The strange & wonderful road to becoming a Puer collector.
1998 CNNP cake made by the Fu Hai factory in Menghai
At home, I drink more Puer than any other kind of tea. Come to think of it, I drink more Puer than any other beverage! It is fair to say I am pretty undiscriminating when it comes to Puer. I love raw & ripe, young & old, wet stored & dry stored, wild arbor & terrace grown, spring & autumn pickings, old clumpy bits of partially composted leaves, mouldy yellow leaves, with hair or without hair.
For the benefit of my friends & family who have no idea what I’m talking about, there are basically 3 major categories of Puer:
- Raw puer (young tea that produces an astringent yellow liquor)
- Aged puer (raw puer which has oxidized and naturally fermented over the years to produce a dark red liquor that tastes sweet & mellow)
- Ripe puer (puer that has been put through an accelerated process of artificial fermentation similar to composting and produces a dark coffee coloured liquor)
What is raw puer?
Raw puer (called "sheng puer" in Chinese 生普洱茶) consists of crude green leaves that have been wok fried to fix the leaf enzymes, rolled into striations and sun-baked to reduce moisture before compressing. Young raw puer produces a light yellow liquor which is highly astringent and tastes of fresh grass, spices, hints of cocoa & camphor. Over time, the leaves will slowly oxidize and microbial fermentation will break down the leaf’s cellular structures. Years later, these same leaves will produce a dark red liquor that is sweet & mellow. In the search for tomorrow’s bing of happiness, I drink a lot of young, raw puer, and have stacked away quite a few tongs now. But until my collection of raw cakes mature into a lovely mellow brew full of musty earth, I’m chipping away at my ripe cakes like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.
What is ripe puer?
Because raw puer can take anywhere between 10-30 years to reach full potential, puer producers experimented with using heat & humidity to accelerate the microbial fermentation process and achieve a similar taste to aged cakes in just a few days. Moist leaves were heaped into piles & covered with a blanket to create conditions similar to a compost heap. The humidity & environment is regulated, and the leaf pile turned every 6-7 days to ensure even fermentation. Even so, little dense clumps of semi fermented puer form which are eventually filtered out and sold as “Lao cha tou” (old tea heads 老茶头)
Lao Cha Tou 老茶头
After 40 days, the leaves can be steamed & pressed into cakes. This pile fermentation process is called “wo dui” in Chinese and has been perfected by the industry since 1973. The end result is a much darker and earthier brew than a sheng puer that has been naturally fermented over decades. Hence ripe puer is a category of black tea in it’s own right, whereas raw puer is technically a type of green tea.
In Chinese the character meaning "ripe" 熟 can be pronounced both as "shu" and as "shou" so you will invariably hear ripe puer called both "shu puer" and "shou puer" but the characters are the same: 熟普洱
Ripe puer is also called “artificially fermented” puer and sometimes erroneously labelled “cooked” puer (based on a mistranslation of “Shu” 熟). When you order Puer at a Chinese restaurant, you will most likely be served loose leaf ripe puer.
In winter, the dark soupy liquor of shu puer, its earthy aroma and sweet aftertaste, are a godsend. According to traditional Chinese medicine, shu puer is “warming” (xing ri) and sheng puer is “cooling” (xing han). So in winter time, many Chinese drink shu pu, because it gets the circulation going and warms the extremities. I don’t know if it’s just a psychosomatic reaction, but in the frigid, unheated tea shops of Shanghai, I’ve found this warming effect to be true.
An acquired taste
Since the 1990’s, Hongkong & Taiwanese puer collectors & tea scholars have done a fantastic job of researching, producing & promoting puer to other tea drinkers. More recently, English language blogs & bulletin boards have created new communities around this exotic drink. Yet for the vast majority, Puer is still an acquired taste. Many first time drinkers describe it as “basement bilgewater” … or worse. When I was younger I thought Puer was the “smelly tea”. Like durian, stinky tofu & blue cheese, I could not understand what the fuss was all about.
But now I understand the romance of Puer. Puer is a tea that stands apart, with all the romance & beauty of Yunnan, pressed into unique & heavy cakes that you can collect & age. Puer is a tea that is all about transformation & becoming, offering something new with each year that passes. A tea that can accompany you for decades - wrapped in time, steeped in history, infused with life’s vitality & decay. What a thrill to drink tea from before your time, a tea produced in your childhood, a tea bought & stored to celebrate the birth of your child - ancient tea cakes that need to be reawakened from their slumber before drinking. Puer is truly a tea worthy of treasure hoards & speculative asset bubbles.
The ancient tea horse road
Yunnan was the cradle of ancient Chinese tea cultivation & processing. As early as the Tang dynasty (641 AD), black tea was being steamed & pressed into hardy bricks & transported to Tibet. The ancient tea horse road ran from Xishuangbanna all the way into the highlands of Sichuan & the Tibetan plateau. Back breaking loads of Yunnan tea were carried by porters, mules & yaks 1,400 miles to Lhasa, and traded for Tibetan horses. Because Tibetans do not eat much vegetables or fruit, yak butter tea is an essential part of the diet, and tea bricks became a de facto currency that could be traded for pretty much anything. Another tea caravan route ran south through Burma to India, perhaps explaining how tea trees made their way to Assam.
Modern day Yunnan province, lies along the border with Burma & Laos, and it is thought the tea tree, camellia sinensis, originated somewhere in this area. Puer is produced from a large leaf variety, which when left unpruned, will grow into trees 20m tall. The trees can live for hundreds of years - the oldest currently living is estimated to be 1,700 years old! With dark green, leathery leaves 12-24cm long, the tall trees look entirely different from tea plantation bushes, which are cropped to a convenient height for plucking. When British botanists first came across such trees in Assam, India, they classified thought they had discovered a new species and named it camellia assamica. Only later did the taxonomists realize that all tea is made from the same species, camellia sinsensis (sinensis being the latin name for China), so the large leaf variety was changed to camellia sinsensis var. assamica.
Check out the size of that leaf!
Large leaves of a 2009 Nannuo mountain picked by Hani ethnic minority
Reasons to love Puer
Puer grown from old trees is highly sought after as the flavours & aromas are more natural & tastier than terraced tea bushes. It is believed that tall, ancient tea trees produce more complex flavours than plantation bushes because the biochemistry of the plant is not stressed & stunted by pruning, or the use of chemical fertilizers & pesticides. Certainly it’s what we in marketing call a powerful USP (unique selling proposition … or unbelievably special puer). I’ve seen several vendors emphasizing the spiritual benefits of drinking Puer produced organically from large, wild tea trees, venerated & protected by ethnic tribes high up in the mountains of Yunnan. And for a few highly desirable cakes, this is not stretching the truth too far. But the majority of Puer on the market is made from vast terraced plantations planted in the last 30 years. Sadly, there just aren’t enough ancient trees to produce the amount of “old tree” or “wild arbor” cakes in the marketplace. Many producers only blend in a nominal amount (if any) of these highly valued arbor leaves. Also, the size or age of a tea tree does not automatically mean it will produce superior tea. Many of the ancient tea trees do not actually produce good tasting tea. It is careful genetic selection & cultivation by humans that turned the wild camellia sinensis tree into delicious tea producing varieties.
But there are other reasons to love Puer. It’s relatively cheap by the kilo, when compared to other teas, and it increases in value the longer you store it. A sound investment, you would think. Between 2004 and 2007 Puer prices increased a hundredfold as excessive liquidity and rampant speculation drove prices through the roof. People were not buying Puer to drink, but to hoard away in a warehouse in the hope they could sell it for a profit. Many vendors & investors lost their fortunes when the puer bubble finally collapsed.
But the puer bubble did get the world’s attention, and I have no doubt puer will one day be to China what wine is to France, and whisky is to Scotland. Puer collectors sound a lot like wine connoisseurs, fiercely debating the merits of each year’s vintage, comparing tasting notes & speculating on how flavors will develop with age.
My affection for Puer is much simpler. I love its appearance, its weight, its presence. From the bamboo wrapping of each 7-cake tong, to the hefty weight of each individual cake, down to the densely compressed leaves, which need to be pried apart with a metal pick or knife, Puer is satisfyingly tactile. The tea leaves are usually put in a cotton bag before pressing, and the knot tied in the bag leaves a large dimple on the underside of the cake, like the impact crater of a meteorite. I love how Puer is steamed & pressed into unusual shapes, including discs, bricks, ingots, mushrooms and pumpkins.
A tong of 7 bings
Impact crater on the back of a 2008 Menghai 7552
Buying Puer to age
The magic of Puer is what you don’t see. Like cheese & wine, it is the tiny microbial dance that miraculously transforms sun baked crude into liquid treasure.
Astringent, bitter & grassy when young, oxidation & microbial action break down the leaf tissues over time. Catechins become oxidized and turn into thearubigins & theaflavins, resulting in sweeter, more mellow & complex flavors as the years go by. This slow maturation process means optimal drinking time could be anywhere from 10 to 30 years after purchase, depending on raw materials & storage conditions. Buying a cake today, one can only guess how it might taste in the future, but it’s a fun journey to revisit your favourite cakes over the years and see how they’ve developed. Good raw material is essential, and proper storage does the rest. Although I suspect most collectors have a bunch of low quality cakes they stubbornly hang onto in the hope they will get better with time!
One cake of Puer is called a “bing” in Chinese (饼). You will know you’ve been bitten by the puer bug when you start buying tongs of the stuff. A tong （桶） is 7 bings of puer stacked on top of each other, and wrapped in bamboo leaves or paper. Usually weighing in at 357grams up to 500grams per bing, that’s a lot of tea! The Chinese name for these cakes is “Qi zi bing” (七子饼) and literally means “seven sons cake.” Sons of any kind being highly desirable in Chinese culture, giving someone the gift of seven sons is the ultimate good luck present!
Once you start buying puer by the tong, you will very soon find yourself at IKEA shopping for additional bookshelves, and before long, your house looks something like this...
Just kidding! This is not my house... but one can dream...
If you buy Puer by the jian (件 = a box of 6 tongs = 42 bings), and you are not a tea merchant, you are certifiably Puer crazy!
Because it is hard to predict how a Puer vintage might evolve, many sellers advise you to just buy what tastes good now. Puer novices are often advised to start with Ripe Puer, because you can drink it now and it will still improve over the next 5-10 years. When buying raw puer to collect & age, vendors will advise you to choose more aggressive, astringent cakes, because the more personality a cake has now, the more likely it is to mellow into something extraordinary. But this is not necessarily true, I have noticed that puer from Bangwei is subtly light & sweet when young, yet after only 4 years has already developed a much deeper & complex body.
Puer fanatics will use words like “cha qi” (茶气) to talk about the mystical life force energy tea drinking confers on the drinker. Certain mountains like Bulang are famous for being “Hen ba qi!” （很霸气） which means you’ll get such a boost of “qi” energy, the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up. This is probably a good sheng to store away.
With a proliferation of mediocre brands, false product claims, and counterfeits, Puer can be scary for beginners. Variations in raw materials, processing and storage methods, make Puer collecting an arcane & nerdy fetish. It requires research, experimentation & patience. Serious collectors can tell which mountain the raw material came from, just from tasting the tea. Some claim they can even discern which side of the mountain, and in which season it was picked! There is a “26 mountain tasting set” available specifically for puer palate training. As with blended & single malt whisky, huge debates rage over whether puer produced entirely from a single area is more interesting & desirable than a masterly blend of different leaves. Getting familiar with the signature taste of famous mountains will only increase your appreciation of blends. I like Nannuo (南糯山) for it's thick soupy mouthfeel and lack of bitterness, and Lao Ban Zhang 老班章 (despite the price) for its pungent fragrance, sweet tongue numbing mouthfeel and a powerful cha qi that will make your back sweat! Drinking old puer inevitably stirs debate over what degree of wet storage the cake has endured, and whether or not artificially fermented ripe puer was blended in to fake a really old cake.
Aging & Storing Puer
There is a lot of old wives tales & precious little science when it comes to puer storage & aging. Because most of the puerh we grew up with was stored in hot, humid conditions in Guangdong or Hongkong, it has a distinctive dusty taste associated with wet storage ("shi cang" 湿仓). There are varying degrees of wet storage, and a lot of anecdotal evidence the humidity speeds up the effects of aging. The current consensus is year round humidity of 60-80 degrees and temperature of 20-30 degrees is desirable, but some Puer warehouses in Guangdong deliberately amp up the humidity to over 80% so the tea develops faster. Taken to extremes, the puer cakes will develop mould, and will have a “fa mei wei dao” which literally means mouldy taste (发霉味道). Southern Chinese defend the “wet storage” taste as absolutely normal & enjoyable, whilst people in Shanghai think it is unhygienic and unhealthy. At the end of the day it’s a matter of personal taste. If you like rich, pungent flavors, you’ll probably enjoy a wet stored puer as much as I do.
I store my puer in closed cardboard boxes on a wooden shelf, away from direct sunlight & odors. Personally I like to see the cakes & bamboo tongs, but sealing them away in boxes retains the "xiangqi" or fragrance over the decades. Because tea absorbs odors easily, its not a good idea to store Puer in your clothes closet, kitchen or garage. Some vendors deliberately scent their puer by storing it with camphor wood, or orange skins. Others isolate their tea by region & year, so there's no chance of microbial exchange between new & old, raw & ripe.
Some collectors build a pumidor to create a consistent temperature & humidity, often adding bowls of water inside. Those living in dry or highly seasonal climates, may seal their puer away in ziplock bags & humidified plastic boxes. Marshaln has argued persuasively that proper puer storage should avoid low humidity & temperature which will dry out the tea & kill off the microbes. From all the anecdotal evidence, it seems ventilation & exposure to fresh air is not that important. In the tea markets I often see older cakes that have reached their prime being shrink wrapped in plastic to prevent further oxidation, and I guess also to protect them from dust, as the original paper wrappings disintegrate easily after a few years of handling.
Because the tea sits on the shelf for years, some advise revivifying old puer by breaking the cake up into small pieces, and letting it “breathe” for a few weeks before drinking. Breaking up the cake increases exposure to oxygen, encourages microbial equilibrium, and evens out the flavour profile. Put the broken up cake in a porous clay pot and come back in a few weeks. Paper bags can also work if you dont have a clay pot handy. The same technique of "accelerated oxidation" is also claimed to give young cakes a kick in the pants. I broke up a 2009 Menghai 8592 shu to test this theory, and 2 months later, it has lost some of the heavy wodui flavor and tastes more like the 2008 release (a personal favorite of mine).
To confuse matters further, there is an opposing school of thought informed by aging of Taiwanese oolong, that claims Puer is best aged in an completely airtight environment such as a heat-sealed foil bag, which permits microbial fermentation whilst restricting oxidation. Hojo has summarised this point of view in this great article on "The Myth and Truth of Puerh"
I also recommend you check out "Perspectives on storing & aging Pu'er teas" at Cha Dao. Toki's description of the 3 maturation stages is particularly fascinating, and plausible if you consider how different microbial colonies will become dominant as the tea breaks down over time. Watch the BBC documentary "The Strange Science of Decay" for more.
To rinse or not to rinse?
Twice whilst breaking into a cake I have found human hair embedded in the tea. Other bloggers have found a cigarette butt & even a mysterious tooth in their puer cakes! Puer is laid on the ground to wither (and in the case of ripe puer, it sits on the floor for a month to compost) and there is a lot of human contact from tree to cup. Always flash rinse the leaves twice with boiling water before drinking. This not only kills the germs & washes out the dust, it gives the leaves time to open up, so the full sip will be more flavorful.
Lovely 30cm long orange-dyed hair with my 2001 CNNP Shu Pu
Puer as medicine
Nearly every Puer cake comes with a piece of paper claiming it lowers cholesterol, and increases metabolism, but I’ve yet to see any credible scientific studies. I can however vouch for shu's effectiveness as a good hangover cure! I've also noticed that when drinking a lot of young sheng, my blood sugar level goes down, my heart rate goes up and I need a chunk of chocolate to right myself. Puer is popular as a diet tea, because the Chinese believe it reduces the body’s absorption of nutrients and disperses fat. My family drinks it after dinner, every night, as a digestive. In Hongkong, puer & chrysanthemum are both popular teas to drink with dimsum, as they reduce the heavy feeling one gets after eating a lot of oily & greasy foods. You can even order a blend of puer & chrysanthemum flowers. The white flowers present a nice counterpoint to the black puer leaves. So if you needed a final reason to drink Puer – it’s a beautiful, tasty detergent!