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About Pu-erh Tea

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Shop for pu-erh teas.

See all pu-erh articles on our blog Fine Tea Focus.

General Information

Different from black teas and green teas, pu-erh tea leaves are processed from large-leaf and dried Qingmao tea through a special fermentation. They are broad and brownish red in color. When preparing tea, a pleasantly mellow fragrance exudes. Pu-erh tea is in fact a rare health drink for all ages. Literature throughout Chinese history has highly praised the beverage. Wang Yu of the Song Dynasty, Zhao Xuemin of the Qing Dynasty, and Cao Xueqin (author of 'Dream of the Red Mansion') had pu-erh tea mentioned in their works.

Pu-erh tea has gained popularity among consumers in over 20 countries and regions after becoming available in international markets. It is available in compressed and bulk forms. (See our article “Pu-erh Tea Shapes”.) The compressed teas are well-known productions from various tea factories in Xiaguan, Menghai, and Kunming. Bulk tea features broad, stout and brownish red tea leaves and infuses brightly red liquid with a unique and mellow flavor. Dozens of Yunnan's tea factories produce bulk pu-erh tea that is sold abroad under numerous brand names.

Pu-erh tea's quality never fades as years go by. However, the tea should not be stored amid substances with peculiar smells nor in an area that is too humid. In addition, don't keep it hermetically sealed – it needs good air flow around it. (See our article “Pu-erh Aging and Storage”.) For drinking, use only 3-5 grams of tea leaves, add boiling water, and cover the cup for about 1-3 minutes. For better taste, use spring water and purple clay (zisha) tea sets from Yixing.

Pu-erh History and Information

Pu-erh tea has a number of spelling variations, but they are all the same tea: Pu'er tea, Puer tea, Pu er tea, or Bolay tea. All Pu-erh tea is made from a "large leaf" variety of the tea plant Camellia sinensis and named after the Pu-erh county located near Simao, Yunnan, China.

Pu-erh tea at the highest classification level is broken down into raw/green (sheng) or ripened/cooked (shou). The difference between these two classes is based on the processing method. Sheng pu-erh is classified as a maturable green tea regardless of age, and the shou is known as a post-fermented tea due to the processing method. Unlike other teas that should ideally be consumed shortly after production, pu-erh can be drunk immediately or aged for many years; pu-erh teas are often now classified by year and region of production much like wine vintages. Sheng pu-erh will have a more astringent taste to the tea for a number of years until it begins to “show some age,” that is, the mellowing of the tea and the appearance of a more balanced profile.

Pu-erh tea is available as loose leaf or as cakes of compacted tea.

The city of Puer used to be the province’s primary tea market, and consequently the name “puer tea” was derived from the city name. (The city Simao in 2007 changed its name to Puer, and should not be confused with the ancient city).

Pu-erh Tea - Yunnan Province

The shoots and young leaves from this varietal are often covered with fine hairs, with the pekoe (two leaves and a bud) larger than other tea varietals. The leaves are also slightly different in chemical composition, which alter the taste and smell of the brewed tea, as well as its desirability for aging. Due to the scarcity of old wild tea trees, pu-erh made using such trees blended from different tea mountains of the Yunnan Province are highly valued, while more and more connoisseurs are seeking pu-erh with leaves taken from a single tea mountain's wild forests. JAS-eTea.com is proud to have available for our customers a nice selection of teas made exclusively from the very old or ancient tea trees.

Máochá

Máochá - The Stepping Stone to quality Pu-erh Cakes/Bricks/Tuos 

Máochá is leaf tea that has gone through the initial production steps that include plucking, wilting, firing, bruising, and drying. Máochá, which translates to "rough tea" is the base leaf material from which all Pu-erh tea is made. The quality of a good Pu-erh correlates directly with the quality of the Máochá used. If the base raw material is only average, then the final product will likewise only be average.

During production, a key to good quality Máochá is that the five initial steps are carried out as quickly as possible one after the other. The implication here is that the best quality Máochá is typically processed close to where the tea is harvested — on the mountain.

Plucking

Quality tea is hand plucked and packed into woven bamboo baskets with extreme care being taken not to bruise the leaves and to keep them as whole leaves. Packing is a very delicate task and must be done with care; pack the leaves too tightly and they will be damaged to an extent that good quality Máochá cannot be produced.

An additional complicating factor is that old growth trees can sometimes reach heights of 30 feet or more, requiring tea pluckers to climb into the limbs of the trees in order to procure the harvest. This is very different than the photographs you may have seen of neatly pruned low growing tea estates being harvested by colorfully clad tea pluckers meandering through the waist deep tea bushes. While these teas are used for pu-erh, they produce much inferior tea often referred to as plantation tea. 

Wilting

The objective during this step is to get the pu-erh leaves pliable with a minimum of oxidization. Excessive oxidation that may occur during this stage shows up in both the appearance and taste of the final pu-erh tea. Once collected and back at the village, the fresh harvest is spread onto mats in well-ventilated rooms and left to wilt just a little before the next step of the process. The purpose of the wilting is immediately to reduce some moisture in the leaves. This step makes the leaves a little more pliable to insure that they are damaged less during the next stages of the processing. This stage requires a highly-skilled expert to determine how long the leaves must be left to wilt. Too little wilting and the tea leaves will still be easily damaged, and too long will mean they have started oxidization to an excessive degree.

Firing

The firing process in making Máochá has also been called "killing green," and it is at this stage that enzymes are removed from the leaves by a gentle and carefully controlled firing process. This step is carried out by a pan firing technique that is typically done in a large wok. The heat is carefully controlled, and experienced village tea artisans use their bare hands and special hand movements to keep the leaves constantly moving within the wok to ensure that no leaf is in contact with the hot pan surface for more than a few seconds. Any longer and the leaf would burn. It takes an experienced person to tell when the leaves are just right and the firing process should be stopped. There are no computers checking the process only the many years of experience to judge the heat, the aroma, and the feel of the leaves when they are ready.

Bruising

Bruising of the leaves is the next step and is done after firing of the leaves; this step will break down the cell structures within the tea leaves. The fired leaves are gently kneaded and rolled using special techniques passed down from generation to generation. These special techniques ensure that the tea leaves and buds are bruised without breaking them and ensuring the uniformity of the finished product.

Drying

The last stage of the process is sun drying. The leaves at this stage are separated into the lower grades and broken leaf (even with all the care and experience some breakage of the leaf is inevitable) and higher grade special pluckings. The different grades are given different treatment at this stage with the lower grades being dried on large mats in courtyards whilst the higher grades are placed on raised platforms and dried more carefully in special flat baskets. Both grades are carefully monitored and are only allowed to dry for a specific amount of time so that they may dry but not dry-out and thus become brittle.

The finished Máochá product is now ready and awaits a multitude of factories and independent tea makers who will take this "rough" tea and turn it into a further more refined work of Pu-erh tea art. No matter what they do though, it remains a fact that the quality of the Máochá will determine the maximum quality of the end product. 

Máochá is also quite good for consumption in this "rough tea" state. We usually have a few varieties on hand here at JAS-eTea.com.

For additional information

You may want to check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pu-erh_tea

Further readings on this site

  1. Raw versus Ripened Pu-erh
  2. Recipes or "What do those numbers mean?"
  3. Pu-erh Tea Shapes
  4. Judging the Quality of Your Pu-erh Tea
  5. Steaming Your Pu-erh Bing, Brick, or Tuo
  6. Pu-erh Tea Infusion Guidelines
  7. Yixing Teapots
  8. Seasoning Your Yixing Teapot
  9. Pu-erh Tea Videos and Wikipedia Extract
  10. Pu-erh Tea Packaging
  11. Pu-erh Tea Cultivation
  12. Pu-erh Aging and Storage
  13. About the Menghai and Xiaguan Pu-erh Tea Factories
  14. Cost of Drinking Your Pu-erh Tea
  15. History of Pu-erh Tea
  16. Six Famous Tea Mountains
  17. Pu-erh Tea and Health

See more information on our blog Fine Tea Focus.