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Basics of Puerh tea...

by Brett P Holmes January 08, 2015

A great question from John, which I felt necessary to post:

Q: "I am interested in trying some Puerh, but wanted to learn a bit more about it. Could you give me some more information? I love earthly green and black teas, but I am a little weary of stepping into the Puerh! Any information you could provide would be a huge help!"

A: Hi John,

Thanks for reaching out!  Very glad to help and I'd love to share some thoughts on Puerh with you...
 
It's a totally confusing classification of tea, so my apologies in advance for how much I dive into this topic.  There's a lot of misinformation and conflicting facts/opinions, but hopefully this helps!
 
Well, first off, by the Chinese definition: Puerh is simply tea that comes from a certain region in Yunnan, China.  Like Champagne, true Puerh tea must come from this geographical area.  Puerh is also a larger-leaf variety of tea, which grows on a tree.  Technically, it is known as camellia sinensis assamica.  This is unlike most Chinese teas, which have smaller leaves, are harvested on a bush, and are known as "China bush" tea, or camellia sinensis sinensis.  Pretty much all of the tea from eastern China, Taiwan, and Japan are of the bush variety.
 
Traditionally, Puerh tea was processed exactly like a green tea and then pressed into cakes, bricks, and various shapes for mule transport through the mountains to Tibet, Nepal, etc.  What was discovered on the way, since the journey took quite a long time, was that the tea aged and mellowed with time.  Since the larger-leaf teas tend to have bold, astringent flavors fresh off of the tree, these teas that originally had quite a "bite" to them, were softer, more complex, and more pleasing to the average palate.  Thus, ageing tea was born!
 
As the practice carried on, and aged teas gained popularity (and value), it became popular in wealthy regions like Taiwan and Hong Kong to collect, store, and stock up on Puerh tea from Yunnan.  Locally, however, the producers of tea in Yunnan were not accustomed to this practice and couldn't afford to store or collect tea.  They simply drank it fresh, and they still do.
 
Now... since prices of Puerh began rising and ordinary people couldn't afford to drink aged tea, the Chinese government, around the late 1960's or so, began developing ways to "speed up" the ageing process.  Essentially, what they were attempting to do, is artificially replicate the affect of aged tea, in a much shorter time period.  The result is what we call shou, or shu, Puerh, perhaps best known in English as "ripe Puerh".  Most people's first taste of Puerh is a ripe one, which by its very intention and nature, is cheaper and more available.  Generally, ripe Puerh has a very dark color and tastes more earthy and mossy.  It has little to no caffeine (contrary to misinformed belief), as it is often consumed prior to bedtime in China.
 
ON the contrary, traditional puerh, which is either consumed fresh, or aged in the natural way, is called sheng puerh, or "raw Puerh".  This is the purest, and of course more expensive, type of Puerh that is widely collected, traded, and gifted in wealthier parts of China.  While people will age "ripe Puerh" too, it doesn't change the flavor as much as a good "raw Puerh", which mellows and evolves with time.  Raw puerh is often more astringent, has more caffeine and natural stimulating qualities, and carries the classic honey/wheat/straw type of flavor notes of large-leaf Puerh.  Locals usually consume it earlier in the day, but not on an empty stomach!  These might remind of a bold green tea, with a noticeably more earthy element to them...
 
Well, before I go on and on, what does all of this mean for the modern tea drinker?  Well, you basically have 2 totally different types of Puerh: "ripe", or shou and "raw", or sheng.  They are grouped under the same category of "Puerh", but in reality, they are very different.  If you like earthier green teas and black teas, I would probably recommend trying a fresh, raw leaf to see what you think.  By "fresh", I mean harvested within the last 5 years or so....  Some of the raw puerhs that we carry are those that I drink every single day.  I've replaced coffee completely, because they can be bold and infused over and over again.  
 
I hope that this helps as a starting point...  As in all case, the more we sip, the more we come to know and enjoy it!
 
All the best,
BRETT
Founder, Tribute Tea Co.

 




Brett P Holmes
Brett P Holmes

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24-50 cups

50-100 cups

200-400 cups

*often depending on the technique of the tea master, time per infusion, and thirst of the drinkers