In honor of our Puer tea class tomorrow morning (August 18th), we thought you might want to know a little more about the oft-misunderstood category of tea called Puer (also Pu’er, Pu’erh, or Pu-er). Just like White Tea, Green Tea, Black Tea, Oolong Tea, and Yellow Tea, there is also Puer Tea. It is a style of tea into itself and therefore can contain quite a lot of variation between one puer and another.
In China, Puer (普洱茶) is a regional appellation restricted (at least officially) to the region of southern Yunnan province near the border of Myanmar and Laos. It is actually a sub-category of the style of tea known as “dark tea” or Hei Cha (黑茶) which is any “post fermented” tea. Hei Cha is rarely discussed outside of China, however, as the popularity of Puer has far eclipsed the few other styles of Hei Cha that exist (see our Liu Bao for one such tea) just as the popularity of Champagne in the West has all but replaced discussion of “Sparkling Wine”, even though Champagne is a region.
“Post fermentation” is a difficult term to pin down. The real difference between Puer and its cousins is the aging process of the leaves. It is the only style of tea that gets better as it gets older (assuming ideal storage conditions). The processing of Puer is actually fairly simple compared to teas such as Taiwanese oolongs. First the leaves are sun-dried and withered, much like the beginning of a White tea. With the help of added heating in a wok, this process “fixes” the leaf, stopping the oxidation process (note that the Chinese always translate oxidation as “fermentation”, even though this is an enzymatic reaction). The resulting silver-and-green leaves are called “Mao Cha” (毛茶) and are quite drinkable, infusing much like a Green tea.
Afterward, the Mao Cha is usually gently steamed, pressed into cakes or bricks, and then aged in dry or slightly humid conditions for a period of time determined by the tea master. During the aging process, microorganisms change the leaf and bring forth the typical earthy-sweet flavors of a Puer tea, while reducing any sharp bitter tastes. Over time (typically 10-30 years) the matured cake can produce a dark and comforting infusion that has no astringency at all. This kind of Puer is called Sheng Cha (生茶), meaning “raw tea”.
Before the 1970s, Sheng Cha was the only kind of Puer that existed. There was not much of an export market because of how long it took to produce a cake with an ideal flavor. Some young Shengs can be quite delicious, but it is generally thought that Puer should have a few years on it at least. At some point, though, the tea masters of Kunming discovered a process being used in nearby Guangxi province that produced a rich and dark leaf with less than a year of aging. The secret was a damp pile-fermentation much like the process of composting, but very strictly controlled in temperature and humidity to prevent the tea leaves from rotting. The result was bricks of tea that were delicious nearly instantly after production. These teas were dubbed Shou Cha (熟茶) meaning “ripe tea” and the process was quickly replicated in Yunnan province.
Shou puer (sometimes mis-translated as “cooked tea”) still improves with age, but has different flavors that are more fresh soil-like than its Sheng counterparts. One other advantage of the Puer leaf is that both types of this tea can be infused many more times than almost any other tea in existence. One chunk of good Shou puer can make 15-20 infusions before losing its flavors.
If you’d like to know more about Puer or taste some fantastic examples, just ask one of our Tea Devotees or browse our menu.