Puerh Tea

A guide to choosing a puerh tea that you'll love November 18 2015

Puerh is still something new for most tea drinkers in America. The choices can be pretty overwhelming. Puerh is an incredibly complex tea with a history spanning a millennia and a half. We often get asked how to choose a puerh tea for the first time. It can be a daunting experience. However, with a little guidance you can make a choice that will satisfy both your curiosity and your palate.

One of the most important things to realize about puerh is that puerh is not a single tea. There is no one puerh tea experience. The scope of flavors and aroma possible is probably as broad as all other teas combined. Each of the following variables adds an order of magnitude to the complexity:

  • tea tree varietal
  • tea tree age (young plantation trees or ancient trees older than America)
  • region / terroir
  • farm / soil management
  • season of picking (Spring / Summer / Fall)
  • plucking standard / leaf grade
  • roasting method (wok temperature / length of roasting)
  • rolling method (hand rolled versus machine rolled)
  • drying method (sun dried versus air dried)
  • cake compression (loose versus tight)
  • storage methods (humid versus dry)
  • length of storage

That's a lot to keep track of and I don't intend to confuse you. I mean to highlight the rich depth of exploration possible within puerh tea. In your search for amazing puerh remember two things; you will not love ALL puerh, and there IS a puerh tea out there that you will love. Experimentation and exploration is key.

I'm often asked to recommend puerh to new drinkers. I respond first with a question. "What do you like to drink now? What beverages do you currently like and why?" Depending on the answer I can guide one to a puerh they will like with a fairly high degree of accuracy.

 

"I like to drink green tea"

If you like to drink green tea you should start out exploring young sheng (raw) puerh. Young sheng puerh means puerh 6-10 years old or younger. Anything picked in the last few years qualifies as young puerh. A reputable vendor of puerh will be able to tell you what kind of puerh they sell and how old it is. If anyone ever sells you just "puerh" and has no more info about it you should walk away. It is highly likely that is not going to be a pleasurable experience.

Young sheng puerh is biologically similar to green tea. A lot of the highlights you get from green tea are in young sheng puerh. When sheng puerh is young it has not yet gone through all the micro-biological changes that are present in sheng puerh aged a few decades or more. The flavor profile can vary from vegetal to floral to fruity. It will brew light in color but be rich in flavor. It may be bitter and astringent but should balance that with a sweetness. I sometimes describe it as green tea plus. It will be like a really rich green tea that just keeps giving. You should be able to steep the same leaves over 10 times.

Some good examples of young sheng puerh we sell are:

  • 2014 Bulang "Tribute Tea"
    • A blend of 8 villages from the Bulang mountains. This tea will start slightly smoky and bitter but evolve into a vegetal / floral sweetness.
  • 2015 "Hidden Song"
    • This is a thick bodied tea with a vegetal / beany experience. It brews with strong aromas and a savory umami notes.
  • 2015 "Gu Ming Xiang Bing"
    • A blend of two contrasting tea mountains this puerh is both delicate and harsh at the same time. Light and floral or strong and bitter all depend on how you brew it.
  • 2014 "Planet Jingmai"
    • Crisp and floral with strong honey aroma. Long lasting aftertaste. Can brew bitter and astringent with heavy steepings.

 

"I like to drink oolongs"

Oolong tea is also a pretty complex category. If you like drinking oolongs you're probably already familiar with tea exploration and are willing to dive headfirst into exploring puerh. Here's a few teas to think about:

  • 2014 "Planet Jingmai"
    • Crisp and floral with strong honey aroma. Long lasting aftertaste. Can brew bitter and astringent with heavy steepings.
  • 2005 Changtai "Top of the Clouds"
    • This is a very complex tea that was humid stored for a decade in Guangdong. It has depth of flavor and aroma with very present apricot notes.
  • 2003 Changtai "Memorial"
    • This is a tea with a very affordable aged sheng experience. It is aromatic with a familiar aged mustiness similar to opening an old book or walking through an ancient cathedral.

 

"I like to drink coffee"

This was me before I discovered puerh for the first time. I was passionately into coffee. I was on a coffee journey searching for the perfect cup and perfect brew. It was a journey I enjoyed greatly until I found puerh tea. The things I liked the most about coffee I find in shou (ripe) puerh. It is emotionally similar to coffee. The flavors and aroma are not the same, but the emotion is there. Shou puerh starts off life as sheng puerh. Then it goes through a careful process of heat and humidity manipulation to accelerate the natural aging process. The process can take 1-3 months depending on the desired outcome. The processes utilized are very tricky to master. If you mess it up you can literally create stinking garbage. If you get it right though it can be amazing. In many cases the exact methods are considered intellectual property of the companies that have perfected them. It would be similar to the recipe for Coca-Cola. Shou puerh is a relatively new category of tea. The methods were only invented in the 1970's.

Shou puerh brews up dark and thick with intriguing aromas. The aromas can be woodsy, earthy, mineraly; and hopefully not fishy. Imagine a walk through the forest right after a rain. The flavors can be harder to nail down but will be similar to the aroma with more depth. You can sometimes find choclate or malty notes. Shou puerh will be smoother than young sheng puerh. It will be noticeably less bitter and astringent but may have those characters hiding in the layers. Shou puerh is mellow and easy to drink. It's a perfect pick-me-up on cold, dark, wet winter mornings.

Some of our more popular shou puerhs are:

  • 2014 "Cloudy Days"
    • This is a newcomer to our inventory, but is quite nice. This tea is thick and tasty. It's nutty and earthy with strong mineral notes and is so very sweet. 
  • 2008 Bulang Imperial Grade
    • One of our easiest drinking shou puerhs. This cake is primarily buds and starts off thick and dark and quickly becomes sweet and mellow in later steepings. Definitely a daily drinker.
  • 2012 Bulang Gushu
    • This is a heavy hitter with depth. The rich aroma and thick mouthfeel presents a smooth, layered, multi-dimensional experience with sweet flavors of chocolate and molasses and a hint of nutmeg spice.
  • 2012 Nannuo Shan
    • Rich and delicious with a subtle marzipan aroma.

 

"I like to drink red tea / black tea"

Black teas differ greatly by region. It's a little harder to find a one to one comparison between black teas and puerh. Ailao Shan is a mountain in Yunnan whose characteristic is very much like a floral black tea for me. You'll need to experiment. If you like floral black teas look for a younger sheng puerh from Jingmai or Yiwu. If you're into the maltier / bolder black tea flavors we might not have something to match your palate at this time.

Give these a try:

  • 2014 Planet Jingmai
    • Crisp and floral with strong honey aroma. Long lasting aftertaste. Can brew bitter and astringent with heavy steepings.
  • 2015 "Gu Ming Xiang Bing"
    • This is blended with Yiwu material and can be very floral and light. Brew quickly with a higher water to leaf ratio. With heavy steepings or a high leaf to water ratio it will reveal an intense bitterness that comes from the Bulang leaves blended in.

 

Experimentation and Exploration

As I mentioned above experimentation and exploration are key. Nearly all the teas we sell are sold in sample sizes. Buy a few samples of the different puerhs that intrigue you and start brewing with them. We encourage people to have a tea journal. Think of it like a science project. Write down the details of aroma and flavor and how they change over the multiple steepings. Keep track of how many grams of leaf you use to how many milliliters of water. Track brewing temperature and steeping times. Experiment with the variables. Brew long and brew short. You'll quickly find what works for you. If something doesn't taste right when you brew it try brewing it different next time. If you find a way to brew that you like you're doing it right.

If you're just getting started we sell a puerh starter set. It includes samples of shou puerh, young sheng puerh, and aged sheng puerh. It's a perfect way to get a snapshot picture of the flavor and aroma experience possible within puerh.

 

 


    Puerh Education: Grade of Leaf January 15 2015

    When a system is too complex it is hard to fully understand the underlying pieces. Why does Dayi, or other companies, use the recipe they use for their classic puerh cakes? Why do they add more lower leaf grades to some recipes and more higher leaf grades to other recipes? To answer these questions and begin to understand puerh we need to remove extraneous variables. Tasting different blended puerhs will only cause more confusion unless you can remove variables and focus on small changes. With the CPTR research cakes I saw a unique opportunity. I could remove many variables and focus solely on how leaf grade changed the tea. With these cakes the variables of region, farm, production method, tree age, processing methods, and post processing storage methods were all identical and therefore cancelled each other out. Focus can be given to the grade of leaf.

    What is Huang Pian? September 05 2014

    She pauses her diligent hunt for just a moment to lift the entire mat up into the air in one swift motion that momentarily suspends each leaf in front of her face. As the leaves fall back into place she begins a rhythmic circular motion that spreads the leaf across the woven surface. The mat back on the ground she begins the hunt again. She is looking for broken leaves, yellow leaves, leaves that didn’t roll tightly, and leaves that are too big. These she sets aside in a special pile. These aren’t pretty leaves; they’re runts. The market doesn’t want these leaves. They have ‘standards’. These leaves are called ‘lao huang pian’, or just ‘huang pian’.

    Tea pets are the perfect companions on your tea journey! August 26 2014

    Quietly I sat in the dark back corner of Hidden Peak Teahouse in downtown Santa Cruz. I was in deep appreciation of the thick black brew at my fingertips and was inwardly reflecting on how I had arrived at this place and time. My only companion a fat frog made out of clay who persistently stared up at me. What did he want? Those soulful eyes unsuccessful in hiding deep desire. Whatever words he would have spoken were obscured by the large coin held tightly in his mouth. It was obvious what he wanted though. Tea. This frog was a tea pet, and he was thirsty. Pouring it over his head I shared some of my puerh; momentarily sating his never ending thirst.


    What is Gushu? July 25 2014

    It is no easy task for a tree to grow into the triple digits of age. It takes patience, care, and more than a little luck. Trees that can be considered gushu have the subtle grace of battle hardened warriors of old. Salty old seadogs with stories to tell and scars to prove them. They’ve withstood the tests of time. Their roots run deep and that foundation gives strength. They’ve seen seasons of drought, and seasons of plenty. They have survived wars, fires, and famine that often took the lives of their human tenders. Through a process of Darwinian natural selection they have emerged the genetic victor. They are of a hearty stock, well adjusted to their soil, and naturally more resilient to insect invaders. This means less of a temptation for farmers to use pesticides or fertilizers. When you drink gushu you’re drinking history. You’re drinking from tea trees planted during the glory days of Imperial China; or earlier.

    What does puerh tea have to do with marriage? July 13 2014

    This is our simple wish: A long, happy marriage filled with delicious tea!

    Bulang Mountain Puerh April 29 2014

    As our dust cloud pulled up and we emerged covered in dirt and sweating from the afternoon heat, we must have been an interesting spectacle. Nevertheless Yan invited us in for tea. The factory buzzed with youthful social activity. Workers arrived with backs bearing fresh picked tea. Many kilos of this green gold was delivered, weighed, bought, and recorded. We sat, drank tea, and chatted about how our journey had brought us here. Yan broke the news that our car would never make it to Laoman'e...

    Jingmai Mountain and Mangjing Village April 09 2014

    The forest became thicker the higher we climbed that steep path. Entering the forest the high trees created a protective canopy. The forest floor was well maintained and easy to walk through. Before we knew it we were surrounded by ancient tea trees. I've seen pictures, but nothing is like being amidst a forest like this. The scene offered both serenity and tranquility. The rustling of the tea tree leaves brought a cool breeze announcing Spring with a sweet aroma. The suns rays piercing the upper forest canopy with the slowly swaying branches performed a shadow puppet show on the forest floor to entertain us. It was a singular moment that I won't soon forget.


    Longtan Village March 21 2014

    To find the puerh we were looking for we would need to travel much further south. The road wound through the mountains with all the predictability of a bowl of noodles. The ribbon of black tarmac we rode was cut with random, nearly impassable sections of dirt and rock. It was as if the road couldn't make up its mind which century it was in. Our valiant, but aging, Mitsubishi Space Wagon stayed true to the course and brought us safely to Jiangcheng. 

    Jian Shui Zi Tao Pottery March 11 2014

    A half an hour of walking westerly from the city center will bring you to Wan Yao Village. This is the traditional home to Jian Shui Zi Tao pottery. The narrow, winding streets are hot and dusty. Swallows dipping down for attention ride the hot wind that carries the smell of clay to your nose. It's welcoming and intrusive at the same time. Each shop carries both amazing pottery and cool shade. We availed ourselves of both. Still in the learning, exploring, and investigatory phase we chose to stop in each shop and ask all the questions we had. With only a quick honk of the horn as warning we dodged industrial trucks and motorcycles all moving too fast for the enclosed space as we went door to door.

    Investigating a Mystery Puerh March 03 2014

    We investigate this mystery puerh, explore its essence, and come to a conclusion on its origin.

    Sampling Aged Puerh with Chang Tai February 24 2014

    We spend a long afternoon with Chang Tai sampling identical cakes of puerh (2006 ChangTai Nannuo Shan Cha Hu Chen Sheng Puerh) one aged in hot, humid Menghai, and the other aged in cool, dry Kunming. The difference is striking.