Drink Magazine

Guide to Puer Part I: Sub-categories of Puer

By Dchew78 @peonyts

About 10 years ago when I first received a gift of Puer, I had no idea the massive world that rabbit hole of that innocuous tuocha brought me into.

At that time, Puer was simply Puer to me, the tea that among other things, reminded me more of Dim Sum than anything else. Little did I know like green and oolong tea- Puer represented a never-ending learning odyssey.

This series  is by no means exhaustive- anyone who pretends to be able to write a comprehensive guide for tea obviously doesn’t know enough to realize there’s no end in sight- but it serves as starting point for those venturing in the world of tea.

Let’s start by looking at the sub-categories of Puer

Sheng() vs  shu () Puer

Guide to Puer Part I: Sub-categories of Puer
Basically, all of the thousands of Puer varieties available on the market can be broken down into Sheng or Shu Puer which means ‘raw’ and ‘ripe’ respectively.

Prior to the 70’s, there was only one type of Puer- Sheng while Shu referred to ‘aged Sheng’ Puer. But Sheng Puer was unfit for consumption without at least 3-5 years aging and at that time in line with the economic boom in Hong Kong, producers in Yunnan couldn’t export enough aged Puer.

Kunming Tea Factory then came up with incorporating ‘wodui’ into production of Puer, drawing inspiration from production of Liuan, Hunan, Liubao Heicha.

Subsequently that became known as ‘shu’ Puer or ‘ripe Puer’ while what used to be known as Shu Puer then became known as ‘aged sheng’.

(You can read more about it here)

Hence, while technically the word ‘shu can be pronounced as ‘shou’ which means ‘cooked’, considering that the ‘wodui’ Puer was invented to replicate aged Puer which was then known as ‘shu’, ‘shu’ or ripe would be more appropriate than cooked.

Through age, you can ripe what was raw but aging never cooks anything.

Shapes, shapes all around

At the top level, Shu and Sheng Puer can be sub-divided into loose leaf (散茶) and compressed tea(紧压茶).

Guide to Puer Part I: Sub-categories of Puer
Loose leaf is pretty straightforward it’s basically what every other type of tea is. Buds, flattened leaves, rolled wiry shapes or beaded, these are all known as loose leaf although in practice Puer loose leaf is generally slightly wiry.

Puer is most commonly compressed into ‘discus’ or cakes, bricks, tuocha and any other shapes that the producers fancy.

Cakes are also known as ‘beeng’ or ‘bing’ (饼) and can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty. One of the most common type is a ‘7 son bing’ (七子饼) also known as yuan cha (圆茶) which weighs 357g (more on this in a later post).

If you are storing for the long run- and if you’re buying sheng Puer that is what’s expected- then compressed shapes makes more sense.

Firstly, a cake of Puer is going to take significantly less space than 357g of loose leaf tea. For many a Puer aficionado, they would need a warehouse if their cakes and bricks were stored in loose leaf form.

Secondly, in my opinion compression is better for storage. Because less surface area of tea comes into contact with air- or more accurately oxygen and moisture- the aging is easier to control and becomes more subdued.

‘Dry storage’ versus ‘wet storage’

It is not an Arizona versus Amazon rainforest type of comparison. If dry storage means arid, then essentially the teas wouldn’t have improved significantly no matter how long you store it.

Instead, wet storage is storage in a basement or cellar in a humid environment. This is how it has always been done in Hong Kong- arguably where the modern golden age of Puer begun. This is due to Hong Kong’s seasonal changes and certain months where humidity can drop significantly, hampering the storage.

Dry storage on the other hand is a more natural environment in a ‘normal’ dark room. It is important to note that ‘dry storage’ is not truly dry because the ‘natural’ humidity of the climate needs to be high- I have read 60-70% but I will be surprised if anyone has empirical evidence to back it up- for Puer to age ‘properly’, what with the amount of time and effort versus the tangible returns.

In theory, wet storage yields a smoother and sweeter taste at the expense of lower aroma and a moldy smell.

For more details on this topic read MarshalN’s post on wet storage.

I think don’t I can add much value to what he has already written on this post except to say that there is the concept of ‘tui cang’- i.e. bringing out from wet to dry storage which will dispel the moldy smell and improve the taste.

‘Qiao Mu’(乔木) versus ‘Tai Di Cha’ (台地茶)

Qiao Mu means arbor trees- trees that are above 1.5 meters in height. These are originally grown in a natural environment and allowed to grow to the fullest height.

In this context- qiaomu versus Taidicha essentially means uncut and untrimmed trees that grow to its full height as opposed to trees that are planted on tiers (台阶), much like many cultivated crops and cut to a lower height.

That is not to say all Qiao Mu trees are wild grown or old trees but obviously you wouldn’t expect wild grown or ancient Tai Di Cha.

In future installments we will talk about some of the nomenclature that frequently pops up in Puer circles such as 7542, Dayi, Red Mark and more.

See more articles on overviews of various categories of tea

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