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Judging the Quality of Your Pu-erh Tea

A common question among pu-erh lovers, especially when starting out enjoying this special style of tea, is how to judge its quality. There are simple steps that even the most inexperienced pu-erh drinkers can follow. They involve inspecting the dry leaves, the tea liquor, or the leaves after infusing. However, the "true" quality of a specific batch of pu-erh ultimately can only be revealed when the tea is brewed and tasted.

Although, not concrete and sometimes dependent on the style of pu-erh you’re having, there are several general indicators of quality, as listed below.

Dry tea leaves before infusions:

Shown at right: Spent leaves of badly stored shou pu-erh. Note the crumbling leaf faces that are barely held together by leaf veins.

  • There should be no twigs, extraneous matter, and white or dark mold spots on the surface of the compressed pu-erh.
  • The leaves should ideally be whole, visually distinct, and not appear muddy.
  • The leaves may be dry and fragile, but should not be powdery.
  • Good tea should have a quite fragrant aroma, even when dry.
  • Good pressed pu-erh will often have a matte sheen on the surface of the cake, though this is not necessarily a sole indicator of quality.

Liquor:

  • The tea liquor of both raw and ripe pu-erh should never appear cloudy.
  • Well-aged raw pu-erh and well-crafted ripe pu-erh tea may produce a dark reddish liquor, reminiscent of a dried jujube, but in either case the liquor should not be opaque, "muddy," or black in color.
  • The flavors of pu-erh liquors should persist and be revealed throughout separate or subsequent infusions, and never abruptly disappear, since this could be the sign of added flavorings.

Young vs. aged raw pu-erh:

  • Young: The ideal liquors should be aromatic with light but distinct odors of camphor, rich herbal notes like Chinese medicine, fragrance floral notes, and hints of dried fruit aromas such as preserved plums, and should exhibit only some grassy notes to the likes of fresh sencha. Young raw pu-erh may sometimes be quite bitter and astringent but should also exhibit a pleasant mouthfeel and "sweet" aftertaste, referred to as gan* and húigan**.
  • Aged: It should never smell moldy, musty, or strongly fungal, though some pu-erh drinkers consider these smells to be inoffensive or even enjoyable. The smell of aged pu-erh may vary, with an "aged" but not "stuffy" odor. The taste of aged raw pu-erh or ripe pu-erh should be smooth, with slight hints of bitterness, and no biting astringency or off-sour tastes. The element of taste is an important indicator of aged pu-erh quality, the texture should be rich and thick and should have very distinct gan* and húigan** on the tongue and cheeks, which together induces salivation and leaves a "feeling" in the back of the throat.

Tea leaves after infusions:

  • OB_Wet_Leaves.JPGWhole leaves and leave bud systems should be easily seen and picked out of the wet spent tea, with a limited amount of broken fragments.
  • Twigs, and the fruits of the tea plant should not be found in the spent tea leaves, however animal (and human) hair, strings, rice grains and chaff may occasionally be included in the tea.
  • The leaves should not crumble when rubbed, and with ripened pu-erh, it should not resemble compost.
  • Aged raw pu-erh should have leaves that unfurl when brewed while leaves of most ripened pu-erh will generally remain closed.

As you can see, a number of these quality indicators cannot be seen until you have infused some of the dry leaves. With that in mind, your best indicator of quality is a trusted tea vendor.

* Gan - Minty bitterness - a 2 dimensional taste that starts slightly bitter and becomes slightly sweet. Your tongue and mouth will get a cool feeling when you inhale.

** Húigan - Means "recurring gan." A strong gan that keeps coming back for a long while. [source]