the mercy of the middlemen or an unscrupulous vendor. Many pu-erh aficionados seek out and maintain relationships with vendors who they feel they can trust to help mitigate the issue of finding the "truth" of the leaves.
Sadly, even in the best of circumstances, when a journal, factory information, and trustworthy vendor all align to assure a tea's genuinely wild leaf, fakes fill the market and make the issue even more complicated. Because collectors often doubt the reliability of written information, some believe certain physical aspects of the leaf can point to its cultivation. For example, drinkers cite the evidence of a truly wild old tree in a menthol effect ("camphor" in tea specialist terminology) supposedly caused by the Camphor laurel trees that grow amongst wild tea trees in Yunnan's tea forests. As well, the presence of thick veins and sawtooth-edged on the leaves along with camphor flavor elements and taken as signifiers of wild tea.
Factories are generally responsible for the production of pu-erh teas. While some individuals oversee smaller higher-end productions, such as the Xizihao and Yanqinghao brands, the majority of tea on the market is compressed by factories or tea groups. Until recently, factories were all state owned and under the supervision of the China National Native Produce & Animal Byproducts Import & Export company (CNNP), Yunnan Branch. Kunming Tea Factory, Menghai Tea Factory, Pu'er Tea Factory and Xiaguan Tea Factory are the most notable of these state owned factories. While CNNP still operates today, few factories are state-owned, and CNNP contracts out many productions to privately owned factories.
Different tea factories have garnered good reputations. Menghai Tea Factory and Xiaguan Tea Factory, which date from the 1940s, have enjoyed good reputations, but these factories now face competition from many of the newly emerging private factories. For example, Haiwan Tea Factory, founded by former Menghai Factory owner Zhou Bing Liang in 1999, enjoys a good reputation, as does Changtai Tea Group, Mengku Tea Company, and other new tea makers formed in the 1990s. However, due to production inconsistencies and variations in manufacturing techniques, the reputation of a tea company or factory can vary depending on the year or the specific cakes produced during a year.
The producing factory is often the first or second item listed when referencing a pu-erh cake, the other being the year of production.
Factory numbers (fourth digit in recipe):
Tea of all shapes can be made by numbered recipe. Not all recipes are numbered, and not all cakes are made by recipe. The term "recipe," it should be added, does not always indicate consistency, as the quality of some recipes change from year-to-year, as do the contents of the cake. Perhaps only the factories producing the recipes really know what makes them consistent enough to label by these numbers.
Occasionally, a three digit code is attached to the recipe number by hyphenation. The first digit of this code represents the year the cake was produced, and the other two numbers indicate the production number within that year. For instance, the seven digit sequence 8653-602, would indicate the second production in 2006 of factory recipe 8653. Some productions of cakes are valued over others because production numbers can indicate if a tea was produced earlier or later in a season/year. This information allows one to be able to single out tea cakes produced using a better batch of máochá.
Pu-erh tea cakes, or Bĭngchá, are almost always sold with a:
Recently, nèi fēi have become more important in identifying and preventing counterfeits. Menghai Tea Factory in particular has begun microprinting and embossing their tickets in an effort to curb the growth of counterfeit teas found in the marketplace in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some nèi fēi also include vintage year and are production-specific to help identify the cake and prevent counterfeiting through a surfeit of different brand labels.
Twelve tŏng are referred to as being one jiàn (件), although some producers/factories vary how many tŏng equal one jiàn. A jiàn of tea, which is bound together in a loose bamboo basket, will usually have a large batch ticket (大票; pinyin: dàpiào) affixed to its side that will indicate information such as the batch number of the tea in a season, the production quantities, tea type, and the factory where it was produced.
Just as important and the tea's properties, environmental factors for the tea's storage also affect how quickly and successfully a tea ages. They include:
When preserved as part of a tong, the material of the tong wrapper, whether it is made of bamboo shoot husks, bamboo leaves, or thick paper, can also affect the quality of the aging process. The packaging methods change the environmental factors and may even contribute to the taste of the tea itself.
Further to what has been mentioned it should be stressed that a good well-aged Puerh tea is not evaluated by its age alone. Like all things in life, there will come a time when a Puerh teacake reaches its peak before stumbling into a decline. Due to the many recipes and different processing method used in the production of different batches of Puerh, the optimal age for each age will vary. Some may take 10 years while others 20 or 30+ years. It is important to check the status of ageing for your teacakes to know when they peaked so that proper care can be given to halt the ageing process.
Raw pu-erh can undergo "wet storage" (shīcāng, 湿仓) and "dry storage" (gāncāng 干仓), with teas that have undergone the latter being much more desirable. Dry storage involves keeping the tea in "comfortable" temperature and humidity, thus allowing the aging process to occur slowly. Wet storage involves spraying the tea with water and allowing it dry off in a humid environment. This process speeds up oxidation and microbial conversion, which only loosely mimics the quality of natural dry storage aged pu-erh. Wet storage pu-erh not only does not acquire the nuances of slow aging, it can also be hazardous to drink because of mold, yeast, and bacteria cultures.
Pu-erh properly stored in different environments can develop different tastes at different rates due to environmental differences in ambient humidity, temperature, and odours. For instance, similar batches of pu-erh stored in the different environments of Taiwan and Hong Kong are known to age very differently. Because the process of aging pu-erh is a lengthy one and teas may change owners several times, a batch of pu-erh may undergo different aging conditions, even swapping wet and dry storage conditions, which can drastically alter the flavor of that tea. Raw pu-erh should not be stored at very high temperatures, or be exposed to direct contact with sunlight, heavy air flow, liquid water, or unpleasant smells, since such poor storage conditions can ruin even the best quality pu-erh.
Although low to moderate air flow is important for producing a good quality aged raw pu-erh, it is generally agreed by most collectors and connoisseurs that raw pu-erh tea cakes older than 30 years old should not be further exposed to "open" air since it would result in the loss of flavours or degradation in mouthfeel. The tea should instead be preserved by wrapping or hermetically sealing it in plastic wrapping or ideally glass.
It is often recommended to age ripened pu-erh to "air out" the unpleasant musty flavours and odours formed due to maocha fermentation. However, some collectors argue that keeping ripened pu-erh longer than 10 to 15 years makes little sense, stating that the tea will not develop further and possibly lose its desirable flavours. Others note that their experience has taught them that ripened pu-erh indeed does take on nuances through aging, and point to side-by-side taste comparisons of ripened pu-erh of different ages. Though the storing period increases the value of the tea, it is not often that such actions will be taken as it is not economically efficient.
Pu-erh is generally expected to be served Gongfu style, generally in Yixing teaware or in a type of Chinese teacup called a gaiwan. Optimum temperatures are generally regarded to be around 95 degree Celsius for lower quality pu-erhs and 85-89 degree Celsius for good ripened and aged raw pu-erh. Steeping times last from 12-30 seconds in the first few infusions, up to 2-10 minutes in the last infusions. The prolonged steeping techniques used by some western tea makers can produce dark, bitter, and unpleasant brews. Quality aged pu-erh can yield many more infusions, with different flavour nuances when brewed in the traditional Gong-Fu method.
Because of the prolonged fermentation in ripened pu-erh and slow oxidization of aged raw pu-erh, these teas often lack the bitter, astringent properties of other tea types, and also can be brewed much stronger and repeatedly, with some claiming 20 or more infusions of tea from one pot of leaves. On the other hand, young raw pu-erh is known and expected to be strong and aromatic, yet very bitter and somewhat astringent when brewed, since these characteristics are believed to produce better aged raw pu-erh.
Quality of the tea can be determined through inspecting the dried leaves, the tea liquor, or the spent tea leaves. The "true" quality of a specific batch of pu-erh can ultimately only be revealed when the tea is brewed and tasted. Although, not concrete and sometimes dependent on preference, there are several general indicators of quality:
Pu-erh tea is widely sold as a weight loss tea or used as a main ingredient in such commercially prepared tea mixtures. Though there is as yet no empirically backed evidence as to how pu-erh might facilitate weight loss, there are widely proposed explanations include that the tea increases the drinker's metabolism, or that the high tannin content in the tea binds macronutrients and coagulate digestive enzymes, thus reducing nutrient absorption. Although evidence is still sparse, it has been shown that rats experience reduction in body weight, blood triglycerides, and blood cholesterol following a diet containing pu-erh tea.
Some pu-erh brick tea has been found to contain very high levels of fluorine, because it is generally made from lesser quality older tea leaves and stems, which accumlulate fluorine. Its consumption has led to fluorosis (a form of fluoride poisoning that affects the bones and teeth) in areas of high brick tea consumption, such as Tibet.
The common misconception is that all types of pu-erh tea will improve in taste -- and therefore get more valuable as an investment item -- as they get older. There are many requisite variables for a pu-erh tea to age beautifully. Further, the cooked (shou) pu-erh will not evolve as dramatically as the raw (sheng) type will over time from the secondary oxidation and fermentation.
As in wine, only the finely made and properly stored ones will improve and increase in value. And as in wine, the percentage of those that will improve over a long period of time is only a small fraction of what is available in the market today.
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