We Reveal the Mystery of Pu-erh

pu-erh shapesWhat is Pu-erh?
Pu-erh Classifications
How to evaluate Pu-erh?
How to store Pu-erh?
How to prepare for brewing Pu-erh?

What is Pu-erh?

According to Pu-erh Yunnan Local Standard, "Pu-erh tea is a type of post-fermented tea that is processed using sun-dried large-leaf tea leaves from certain areas in Yunnan. Pu-erh tea can be divided into two categories: loose and compressed. Pu-erh tea has the following characteristics: brownish red dry leaves, clear bright reddish tea liquor, aged woody aroma, mellow with sweet after taste flavor, and brownish red color wet leaves."

Pu-erh Classifications

Generally speaking, Pu-erh tea is processed through the following steps: fresh tea leaves become Mao Cha (prototype tea) after Sha Qing (killing out), Kneading and Rolling, and Drying. Mao Cha is then post-fermented through dry storage natural aging, wet storage fast aging, or Wo Dui (wet pileup) fermentation.

Pu-erh can be classified in four different ways:

Based on production period
Ancient Pu-erh - They were produced before Qing Dynasty, and were mostly in compressed shapes.
Modern Pu-erh - They were produced in the period of post Qing Dynasty to the 70's, and were in both loose and compressed shapes.
Contemporary Pu-erh - They were produced after the 70's, and were post fermented through dry storage natural aging, wet storage fast aging or scientific speeding aging (Wo Dui).

Based on shapes
Loose Pu-erh - They maintain the original loose shape of Mao Cha.
Compressed Pu-erh - They can be compressed into many different shapes. Some traditional shapes include: round cake, mushroom, brick, mellon, calabash, etc.

Based on tea characters
Sheng (raw, green) Pu-erh - There are two types of Sheng Pu-erh. One is not completely post-fermented Mao Cha, such as young green Pu-erh. The other one is Mao Cha that is completely post-fermented through dry storage natural aging. For a Sheng Pu-erh, the longer it is aged, the more complete its polyphenol saccharomyces and non-saccharomyces oxidations are.
Shou (ripe, black) Pu-erh - In a broad concept, Shou Pu-erh can be further classified into two different groups based on storage condition and post-fermentation process: Wo Dui Pu-erh and wet storage Pu-erh. In a narrow concept, however, Shou Pu-erh only include Wo Dui Pu-erh. Wo Dui Pu-erh is post-fermented by speeding up the automatic non-saccharomyces oxidation through scientifically controlling humidity and heat. As a result, green odor and bitter and astringent tastes are removed, and the tea tastes mellow. More discussions on this type of Pu-erh can be found on our Tea Talk Blog.

Based on post-fermentation techniques
Dry Storage Naturally Aged Pu-erh - They are not scientifically speedy aged. They are stored in less than 80% relative humidity environment and naturally aged through the tea leaves' own respiratory effects.
Wet Storage Pu-erh - Wet storage is to store Sheng Pu-erh, Mao Cha (compressed later), or scientifically Wo Dui aged Pu-erh in a more than 80% relative humidity environment in order to speed up the aging. This post-fermentation is also called "aspergillus post-fermentation". We do not carry this type of Pu-erh as they are not healthy to drink.
Wo Dui Pu-erh - Wo Dui is to pile up a ladder shaped tea pile with loose Mao Cha (mostly Summer harvest), then spray water onto the tea pile, and let the natural temperature of the tea pile to trigger the post-fermentation. More discussions on this type of Pu-erh can be found on our Tea Talk Blog.

How to evaluate Pu-erh?

A Pu-erh normally can be evaluated from five aspects: dry appearance, liquor color, aroma, taste, and wet leaves.

Dry Appearance - Leaves of a dry storage Pu-erh are tight and heavy and have blooming color. Leaves of a wet storage Pu-erh, on the other hand, are loose and have dull color.
Liquor - Liquor of an aged dry storage Pu-erh is in bright chestnut red color. Liquor of a 70-80 year or older Pu-erh is in oily deep chestnut color and has a golden ring (Bao Guang). Liquor of wet storage Pu-erh is in dull chestnut red or soy sauce black color, has no golden ring, and looks muddy.
Aroma - Pu-erh can have many different aroma. Good quality Pu-erh may have orchid, lotus, camphor tree or stale flavor aroma. Low quality Pu-erh may have moldy, rotten wood aroma. Unlike Tie Guan Yin or Dan Cong tea, the aroma of Pu-erh lies in the liquor, hides at the bottom of the tea cup. Therefore, one way to enjoy the aroma of a Pu-erh is to smell the emptied tea cup after first infusion.
Taste - An aged dry storage Pu-erh tastes mellow and smooth. The smooth taste is like that of drinking soy milk.
Wet Leaves - Wet leave colors change from green (new tea) to yellow then chestnut red (aged). However, wet leave color along can not be used to judge a Pu-erh's age. The texture of wet leaves should also be considered. Wet leaves of dry storage Pu-erh are soft, flexible and not rotten. Wet leaves of Wo Dui Pu-erh are dry and hard. Wet leaves of wet storage Pu-er are in dark chestnut red or black color, and are loose and fragile.

How to store Pu-erh?

Pu-erh should be stored in places that have air flow, are clean and cool, without direct sun light and odors. Small quantity Pu-erh can be stored on odorless wood bookshelf. Larger quantity Pu-erh can be stored in ceramic containers. Glazed ceramic container can be covered with a cotton cloth to allow air flow and prevent dust. Porous ceramic container can be covered with a cotton bundle to avoid other odors. Aged Pu-erh and young Pu-erh can be stored together to let them influence each other. Vast amount of Pu-erh can be stored on tea shelfs in designated storage rooms. The storage rooms need to be kept closed with minimum entries. Routine rotations are necessary under this method.

It happens quite often that edges of compressed Pu-erh were aged very well, while centers of the same Pu-erh were not aged enough. Therefore, a compressed Pu-erh can be broken into pieces and stored in a ceramic container for half month before being consumed.

How to prepare for brewing Pu-erh?

Preparing tea
Tea Cakes - Starting from edge of a tea cake, use a knife (bone, bamboo, or metal) to peel off a piece of tea leaves from back of the cake following the natural veins of the leaves. See demo here. Avoid breaking tea leaves. Otherwise, the tea may taste bitterer.
Calabash or mellon shaped Pu-erh - To preserve their look, people normally dig from bottom using special tools such as bone/bamboo/metal knives.
Tuo Cha - Tuo Cha normally is tightly compressed. It can be prepared by the steaming method.

Preparing water
Water is very important in brewing a good cup of tea. Water should be boiled to boiling point in high heat. Never, never use simmer water. Avoid over boiling water. Make sure enough oxygen is left in water. Use ceramic kettle or glass kettle to boil water. Do not use metal kettle (unless those used in Japanese tea ceremony).

Choosing teapots
Generally speaking, a Pu-erh teapot should be a thick wall, rough clay, round ZiSha teapot that allows water to be quickly poured out. For brewing Pu-erh, the teapot should also have a strainer at the mouth. If the teapot is used as a serving pot (Gong Dao Hu), then a small lid teapot that is good at keeping heat and porousness should be used.

More info on Pu-erh can be found in our house tea master, Ms Liu 's new book "Pu-erh Tea Ceremony (ն)". The panel of consultants for this book includes Tei Yamanishi, Kanzo Sakata, Xiangbai Chen, Guofeng Chen (president of Xia Guan Tea Factory), etc. The panel of editors for this book includes Yunjun Chen, Zongmao Chen, etc.

Interested in ordering some Pu-erh? Check out our unique selections of Pu-erh or try out our popular Pu-erh Sample Set.

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