Pu-erh Tea - Part One
Introduction - The Drinkable Antique
Although pu-erh is arguably one of the most influential tea types, few cared about its history until very recently. In fact, without the thirst for knowledge of a select group of tea lovers in the 1990s, the world of pu-erh as we know it today would not exist! Gaining insight and understanding is a theme throughout pu-erh’s history that has helped change the tea’s image, allowing it to grow from a simple bitter herb to a royal tribute, and onward today to a tea that is collected feverishly around the world. Born in Yunnan, China, pu-erh tea is part of a group of teas categorized as post-fermented. Simply put, this means that the tea is alive. No, the tea will not walk out of your cupboard, but it does contain incredible microorganisms that give the tea its unique taste, aroma, health, and aging properties. It is because of these microbes that pu-erh is known as a drinkable antique, as it is one of the few teas that gets better with age - just like a fine wine. So please join us, teadventurers, as we explore the unique and exciting world of pu-erh!
The History of Pu-erh - Image is Everything
Some contest that pu-erh may be one of the earliest teas to come out of China. However, this may be hard to confirm - as not only has the name for the tea that we now call pu-erh changed several times throughout history, but what qualified a tea as pu-erh changed as well. The name pu-erh comes from Pu-erh county, a once very active trading post in southern Yunnan. It is speculated that the locals of southern Yunnan have been drinking tea from their wild tea trees since before the common era. With that said, a tea of its age has an understandably long and convoluted history. Let’s explore some of the most pivotal moments in the tea’s history and save the rest for another narrative.
To begin our tale, we must venture to the original wild tea trees of southern Yunnan, in a region called Ying-Shen. In the Tang Dynasty, tea from these local trees were traded at a trading post in Pu-erh to the people of Tibet. At the time, the tea that we now call pu-erh was simply called Ying-Shen tea; a term that solely meant tea comprised of big tea leaves hailing from Ying-Shen.
It was not until the 11th century that records appeared of tea being traded from Pu-erh, Yunnan to additional regions like China, Vietnam, Burma, and Thailand, while still keeping Tibet as a major trade partner.
Although tea exports from Yunnan to China were vast by the 13th century, pu-erh itself was looked down upon as a low quality product.
The Tea Horse Road was officially created during the Ming Dynasty as a set of trade routes that had a main port in Pu-erh. Its main purpose was the trading of Pu-erh's tea for horses and other goods with neighboring and far away peoples. Although most subscribe to the official origins of the Tea Horse Road being based in the Ming Dynasty, it is likely that other trade along the same or nearby routes had already started between some of those areas in the Western Han Dynasty.
By the late Ming or early Qing dynasty, the definition of pu-erh changed a bit. Not only did the tea finally gain the name ‘pu-erh’, it was also then defined as tea from Yunnan that had traversed the Tea Horse Road. It is on Tea Horse Road that the tea takes a turn to the dark side. The journey that tea took along the trade routes provided ideal conditions to allow the growth of microorganisms within the leaves. These microbes changed the tea in a significant way - not only darkening the leaves, but also providing new aromas and flavors on top of what the tea had when it started its journey. It is possible that this change in the tea is what led to it finally being recognized by China. With that said, we do not know specifically when ageing became a part of pu-erh appreciation. Some link the popularity of aged pu-erh to the teas that travelled around the Tea Horse Road. Others claim that the benefits of aging pu-erh were discovered simply by storing some, and revelling in the improvement upon drinking them years later. However the aging process first came to be, it is clear that the flavor of aged pu-erh is what helped spark the tea’s popularity.
Over time, pu-erh gained a reputation amongst those in China as an exotic commodity, leading to its gained acceptance and appreciation when before it had mostly been met with disinterest. By the Qing Dynasty, the production of pu-erh was rampant.
In 1729, pu-erh became a tribute tea for the royal family. At the time, the rulers of China hailed from northern China nomads, where their diets were heavy with meat and required pu-erh to help aid with digestion.
It was not until 1908 that pu-erh would lose its status as a tribute tea.
The first state owned factories were created in 1950 with the specific purpose of creating pu-erh. From this point on, a large amount of tea plantation leaves were gathered for use in state owned factories instead of family-run businesses, as it was in the past. These factory made teas were sent to Tibet, Hong Kong, Macao, and other countries to help ensure good relations.
In 1963, after the end of the Qing Dynasty, the tribute pu-erh that had remained was ground and blended into lower grade leaves to be sold during a tea shortage - some teas were more than 150 years old and priceless. This act helped to not only increase the rareness of old cakes, but it also helped spur interest in the collection of pu-erh.
By the late 1960s, people began to see teas as a traditional art form and as such drinking and learning about tea became incredibly popular.
After a fifty year decline, the interest in pu-erh grew again in the 1970s. The 70s would see a noticeable increase of pu-erh collectors and enthusiasts in Hong Kong, setting the stage for the role that Hong Kong plays in the pu-erh world today. The downside of the growth of interest was that many of the great plantations were cut down to make way for plants that grew faster and yielded higher - and resulted in, arguably, inferior quality leaves.
So high was the demand for rare aged pu-erh, that in 1973, a factory set out to create a type of young pu-erh tea that mimicked the properties of aged pu-erh through an artificial aging process. (Thouh that some say that it was actually in 1950 that this process was first invented.) This type of pu-erh would be called shou cha, or ripe tea, and would serve as the counterpart to the typical raw pu-erh or sheng cha. And although shou was supposed to mimic the taste and feeling of aged raw pu-erh, due to the way the tea is processed it is not meant for aging itself. Shou's purpose was to allow for immediate drinking, and although shou would not deteriorate with proper aging, it would only minimally increase in greatness.
It was also around this time that those interested in tea as an art form began to seek out historical yixing teapots - teapots that to this day are almost synonymous with drinking pu-erh. As the demand for these pots grew larger and larger, the supply could not keep up and after a while the market collapsed. A lucrative fad for many tea and teaware sellers became an almost business ruining one when it ended.
When pu-erh was introduced to Taiwan after the fall of the yixing market, merchants did not want to sell the tea as they thought that it too would just be a fad that would end up to be detrimental. Others also proclaimed that it was not a good investment because the tea itself gave off an odd aroma and appeared to be riddled with mold.
The 1990s saw a lot of important strides in pu-erh. Around this time, collectors in Hong Kong began to sell off their pu-erh at such low prices that those in Taiwan finally decided to buy it in incredibly large amounts.
In 1994, Taiwanese collectors started travelling to Yunnan in attempt to source some of the first pu-erh teas from that region. During their travels they stopped through Yiwu, a township known for being one of the starting points of the Tea Horse Road as well as one of the original pu-erh producing areas. While there, these Taiwanese tea enthusiasts were surprised to see how few aged cakes were around or even known about. Eager to share their own knowledge, the Taiwanese travellers expressed to those in Yiwu just how valuable their old teas were. This prompted the few in Yiwu that knew the old ways of making tea to teach what they knew to others, in an attempt to reinvigorate the market.
At the same time, the reputation of pu-erh was on the rise. Through word of mouth, personal experience, and the many books written on the subject, more and more people were learning about the healthful properties of the tea. Medicinal stores and traditional stores began to carry pu-erh, and China became interested in the tea again, greatly because of the large Taiwanese market. Due to all of these factors, the price, popularity, and lucrativeness of aged pu-erh skyrocketed, accompanied by a smaller surge in interest of young pu-erh. This shift in opinion in Taiwan and China was so great that even international markets began to purchase more pu-erh as well.
How Pu-erh is Made - Nature versus Nurture
Centuries ago,”pu-erh” meant any tea that hailed from Pu-erh, Yunnan. Today however, the definition is a lot more strict and refined. Pu-erh falls into a tea category called dark tea (also known as black tea, or hei cha), meaning that it has been stored specifically to allow the growth of microorganisms. Within the category of hei cha, tea types are named differently based on the region of China that they hail from. Pu-erh is hei cha from Yunnan, while liu bao is from Guangxi, liu an hails from Anhui, and liu bian ccha calls Sichuan home.
For pu-erh, the variety of tea plant that is used is called Camellia sinensis assamica (Masters) Hang T. Chang - it is a variety that, genetically, is incredibly close to that of wild tea trees. Typically, the tea leaves are picked from one of two types of trees - terrace plants or forest trees. Terrace plants are tea trees that are planted on flat plains and are tended to regularly by farmers, keeping them relatively short. Forest trees, on the other hand, are trees that are allowed to grow in the hills without much interference producing higher quality leaves. The best pu-erh is made from the leaves of trees that have at least a hundred years of age under their belts. And the most famous pu-erh comes from six famous tea mountains in the Xishuangbashan prefecture: Gedeng, Mangzhi, Mazhuan, Yiwu, Yibang, and Youle, as they are the ideal location for assamica growth.
The process for making pu-erh is as follows:
- Pluck leaves (the leaves that are used vary in age and size and are graded into nine different grades depending on size)
- Allow the leaves to wither by spreading them out in the sun or on racks in a heated room
- Heat the leaves in a pan or wok for several minutes to remove most of the moisture to stop the leaves from oxidizing but still allow them the properties needed to allow internal fermentation via natural bacteria
- Roll the leaves by hand on a bamboo mat or roll them via a roller
- Heat the leaves again
- Roll the leaves again
At this point, we have what is called mao cha (crude tea) and this mao cha can either be sold as is, or turned into either sheng cha (raw tea) or shou cha (ripe tea). As mentioned earlier, sheng is the tea that is meant for long term storage to enhance its characteristics while shou undergoes an artificial aging process meant to create a tea that has similar characteristics to a sheng that has ages for decades. The process of creating shou is a process typically done by government owned tea factories, while sheng is typically created by small, private owned tea companies. Let's explore how both shou and sheng are made.
Sheng - Nature
For making sheng cha, the leaves are sorted into different piles that will result in the weight that is desired for the final product. The leaves are then steamed until pliable and then placed into a cloth bag, after which they are ready to be pressed under a stone or by a hydraulic press *. This compression creates a cake-like (or as some say disk-like) shape and said tea cake is then laid out to dry until it returns to its original weight prior to steaming. The compression is also what helps allow for the fermentation of leaves over time. Once dried, the cake is wrapped in paper, then seven cakes are wrapped together in bamboo leaves to make what is called a tong.
* Though the most common shape for pu-erh to take is that of a cake, it can actually be sold in a variety of other manners once it is finished being processed. These other shapes include broken cakes, tuo (a half sphere with a large indentation in the middle that resembles a bird's nest), mushroom shapes, melon shapes, squares, bricks, and its original loose form.
Shou - Nurture
The leaves are placed in a room, covered with water, and then smothered in a large cloth. Once under the cloth, the leaves are submitted to high heat and humidity for 45 to 65 days. During this time, the leaves are turned and rotated to ensure that all of the leaves have undergone the same amount of fermentation. Any leaves that remain unfermented are taken out of the batch. Once this fermentation process is done, the leaves are compressed and wrapped up for shipping in the same manner than sheng is.
In addition to mao cha, sheng, and shou, many pu-erh enthusiasts break down the categorization even further - stating that there is a great difference between aged sheng (lao sheng cha) a.k.a. old tea and young sheng (sheng that is less than five-ten years old). Being post-fermented is what many feel is required for a tea to be called “pu-erh,” and there are many connoisseurs and scholars who argue that young sheng cha is not pu-erh at all, instead merely a precursor as it has not yet undergone any post-fermentation. In addition, many are hard-pressed to call shou true pu-erh, as they do not feel that shou’s artificial aging process adequately mimics the natural aging of sheng at all. We here at Yezi Tea like to be inclusive and consider mao cha, young sheng, lao sheng cha, and shou to all be pu-erh, despite each having differences that should be celebrated and appreciated.
To be continued...
Eager to find out more? In part two of our look at pu-erh, we will be exploring everything from historically famous cakes to pu-erh health properties, and much, much more. Stay tuned, and be sure to join us next time!