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A Primer on Pu'er

What follows is a quick-start reference guide to pu’er tea. 

The information here was collected during our travels and through working directly with the many, many people involved in making pu’er tea. Emphasis on the many! It took dozens of people—field hands, a team of producers, a small army of wrapping personnel—to make our first line of tea cakes come to life. To help make sense of those and bring clarity to this poorly understood genre of tea, we set out to distill this vast world into a useful, easily understood blog post, and give pu’er the transparency treatment à la Hugo.

All that said, where do we start?

Well, pu’er is a type of tea. It’s made in Yunnan province, China (and the northerly areas of border nations Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam). It’s probably about 2,000 years old, but is at least 1,500 years old, when we have records proving pu’er was traded along the Tea Horse Road, a network of paths connecting Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet. The city of Pu’er (also called Simao) in central Yunnan was the center of this trade, and early on the teas adopted its name. Today, pu’er is much the same: a traded commodity. But its popularity has only grown. So much so that it’s the only tea with enough market influence to have experienced a genuine boom and bust!

A brief history

Pu’er is old—but its cultural evolution is not as well documented as its economic history. What we know is what our producers have shared with us—and we’ll get to all that shortly. There is one piece of pu’er market lore that’s good to know first: the Pu’er Bubble of 2007.

Back in 2006, pu’er was popular. So popular that a factory recipe (recognized blends of pu’er tea from large regional producers) was selling for nearly 2,000 Yuan per kilo (about 300USD). Fancy teas were going for manyfold more, with the price jumping near-daily. The economy of pu’er made millionaires out of its most savvy traders from the spring of ’06 to the spring of ’07. This was a result of speculation—that is, traders, investors and sellers were suddenly driving up the pricepoint of pu’er based on years of market upticking, and further expected (seemingly endless) gains. With the price increasingly out of hand and multiplying on itself rapidly, a “bubble” was formed—that’s when the “value” of a commodity gets so out of hand that the actual value of the thing itself can’t sustain its market value. Then—you guessed it—the bubble burst. Legions of traders went bankrupt, workers all along the supply chain lost their jobs, whole factories shut down. This article covers the event.

Since then, the domestic market has stabilized, and new interest from western importers (like us!) has been a boon for producers over the last decade. So, 

Where’s it made?

If you know us, you know we subscribe to this newfangled idea that any tea can be made anywhere. Not so with pu’er. There are many reasons: no real pu’er expertise outside Yunnan, the indigenous tree varietals don’t thrive outside a subtropical climate, etc. But most importantly, nothing happens in this world without economic motivation, and there is simply no demand for copycat pu’er. The domestic market is strong. So it’s been made in once place since recorded history: Xishuangbanna. Pinched between Myanmar and Laos, ‘Banna is host to the world’s oldest and most celebrated tea forests. And yes, they are forests!

Blankets of thick-trunked tea trees growing several meters high cover a few dozen mountains in Xishuangbanna, all of which are named and understood to produce unique pu’er. Broadly, they’re categorized into 3 main zones: the counties of Menghai (leftmost), Jinghong (center), and Mengla (right), that about evenly split Xishuangbanna.

Cutting right down the middle is the Lancang river, which divides two sets of “famous” tea mountains (among the many dozens). On the east, you have the 6 “old” mountains. They are:

| Yiwu shan
| Gedeng shan
| Youle shan
| Yibang shan
| Mangzhi shan
| Manzhuan shan 

Shan = mountain, which you’ll want to know when buying pu’er. All our cakes come from this side of the river, which is also loosely considered “Yiwu area” tea, no matter the specific mountain.

West of the Lancang are the 6 “new” mountains. (Though neither side is older or newer than the other; “new” is just an expansion of the “most famous mountains” list). They are:

| Nannuo shan
| Jingmai shan
| Bulang shan
| Mengsong shan 
| Manqiao shan

| Bada shan

As you can see, there are an incredible number of other mountains, all of which bring a distinct quality to the teas they produce, owing mostly to their individual terroirs.

What is terroir, anyway? Land, essentially. A word often used in wine, coffee, and tea to discuss soil quality, weather, biodiversity, and other environmental factors that ultimately influence the final character of an agricultural product. It's a thing for all types of tea, but pu'er especially—from what mountain the tea came is a critical piece of info.

So with pu’er, we concede, whereㅤㅤ‎‏‏‎ ‎it’s made is at least as important as how. And it’s not just about terroir; the age of the tea trees, their elevation, and their exact genetic makeup are all crucial elements that make a pu’er what it is. Most of the geographic features integral to good pu’er making are only found in Xishaungbanna.

Generally—and this is not a hard rule—Yiwu area tea is known to be softer, sweeter, lighter in some respects, while west of the river teas are punchier, bolder, perhaps more complex. Some specific mountains impart an unmistakable flavor; Bulang shan teas are characteristically bitter, for instance.

How’s it made?

Pu’er’s great complexity is mostly in agriculture, historyand economy. Its production is actually somewhat straightforward, and, like many teas, is an artform that’s execution depends on constantly changing variables. The basic steps are always the same.

Broken down, the major styles of pu’er are produced like so:

SHENG (“RAW”) PU’ER:

All pu’er is hand-plucked, with very few exceptions. In the making of raw pu’er, tea leaves are hand-plucked, sun-dried to wither, pan-fried in large woks to “fix” (called “sha qing”, meaning “kill green”; this process deactivates the enzymes responsible for oxidation), hand-rolled into strips, and sun-dried again to a low moisture content. It’s not dissimilar to green tea—the only differences being the strong sun-drying and, most importantly, the partial‏‏‎ ‎fix. Producers intend to leave most of the enzymes that create oxidation alive, just not enough to darken the tea quickly, as is desirable in, say, black tea. Aged raw pu’er (stored in the proper conditions) commands a high price, in part because it takes years for those organisms to work their magic and develop the tea (could be 5, 10, 15 years...and longer is better). This snail's pace fermentation transforms the tea, and buyers across China—especially in Hong Kong, where so much raw pu'er is stored today—were buying it up like mad. Demand outpaced supply. So in the 70’s, the brilliant minds at Kunming tea factory developed a technique to defeat this lengthy process. Thus, the birth of:

SHOU (“RIPE”) PU’ER:

Ripe pu’er is just raw pu’er that’s been wet-fermented. Usually it’s the less desirable or sorted-out material of sheng productions, but good lots are made with as-good material (whole leaves, buds, fresh growth, etc). Very basically, raw pu’er mao cha is piled into heaps on the floor of a room to undergo “wo dui” (“wet piling”). The little mountains are thoroughly wet, tossed with pitchforks, allowed to ferment in a hot, high humidity environment for about a week, then turned, tossed, and moisturized again for another round of fermentation. Typically this takes 4-8 weeks, depending on the size of the pile and the desires of the producer. Better shou, more or less, is made in small batches by artisans dedicated to ripe pu’er making, but it’s not a hard rule (we have very few of those in tea, you’ll have noticed). In fact, larger producers like Menghai Tea Factory have classic recipes (like the 7562) that use a specific blend of material with certain areas, tree ages, and leaf size, all to consistently high quality effect. Originally, shou was intended to mimic the flavor of aged raw pu’er (and sometimes does), but it kind of became its own genre.

A note on recipe numbers:

The most famous raw pu’er recipe is “7542”. Recipe numbers, which you’ll see on pu’er cakes from larger producing factories, are always 4 numbers long. The first two numbers indicate the year the recipe came to life, so in 7542’s case, that’s 1975. The third number is leaf grade—not to be confused with “quality”, but rather leaf size. The fourth denotes the major tea factory that produced it. 2 is Menghai Tea Factory (also called Dayi). 3 is Xiaguan, and 1 is the Kunming Tea Factory. Sometimes, 3 extra numbers are tacked onto the end: the first being the year of production, and the last two denote which production within that year. So in 7542 803, that’s a Menghai factory recipe developed in 1975, using grade 4 leaf, produced in 2008, and is the 3rd lot of the year. In general, earlier productions are better and cost more. Moving on!

HUANGPIAN (“yellow leaf”):

Huangpian is produced in exactly the same manner as sheng (and can thus also be made into shou), but uses mature leaves growing further down the tea tree branch. This material is considered unsuitable for most sheng productions, as the leaf is huge (can be the size of your hand!), hard to work with, and often discolored or damaged. Still, they’ve been on the branch longer, and they offer something in the cup that fresh growth sheng doesn’t. It’s sometimes called “farmer’s tea”, as the tea was once thought too unsightly to be sold or given as tribute (once upon a time, most pu’er was reserved for the Chinese bourgeoisie!). So farmer’s drank it. And how did they steep? Grandpa style.

DIANHONG (“Yunnan red”):

This tea isn’t pu’er at all, but uses the same base material from the same trees as pu’er. It’s a black tea, made all over Yunnan, hence the name. The tea is hand-plucked, withered, rolled and bruised by hand, allowed to oxidize, and finally sun-dried. The critical difference between Xishuangbanna black tea and tea from just further north in central Yunnan is sun-drying. Dianhong from Simao is usually baked or roasted to-dry, which fully deactivates the enzymes responsible for oxidation and aging. In ‘Banna, dianhong is sun-dried in the final stage, which dries the tea but leaves those living organisms unharmed, which means Xishuangbanna black tea can age!

YUE GUANG BAI (“moonlight white”):

Another non-pu’er from the same trees, yue guang bai is a classic Yunnan white tea. It’s hand-plucked and dried—that’s it! Further north, it’s typically shade-dried, but in Xishuangbanna most usually it’s sun-dried. Both versions maintain a population of active enzymes, but sun-dried and shade-dried versions taste quite different. We carry both.

All of these teas can be and most usually are “blended”. That means material from multiple harvest seasons, tree ages, locales, vintages, and any other number of variables is combined to achieve a certain effect. Not unlike coffee blends! But the script is flipped in tea; blends are considered more desirable and interesting. Single-origin is, of course, a thing too—our 2020 fresh growth sheng is single-origin tea from Gedeng shan, great for terroir study. But blending is considered a high art form in Xishuangbanna, and is par for the course there. They give us something original that single-origin teas can’t—and collaborating with our producers on unique blends is part of what makes this pu’er thing fun and interesting.

After the last production step of all these teas, we’re left with “mao cha” (“raw tea”). It’s not raw as we understand the word, but rather, unfinished. To Xishuangbanna tea makers, a tea isn’t finished until it’s been pressed into a form (like a cake, brick, or even a mushroom shape!). Loose mao cha can be stored for years to await blending with other materials and then pressed to achieve certain effects. Pressing is the finish line. 

This is how it’s done:

Loose tea is steamed in a metal cylinder,
with hot vapor shot up from a vent under the cylinder, to make the leaf pliable again.

The steamed tea is packed in to a cloth sack and shaped by hand,
usually into a discus, called a “bing”, or “cake”. Then, it's pressed between stone cylinders powered by hydraulics.

The tea is dried indoors on racks
before being wrapped in thin paper and/or pretty artwork.

Why is this done at all? Originally, for ease of transport. Along that Tea Horse Road we mentioned, mules could carry a whopping 60 kg of tea. But loose tea took up way too much space, so it was formed into tightly compressed, 357 gram shapes, and then packed into "tongs" (small towers of 5-7 cakes wrapped in bamboo leaf), to make 2.5 kg packages of tea. All this is still done today, even though pu'er usually commutes by truck, boat or plane, and modern cakes usually come in 200 gram forms.

How to enjoy it

The beautiful thing about pu’er? Steeping it is a cake walk. Despite all its complexity, one of the most acceptable methods of preparation is grandpa style. This sees a chunk of tea popped into a mug, topped with hot water, sipped down ’til about 1/3 of liquid is left, and topped off again. Rinse and repeat until the tea stops giving life. But won’t the tea leaf get into my mouth?‏‏‎ ‎ Not really!‏‏‎ ‎These big, intact Yunnan tea leaves tend to sink and rest in the bottom of the cup. Anything that does float, just strain with your teeth. Simple as that. All you’ll need is a mug, and something to crack into the tea cake with (unless you’re using coins—in which case, just use the whole coin!). 

Of course, pu’er tea’s many nuances are really only accessible through gongfu (tap here for a step-by-step process). The only extra gear you’ll need is a tea knife, a specialized tool specifically for tearing apart cakes without compromising the integrity of the leaves. Our house knife is coming soon, but for now, you can use any tool that resembles a pick (hell, even a clean flathead screwdriver works…not that we’ve tried that...)

Evaluating Pu’er

Appreciating pu’er can take a bit of practice. For some—especially in the case of shou—it’s an acquired taste. Ultimately, taste is king. If you like the tea, the tea is good. On a deeper level, we can get some clue about the quality of a pu’er based on these factors:

Aroma:

If it’s sheng pu’er, we’re looking for bright aromas of banana peel, incense, and complex florality on the dry leaf. No matter what it smells like, strength of aroma is a good indicator that the tea has a lot to offer. With shou on the other hand…you want hints of camphor, cinnamon, tree bark, dark beer, and other “deep” aromas. What you don’t want is wo dui (“wet piling”, the process we outlined earlier), also called pile scent. This presents as musky, fermented, and downright fishy. 1-2 years’ age usually sheds this from shou, but low quality productions will have a persistent marine quality that is a major red flag. Pass on a shou if it’s reminding you of fresh-caught trout. 

Appearance:

The look of the leaf will explain a great deal about any tea. For compressed teas, look first for leaf integrity—are you seeing large, well-formed leaves, twisting and weaving throughout the cake, or are you seeing what looks more like chopped up spinach (sheng) or coarsely ground coffee (shou)? Beyond that, look for lighter streaks in the tea (in sheng these look more white, in shou they’re more orange)—these are tea buds/tips, a more desirable bit of material that imparts sweetness and body (true of any tea). The more, the better—but don’t expect it in huangpian, where the whole point is to use older leaf.

Body sensation:

We’ll keep this one short and sweet, as there is zero scientific study on this, but how a tea makes you feel can give you some idea of its quality. If you notice an uplifting sense of airiness and joviality after a few cups, you may be what’s called “tea drunk”. This is usually brought on by “cha qi”, or “tea energy”, a decidedly unobjective measurement of a tea’s effect on the body. Take this entire concept with several grains of salt, but drink a ton of old tree pu’er and you might become a believer.

Lastly—and by far most important—taste:

No matter what a pu’er smells or looks like, if it tastes good, it’s good. There are acquired (read: foul) flavors that are considered positive in the pu’er world (like extreme bitterness), but you don’t have to appreciate those to assess a pu’er as quality. In good sheng, you're liable to find pleasant tones of apricot, banana peel, and orchid, with shou giving spice, bark, or menthol. Huangpian might taste like a heartier sheng, dianhong like roses and chocolate, and yue guang bai like honey and hay. In all pu’er and pu'er-adjacent teas, sweetness (and especially lingering sweetness, called “hui gan”, which presents as a lasting, saliva-inducing sensation in the throat) is a virtue. Even in the varieties famed for their bitterness. Above all, if you keep coming back for more, it’s good tea. Trust your tongue.

Lastly, a word on storage.

There are two schools of thought on this, well-understood by folks much smarter than us whose actual job it is to store pu'er for the long-haul. But to give you a brief rundown, in case you want to speculate on the future value of our tea cakes and diversify your investment portfolio with tea:

Two Schools of Storage:

| Wet storage. 
Practiced mostly in Hong Kong, this sees pu’er stored in hot, humid environments to encourage rapid aging. Sheng pu’er that has been wet-stored will indeed be distinct from its fresh counterpart, and bring something closer to shou to the table, but with more refinement.

| Dry storage.
Dry storage isn’t really dry at all—in fact, with truly dry storage (as in arid places like southern California) the total lack of humidity is liable to at best stall your tea’s aging, and at worst slowly stale it. Avoid fully dry environments if you want to store long-term. In the short-term—we’re talking a year or less—it doesn’t really matter how you store pu’er. Just don’t keep it next to that washed geisha that smells like pomegranate and blood orange. 

Any tea can be wet or dry stored. The basic principles are to keep your tea in a reasonably humid environment, away from other scents, and at a high enough temperature for living organisms to do their thing. Oh, and do not refrigerate.

If you’re ambitious like that, you could build a “pumidor” (a play on the word humidor).
This article walks you through it.

IN SUM 

That's about all you need to enjoy pu’er tea. As always, we’ve done our best to be fully transparent and share everything we know with you. But frankly, we’re still learning. We’ll make a regular thing out of sourcing pu’er and other Yunnanese teas, and share what we learn from our producers with you, but for now, these are the facts straight from the horse’s mouth. Use them well.


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