Pu-erh Tea - Part Two
Introduction - And, We're Back!
In part one, we touched on pu-erh's impressive history and the numerous ways in which pu-erh is made. In this blog, we will venture deeper into this tea's world by exploring important cakes and regions of growth, pu-erh storage and preparation, and the tea’s fascinating (yet controversial) health benefits.
Welcome back, tea lovers, and buckle in for Pu-erh Tea part two!
Important Cakes and Regions - The MVPs (Most. Valuable. Pu-erh)
Since we mentioned pu-erh collectors frequently in part one, it would not be a complete overview without also discussing some of the most collected/sought after pu-erh teas in the world today. A general rule of thumb is that the older the tea, the more prized it is. Aged sheng in particular is growing more and more scarce, and with that increase in rarity comes an increase in popularity. Some of the most sought after lao sheng cha include:
- Song Pin Hao
- Tong Qing Hao
- Fuyuan Chang Hao
- 1950s Red Mark
- Menghai Tea Factory 7542
- 88 Qingbing
- Menghai Tea Factory 8582
- Menghai Tea Factory 7532
When it comes to shou cha, the oldest shou around will still not be nearly as old as the oldest sheng. In addition, as shou ages properly the changes are incredibly gradual and in general, are not as profound as the changes seen in aged sheng. And although, shou is not quite as feverishly collected as lao sheng cha, the pu-erh type still has celebrities, such as:
- Menghai Dayi Golden Needle White Lotus
- Menghai Dayi Red Rhyme
- Menghai Dayi 0532
- Kunming Tea Factory 7581
- Menghai Tea Factory 8592
- Menghai Tea Factory 7262
- Menghai Tea Factory 7572
You may notice that several of the teas listed above simply have a series of four numbers as their name. These four numbers are called a trading code or ma hao (also sometimes called a recipe code). In order, the numbers help distinguish the last two digits of the year that the recipe for the tea was first made, leaf grade (typically based on size, with 1 being the smallest), and the tea factory. For example, 8582 would be a tea made from a recipe that originated in 1985, with grade 8 leaves from Menghai Tea Company.*
* Two other famous factories include: 1 - Kuming and 3 - Xiaguan
Outside of famous cakes, the world of pu-erh also has famous or popular pu-erh growing and processing regions. Different regions and even different mountains result in distinctly different teas, and so many people develop a preference for the region that their pu-erh hails from. Below, we have listed a few regions that are known for certain key characteristics. (Of course, it's best to keep in mind that taste is subjective; what may be experienced by some may not be experienced by others.):
- Bulang, Menghai, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan – Strong, sometimes bitter, usually bold
- Jingmai, Puer City, Yunnan – Wonderful aroma, floral taste
- Lincang Prefecture City, Yunnan – Strong aftertaste
- Menghai Factory**, Menghai, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Menghai - Incredibly strong taste, notes of wood, spicy, unique aroma
- Naka Village, Lahu, Menghai, Xishuangbanna - Strong, provides a lot of energy, incredibly aromatic
- Nannuo, Menghai, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan - Floral, aromatic, mellow
- Yiwu, Mengla, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan – Sweet, mellow, subtle and light yet strong in energy
** Though not a region, the Menghai Dayi company is listed because of how the consistency in their products has lead to the term "the Menghai taste"
The areas listed above are just an incredibly small sampling of the places within Yunnan that produce pu-erh. With that said, one great way of venturing into the world of the many flavors, aromas, and feelings that pu-erh has to offer is by comparing samples of the tea from any different regions that interest you.
How to Store Pu-erh - Forgot About It?
One cannot talk about famous tea cakes without in the same breath discussing the storage said teas.
Storage is an important topic when it comes to pu-erh. In fact, for many collectors, storage may be an even more important topic than taste - as aging pu-erh correctly is what ensures a collection's appreciation in value. If you intend on collecting pu-erh for the purpose of aging, it is important to figure out what teas are most suitable. This can be done by bringing the tea to a reputable pu-erh expert, for which a trip to Hong Kong may be necessary. As one of the largest pu-erh hubs in the world, Hong Kong houses numerous tea houses boasting storage rooms for aging pu-erh under various semi-controlled conditions. Of course, a visit with geographically closer pu-erh expert is acceptable as well.
Even if you believe that you have teas that are suitable for aging, the aging process itself is a lot about trial and error. For example, if two identical cakes produced in the same year and batch are put away to age at the same time, the results will not be the same if they are stored with different parameters. Different locations house unique microbes that inhabit the air, unseen to the human eye. This difference in wild microbes alone will result in a difference in taste and aroma. Further fluctuations in storage such as humidity, temperature, and airflow will all cause differences as well. If you are storing to age for consumption, it would be wise to sporadically sample your pu-erh, see what changes have occurred, and perhaps adjust storage methods accordingly. If storing for eventual sales, it may be prudent to store tongs of the same cakes in different storage conditions. Again, with all of this said, consulting a pu-erh scholar or expert is an important means of gathering insight as to what storage parameters have been shown to be beneficial for certain cakes when hoping for specific outcomes.
Just as the differences in storage dictates how pu-erh will age, change, or taste, the method by which pu-erh is processed dictates how much this storage will affect ageing. Pu-erh, like other darks teas, is processed in a manner that promotes microbial growth, as it is that growth that helps the tea gain more and more exciting characteristics. This means that although all pu-erh should be stored in very similar conditions, loose leaf, maocha, and compressed shou will not see the same rate or type of microbial growth as their compressed sheng brethren.
Generally speaking, pu-erh should be stored within the following conditions:
- Consistent temperature between 68 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit
- Humidity of 70 % to 80%
- If the room is wallpapered, it must be a wallpaper that does not promote condensation or mold
- Little to no light exposure
- Away from odorous items
- Teas with similar aromas should be stored together, those with vastly differing aromas should be segregated
- Contained in a manner that allows a moderate amount of air flow
- Non-odorous cardboard boxes, ceramic jars, purple clay jars, or wrapped in tongs on a well ventilated metal stand
- Cakes should be covered enough that dust cannot start to collect on the leaves
- If collection is large, rotation of the pu-erh that is at the bottom of the stack towards a higher position and vice versa
Pu-erh kept in the ideal environment for microbial growth and forgotten about for decades may result in some of the best tasting teas around. The legends of forgotten teas symbolize and summarize just how important pu-erh storage and aging is in its world. Though rare or perhaps even a myth, forgotten teas are pu-erh cakes or tongs that have been left in an ideal environment for aging and after storing, they were promptly forgotten about. After decades, these teas would be discovered and prove to themselves nearly priceless in value and taste.
Preparation and Taste - To Each Their Own
Earlier, we mentioned some of the distinct tastes, aromas, and experiences that arise from pu-erh of specific regions in Yunnan. Now, let's explore what can be expected when drinking shou, lao sheng cha, and sheng in general. In the world of pu-erh, it is quite common for tea drinkers to prefer just one variant over the others. With that said, we here at Yezi Tea promote exploration and hope that newcomers to the tea type will be open to trying all three.
Sheng - Totes a light colored liquor that ranges from pale tan to pale yellow-green. Known to have flavors more similar to, but stronger than, green tea. Its aroma, at first, may be a bit sharp and surrounded by camphor. However, when allowed to air out and when allowed to steep correctly, the aroma becomes more delicate. Sheng's taste can be strong, astringent, fruity, floral, smoky, and/or camphor-like, all while presenting a sweet aftertaste.
Lao Sheng Cha - Depending on the age of the tea and the tea itself, the color of the liquor can lay somewhere between that of sheng and that of shou. Lao sheng cha's taste can be rich, pure, refreshing, smooth, deep, sweet, and faintly earthy. It is partly sought after for the characteristic of being strong but still incredibly mellow. Lao sheng cha also totes a complexity that is not typically found in sheng.
Shou - Produces a satiny liquor that is typically dark brown or red in color. Shou's flavor's are gemerally rich, smooth, nutty, caramel-like, sweet, and earthy. The tea can be quite thick, cream-like, and full-bodied. Its fragrance tends to linger as does the sweetness that can sometimes be found within each sip. Shou is often referenced as an ideal introduction to tea for coffee-lovers for not only its taste but also its sometimes energizing qualities.
As shou, sheng, and lao sheng cha all have differing characteristics from each other, it would be prudent to brew each type of pu-erh a bit differently to bring out the best in those characteristics. Shou is a hearty tea, it can be brewed with boiling water and steeped almost indefinitely without suffering the ill effects of over-steeping. Sheng, on the other hand, is much more delicate. Sheng should be brewed in water at lower than boiling point. However, as the sheng ages, its tolerance for temperature tends to increase. It is important to use appropriate water temperature and short steeps with sheng, as it can be harsh and unpleasant when over-steeped.
Even within the three types of pu-erh explained above, teas vary drastically. In order to choose which individual teas may be the best introductions to the tea subtype, it may be best to ask those who have enjoyed them - or more generally, those who love pu-erh. Although taste and smell are subjective, pu-erh scholars have ideas of which teas may be challenging to a beginner, or which ones may be a perfect, easy examples of a sub-type.
The preferred brewing vessels for pu-erh are small unglazed clay pots (such as the Yixing clayware mentioned earlier, or jianshui clayware) and porcelain pots. However, a porcelain gaiwan is perfectly acceptable and happens to be Yezi Tea's preferred vessel for making pu-erh. Here, we like to brew our pu-erh using the following parameters:
- If the pu-erh is compressed, break the shape apart with a pu-erh knife or tool by gently plying the leaves away from each other so that they don't break.
- Add 4 - 5 grams of tea to the brewing vessel
- Add 200 - 250 ml of water to the tea leaves
- First infusion: Brew in water that ranges from 203 - 212 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 seconds
- Following infusions: Add on 10 to 15 seconds for each following infusion
This, of course, is solely our preferred way of preparing pu-erh. Experiencing new teas is a journey of discovery. What may work for us may not work for others, and we always encourage experimentation.
And speaking of experiments...
Health Properties - It's Alive!
Originally used as a dietary staple, pu-erh has a long history as a proven digestion aide. Although we are not completely certain of what ratio of microorganisms and chemical compounds within pu-erh is most effective, it is because of pu-erh's effects that the tea prospered and was traded so frequently centuries ago. So, just who are some of the friendly residents that call pu-erh home? The fungi - Aspergillus niger, Aspergillus glacaus, and Rhizopus, the bacteria - Lactobacillus thermophilus (which is also found in yogurt) , the mold - Penicillium, and yeast, yes, the kind that helps bread to rise. Although many may feel a bit wary about consuming a tea that is so alive, the microbes in pu-erh are not the least bit harmful unless a preexisting allergy to them exists. In relation to compounds and organisms in pu-erh aiding in consumption, it was recently discovered that shou pu-erh and very aged sheng pu-erh contain statins- a chemical substance that is known to be a natural cholesterol fighter.
When it comes to caffeine, pu-erh can contain wildly varying amounts, primarily due to the fact that pu-erh will contain leaves of all different ages. Pu-erh's antioxidant amount also ranges widely, as the amount of oxidation that the tea has undergone determines the amount of catechins within it. The more it is allowed to oxidize, the less catechins, and vice versa, as the molecules that make up the leaf remain unchanged from when on the tree. Some of the catechins that pu-erh can contain are epicatechin, epigallocatechin, epicatechin gallate, epigallocatechin gallate - all compounds that have been linked to cancer prevention. However, as always, it is best to take any health claims about tea with a grain of salt, especially those of recent origin.
Conclusion - Don't Be Shy, Give Pu'erh a Try
Although this is just a short summary on Yunnan's most famous tea, our hope is to give you an idea about that awaits you in pu-erh's ever changing, growing, and fascinating world. Novels can be, have been, and will be written about the tea type and its ever debated history for years. The tea's journey from a dietary medicinal staple for centuries old tribes to a high stakes collector's item for the tea world's elite is nothing but remarkable. Even more spectacular is the fact that were it not for this post-fermented tea's microorganisms, this journey would never have happened. Off-putting as they may be to some, these helpful microbes have created some of the best and most precious teas in the world.