What is Puerh Tea?

For the first “educational” post, I’ve decided to go back to the very basics for those who might not know what puerh tea is. Puerh (普洱 – puerh, 茶 – cha; literally “tea”) is a fermented or “dark tea.” Fermented tea undergoes a microbial process due to exposure to humidity. The tea is also oxidized, both internally and externally, from this process.

Puerh is one kind of fermented tea. Another type of fermented tea, for instance, is liu bao(六堡). Each type of fermented tea comes from a certain area of China (sometimes from other countries, as well). Puerh comes from a southern province named Yunnan and is named after Pu’er Prefecture within Yunnan.

How is puerh tea made?

Puerh comes from a large leaf varietal of Camillia sinensis native to Yunnan. Once the leaves are picked, the harvest is transformed into maocha (毛茶 – maocha; literally “rough tea”) through a process of sha qing (殺青 – sha qing; literally “kill green”). The kill green process is a dry roasting of the leaves to prevent full oxidation (also done with other non-oxidized and semi-oxidized teas). The leaves are then rolled, lightly bruised, and sun-dried. Maocha, once complete, can be enjoyed as-is, pressed into various shapes, or processed into shou.

Sheng puerh

Sheng puerh (生 – sheng; literally “raw”, 普洱 – puerh) is the result of the sha qing process. Sheng can be pressed into many forms to store or left as loose maocha. The form, shape, compression, and storage are all contributing factors to the overall aging process of the sheng.

Shou puerh

Shou puerh (熟 – shou, 普洱 – puerh) is the result of the wo dui process (渥堆 – wo dui; literally “wet pile”) which was developed by the Kunming Tea Factory in 1973 as a way to imitate the aging of sheng puerh. Because this method of artificially aging the tea is based on moisture and high temperature, shou puerh is also referred to as “cooked” puerh.

Aged puerh

While all puerh can be aged, traditionally, sheng puerh is stored over many years in warm, humid environments to age the raw tea. Puerh undergoes a very slow oxidation and microbial process through the influence of bacteria. The flavor and color of puerh greatly changes over the course of storage.

Pressing

The raw sheng maocha or ripe shou maocha is typically pressed into various shapes. The most common shapes are:

  • Disc – 饼茶 – bingcha; literally “tea cake”
  • Bowl/Nest – 沱茶 – tuocha; literally “bird’s nest tea”
  • Brick – 砖茶 – zhuancha; literally “tea brick”
  • Dragon Pearl – 龙珠 – longzhu; literally “dragon ball” (Z?)
  • Melon – 金瓜 – jingua; literally “golden melon”
  • Mushroom – 紧茶 – jincha; literally “tight tea”
  • Square – 方茶 – fangcha; literally “tea square”

There are other shapes, such as gourds, etc., that are less common. Again, the shape and level of compression are factors in aging, but I’ll be covering the massive topic of storage another time.

I think that covers a lot of the “basics” around puerh tea, but there’s so much more to learn and experience. These educational-style posts will be occasionally posted and focus in on specific topics for quick reference.

Do you have a puerh topic that you’d like to see covered? Click the “Contact” link at the top of the page, or just.. click this link to contact me. Much easier.

Until the next cup.

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