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Introduction

All types of pu-erh tea are created from máochá(), a mostly unoxidized green tea processed from a "large leaf" variety of Camellia sinensis found in the mountains of southern Yunnan. Maocha can undergo "ripening" for several months prior to being compressed to produce ripened pu-erh (also commonly known as "cooked pu-erh"), or be directly compressed to produce raw pu-erh.

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.

It is important to note that Pu-erh tea can come from different cultivation methods:

  • Plantation bushes (taídì, ): Cultivated tea bushes, from the seeds or cuttings of wild tea trees and planted in relatively low altitudes and flatter terrain. The tea produced from these plants are considered inferior due to the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer in cultivation, and the lack of pleasant flavours, and the presence of harsh bitterness and astringency from the tea. Popular taidi tea include Menghai's 7542 and 7572 tea.
  • "Cultivated arbor" trees (qiaomù 乔木 , guànmù, 灌木), which in recent times are considered equivalent to plantation bushes.

  • "Wild arbor" trees (yěfàng, 野放): Most producers claim that their pu-erh is from wild trees, but most use leaves from older plantations that were cultivated in previous generations that have gone feral due to the lack of care. These trees produce teas of better flavour due to the higher levels of secondary metabolite produced in the tea tree. As well, the trees are typically cared for using organic practices, which includes the scheduled pruning of the trees in a manner similar to pollarding. Despite the good quality of their produced teas, "wild arbor" trees are not as prized as the truly wild trees.

  • Wild trees (gŭshù, ; literally "old tree"): Teas from old wild trees, grown without human intervention, are the highest valued pu-erh teas. Such teas are valued for having deeper and more complex flavors, often with camphor or "mint" notes, said to be imparted by the many camphor trees that grow in the same environment as the wild tea trees. Young raw pu-erh teas produced from the leaf tips of these trees also lack overwhelming astringency and bitterness often attributed to young pu-erh.

In fact, when people ask me why I drink puerh instead of other teas like english breakfast tea, green or oolong tea. I tell them that unlike all other teas, puerh grows on trees, really old trees. This has got to do with connecting with the earth, mother nature and the environment.

Raw pu-erh and Máochá

After picking appropriate tender leaves, the first step in making raw or ripened pu-erh is converting the leaf to máochá ( or ; literally, "light green rough tea" or "rough tea" respectively). Plucked leaves are handled gingerly to prevent bruising and unwanted oxidation. Weather permitting, the leaves are then spread out in the sun or a ventilated space to wilt and remove some of the water content. On overcast or rainy days, the leaves will be wilted by light heating, a slight difference in processing that will affect the quality of the resulting maocha and pu-erh. The wilting process may be skipped altogether depending on the tea processor.

The leaves are then dry pan-fried using a large wok in a process called "kill green" (; 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 (Chinese: pinyin: shēngchá or Chinese: pinyin: qīngchá), 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.

Ripe pu-erh

Ripened pu-erh tea (Chinese: pinyin: shúchá) 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 "shú" (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 (, "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.

Most information from Wikipedia.

Last update: Sunday, July 4, 2010 12:10 PM

Copyright 2010, 2011 Nicolas Tang