Pu’erh tea (also known as aged or vintage tea)is a completely different type of tea. Pu'erh is only produced in the Yunnan province of southern China and is one of the oldest forms of tea. The history of Pu’erh Tea can be traced back to “Pu Tea” of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) with the drying of leaves in the sun in Yunnan province. The plants in this region have large, soft leaves spaced far apart on large, tough stems. It is also the only tea that is actually fermented and not just oxidised. It first undergoes a process similar to Green tea, but before the leaf is dried, it is aged either as loose-leaf tea or pressed into dense cakes and decorative shapes. Depending on the type of pu'erh being made (either dark "ripe" pu'erh or green "raw" pu'erh), the aging process lasts anywhere from a few months to several years. Very old, well-stored Pu'erhs are considered "living teas", just like wine. They are prized for their earthy, woody or musty aroma and rich, smooth taste.
Raw Pu’erh (sheng cha) and ripe Pu’erh (shu cha) are the two main categories of Pu’erh. Sheng cha is generally more bitter, with a strong green vegetal flavour. However, after some years of natural aging, the bitterness disappears and the charming aged aroma arises.Therefore, sheng cha is popular among pu’erh collectors.
Presently, Pu’erh Tea comes in two varieties, Green (Sheng) and Black (Shou), depending on how the leaves are processed. Green Pu’erh Tea has been around for centuries but the process for Black Pu’erh Tea was first developed in 1973 and the first black Pu’erh teas came on the market in 1975.
In processing both Green and Black variety, the same steps of Withering - "Kill-Green" - Rolling/Forming - Drying and Steaming/Shaping are followed. The Black variety has the additional step of "Cooking" (Piling/Heaping) which is heaping the leaves in a pile to facilitate fermentation. Both varieties are then stored for aging. Pu’erh Teas differ from other teas and derive their unique flavor by the technique of sun-drying the leaves after the Rolling/Forming step. It is the heaping of the leaves into a pile that starts the natural enzymatic breakdown process of fermentation which creates heat and “cooks” the leaves. This adds a highly-prized complexity, depth and smoothness to the tea different from the green variety.
After processing, for both green and black varieties of Pu’erh, the leaves are then left as loose leaves or compressed into the following shapes:
- Brick Tea (Juan Cha)
- Cake Tea (Beeng Cha)
- Bell Shape (Toa Cha)
- Mushroom Shape (Maw Gu Toaw)
After forming, the tea is stored in warm and moist cellars which allows subtle chemical processes to further mature and mellow the tea over time. Pu’erh tea is drinkable after 3 months and after 5 years, starts to develop its unique aged taste.
Pu’erh is unique in the world of tea. There is no other tea like it in terms of processing, storage, and taste. Different factors such as origins of the raw materials, soil, altitude, time, storage conditions affect the taste of Pu’erh and make it a fascinating type of tea.
Generally speaking, Pu’erh can be sweet, bitter, floral, mellow, woody, astringent, sour, earthy, watery, or even tasteless. A combination of tastes appear in one single steeping. The taste also changes as the tea ages.