Drink Magazine

The Uniqueness of Puer Tea

By Dchew78 @peonyts

If you are the type who seeks an unconventional, against-the-norm type of tea, Puer is probably your best bet.

How unique is it?

In a league of its own

Many scholars argue for Puer- at least Sheng Puer- to be classified as a category of its own.

Presently it is classified as dark tea- or heicha (黑茶) which I would argue is only applicable for Shu Pu since Sheng Pu doesn’t undergo the crucial stage known as ‘wo dui’ that characterizes dark teas.

The Uniqueness of Puer Tea
It would be closest to classify sheng Puer as aged green tea since it undergoes the same basic steps, namely ‘Shaqing’, rolling and drying (see here).

However, not all green teas can be aged. In fact most green tea just tastes stale and undrinkable with age.

It is not cast in stone which teas can be aged well but generally it includes these criteria:

i)   Yunnan Dayezhong (云南大叶种) cultivar

ii)   Sun-dried or shaiqing (晒青) as opposed to wok-roasting or chaoqing (炒青) and baking or hong qing (烘青)

iii)   Aged with sufficient humidity and oxygen

iv)   Aged about 5 years and above

v)   Proper storage

In short, since sheng Pu is not processed like heicha nor are all ‘aged’ green teas sheng pu, it should be placed in a category of its own.

What’s in a name?

As mentioned in this article, Puer is broadly split in sheng (raw) and shu (ripe) Puer. Prior to the 1970s, sheng refers to Puer that has not been aged while shu refers to properly aged sheng.

In 1973 though, a team from Menghai Tea Factory led by Zou Bin Liang used ‘wodui’ to mimic the aging. Subsequently ‘wodui’ Puer became known as shu Pu while sheng began to be referred to as ‘young sheng’ (which is a redundancy- young raw) and ‘aged sheng’ (which is an oxy-moron- aged raw).

Drink it like a local- not

The Uniqueness of Puer Tea
We advocate drinking the way the locals do. That means oolong in gongfu cha style, Minnan black tea in a gaiwan, green tea in either a glass or a gaiwan and Japanese sencha with a kyushu pot and so forth.

The reason is simple, for tea producing nations where tea is primarily consumed locally the manufacture of the tea was done to be optimized in line with their local habits. Try brewing oolong tea ‘Western style’ and you get an insipid brew instead of the delightful joy of true oolong tea.

However, Puer defy convention in that I would make the case that Puer shines best in gongfu tea brewing style- most notably due to the folks in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Gongfu tea is best for extracting the nuances of Puer over numerous infusions, detecting the subtle changes from brew to brew.

A Lack of Hometown Bias

The Uniqueness of Puer Tea
Like prophets, the honor of Puer is often greater away from home.

In fact, if you are buying aged sheng Puer, the best are often not found in Kunming or any part of Yunnan. You have better odds going to Guangzhou, Hong Kong or further to Malaysia or Singapore.

This is due to the natural humidity of the aforementioned climates that makes it an ideal ground for aging Puer. A ten year old sheng Puer aged in Beijing for example would taste remarkably young.

This is why enthusiasts often construct humidors or ‘pumidors’ as some like to call it to mimic the humidity that Southern China and South East Asian nations enjoy naturally.

*Note that must be the first and last time I use ‘enjoy’ in relation to humidity*

What’s good now may not be good later

One of the greatest problems facing Puer lovers is this- how do I know which teas will age gracefully.

Possibly the biggest mistake of buying young sheng is to pick something that is sweet and smooth, expecting it to develop into something amazing later. Do read MarshalN’s note on this.

That is not to say that teas that taste horrible today will develop into something amazing a few years down the road but the characteristics of teas that age gracefully are different from its current taste.

Things like ‘chaqi’, ‘huigan’ are among the things that one should look for- part of the reason why I constantly deemphasize the importance of taste.

A contrasting TCM nature

In its original form, tea is ‘damp’ and ‘cooling’ according to TCM nomenclature. However due to the process of fermentation (as opposed to oxidation), aged Puer becomes ‘warming’.

This makes it ideal for older folks who might have weaker constitutions in general.  When I first starting drinking ‘proper’ tea many years ago, green tea was an integral part of my diet but with age I find myself substituting Puer for green tea very often.

I hope by now I piqued your interest to pick up the old Puer needle or knife and pry some bits off your cake!

See more articles on Tea Appreciation here

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