Puerh Tea – A ‘drinkable antique’?

2018 Sheng

Puerh tea is a Chinese tea around which there is such a lot of myth and legend, it seems to fit well with our Welsh culture. The story of puerh links with the culture and life of rural Yunnan, and there is a close relationship between the tea, the landscape, and the history of the livelihoods of Yunnan rural workers. Catherine Yung of Yu Teahouse refers to Puerh as a ‘drinkable antique’ and it’s the ageing properties of the tea which means that its value can increase over time.

All puerh starts as a green tea, and depending on the processing and storage, it can ‘ferment’ and turn into what is referred to as ‘dark tea’. Only tea of this type produced in a specific area of China can be called Puerh, much like Champagne, or different cheeses, but they are also produced in other areas just across the border from Yunnan. It should also be made from large leaf varieties.

2019 Shou puerh

Puerh tea is essentially maocha which is compressed into the form of a cake – bing cha, a bowl shape – tuo cha, or a brick shape, zhuan cha. There are two kinds of Puerh tea, the green type is a raw tea – sheng cha, and the dark type is an artificially fermented tea – shu cha. The tastes are quite distinct, with sheng being like a green tea in its freshness, but without the umami of a green tea. It tends to have a stronger aftertaste, and the texture is denser. It can brew as more astringent, but this is controllable with brewing temperature and time. Shou or shu puerh has a more earthy flavour, forest floor after rain, maybe even fresh compost. There is also a third type which is aged for over five years, sometimes as long as several decades, developed from the first two types, and is much more expensive. There is a popular saying applied to Puerh tea – the longer it’s stored, the better it tastes, in other words, the older the better.

10 year old shou puerh – 1st infusion

Puerh tea made from older tea plants was valued more highly. Connoisseurs also differentiate between tea made from forest trees and that made from tea grown in terraces. Forest trees are generally much older, often over 100 years old, and are cultivated by ethnic minorities such as the Bulang and Hani. The price of forest tea was around four times that of terrace tea, largely because it was considered to come from a more ecologically healthy environment, and tasting better.

So, just from this small amount of information regarding the origin of a Puerh tea, you can see that it is extremely difficult to authenticate Puerh tea, and forgeries are common. In spite of this, it was continually celebrated. The price shot up, to its peak in 2007, and then dropped dramatically later that same year. Nowadays, investors are paying higher amounts for new teas produced in this way.

So going back to the age of the tree, there is a difference between the taste of tea from old and young trees, but also in the effect of the tea on the body – the concept of qi. Westerners are generally sceptical of this, and tend to think of qi as being something quite esoteric. If you have experience of acupuncture, you may be aware of the movement or spread of energy around the body, but puerh tea most certainly can have this effect – people describe a feeling of a hot wave running through your body, an energy. It can leave you feeling energised or relaxed, and the older the tree, the stronger the qi. I experienced this with my very first cup of puerh tea, and have searched for it ever since. Very difficult to explain or describe, but best understood through experience.

Referring back to the last blog, about brewing methods, puerh should always be brewed gong fu style, because Western brewing cools too quickly, and one misses out on the nuances of each flash brew of the tea. Some clay teapots are made specially for puerh, as the clay enhances the flavour of the tea.

We currently have two puerh tea cakes in the shop, plus a white tea cake. The sheng is a 2003 Yuanjiutang Ban Zhang, sourced through Tea Encounter. The Shou is a 2019 Nevermore cake, sourced through Crimson Lotus Tea, and the white is a Moonlight White tea, harvested from Zu Xiang’s organic tea garden in March 2017, and processed in early 2018. This is a minimally processed white, much like Fuding Bai Mu Dan, Gong Mei and Shou Mei. These are not on the website, but do get in touch if you are interested. We also have a wide range of puerh samples, and one day, we will be having tea tastings again.

References:

Eighty Degrees: The Culture of Tea, volume 8, p6

Jinghong Zhang: Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. University of Washington Press

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