While exploring the world of tea, you might have stumbled upon one of the most elusive and intoxicating tea from China, i.e., pu'er tea. In this guide, we are going to learn about this vintage tea, a great treasure from China. Hence, we will explore this tea's first historical existence, unique processing technique, vast flavor profile, and key brewing instructions.
It was more than 1000 years ago, demand for the green tea had grown exponentially. Tea was already being transported in compressed cake forms and sold to areas like the Himalayan region. Merchants used to bring green tea to Pu'er (a city of Yunnan province in China) and then sell it in bulks.
Transporting tea from Pu'er to other areas took months. During this long journey, tea absorbed humidity. Gradually, this damp tea, that also had natural living microorganisms changed its appearance and taste due to the natural process of fermentation. The resulting tea was named after the trading city of Yunnan. Over time, this tea became famous for its exceptional taste and medicinal properties.
Genuine pu'er tea comes only from the Yunnan province and is made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis var. assamica. There are two different processing techniques that can produce either sheng chá (raw pu'er) or shou chá (ripe pu'er). Let's understand this processing in more detail.
Firstly, the tea leaves go through the withering process for a very short time. Later, leaves go through fixation,i.e., quickly pan-roasted at a temperature that is enough to halt the oxidation but not kill the natural microorganisms. Finally, leaves are rolled and sun-dried to produce a rough tea known as máochá.
In this stage, most of the magic begins as it involves the process of fermentation that gives this tea its distinctiveness. Many think of black/oolong tea as fully/semi-fermented tea. However, it is an inaccurate use of the term fermentation as it is the process of oxidation and not fermentation that takes place for these teas. In reality, pu'er tea is the only true tea that undergoes the process of fermentation.
Máochá (not yet fermented) can be sold as young sheng chá. However, tea masters often use máochá to make either aged sheng chá or shou chá.
Usually, aged sheng chá can be made by compressing máochá leaves and then allowing it to ferment naturallyin a carefully regulated environment. Depending on the process used, it takes 10, 20, or 30+ years to reach the desired tea taste. When the tea is ready, producers halt its fermentation process.
As the aged sheng chá gained popularity, tea masters developed a new processing technique. Instead of waiting for years, wet piling techniquewas used to accelerate the fermentation process to produce shou chá.
This new method is to pile máochá indoors and manipulate its water content. After checking the daily status, producers may decide to turn over the leaves and add more water. Eventually, the amount of water added and the intensity of leaf shuffling in each pile influences the microorganism activity, altering the tea's final taste. After almost three months, when shou chá is ready, tea masters dry it naturally to halt further fermentation.
Unlike most of the teas that lose their flavors over time, this tea is one of its kind, as the taste becomes better as it ages. Which means if stored properly, the older the tea is, the tastier it can become. Apart from age, flavors may differ based on the environmental conditions of the growing region such as soil composition, climate, and neighboring plants. Moreover, whether it is the withering time or the storing ambiance, each tea factory uses its inherited recipe and unique processing technique. Thus, the taste and the quality of tea produced by different factories would not be the same.
This tea has a very vast flavor profile. Especially, in the case of young sheng chá, flavors drastically evolve with time. Thus, even using the same tea will result in a different taste after months or years. To understand the flavors in more depth, we can look at two of the varieties readily available in the market.
As mentioned above, tea masters can use natural fermentation or induced fermentation to produce two types of tea i.e. raw tea (sheng chá) and ripe tea (shou chá).
Young sheng chá has a yellowish-green liquor that becomes dark reddish as the tea ages for years. Whether it is young or mature tea, liquor is always clear and never cloudy.
Once processed, both raw and ripe varieties can be sold as loose leaves or compressed into many different shapes. Some readily available shapes in the markets are cake shape tea (Bingcha), brick shape tea (Zhuancha), and bowl/nest shape tea (Tuocha).
Below we have given some guidelines for the western style brewing. Use these as a starting point, improvise as you wish and brew a cup of tea according to your preference.