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Raw vs. Ripened Pu-erh

All pu-erh teas can be divided into these two basic kinds.

Raw pu-erh

2003_Yong_Pin_Hao_-_Yi_Wu_Zheng_Shan_-_Stone-Pressed_Raw_tea_cake_400_grams_4.JPGOver time, raw pu-erh acquires an earthy flavor due to slow fermentation and other, possibly microbial, processes. Unlike the oxidation that results in green, oolong, or black tea, this process is not catalyzed by the plant's own enzymes but rather by fungal, bacterial, or auto-oxidation influences. Pu-erh gains value over time in the same way that aged roasted oolong does. Flavors can change dramatically over the course of the aging process, resulting in a brew tasting strongly earthy but clean and smooth, reminiscent of the smell of rich garden soil or an autumn leaf pile, sometimes with roasted or sweet undertones.

Because of its ability to age without losing "quality", well-aged good raw pu-erh can undergo "wet storage" (shīcāng, 湿仓) and "dry storage" (gāncāng 干仓), with teas that have undergone the latter being much more desirable. Dry storage involves keeping the tea in an environment with "comfortable" temperature and humidity levels, thus allowing the aging process to occur slowly. Wet storage involves spraying the tea with water and allowing it dry off in a humid environment. This process speeds up oxidation and microbial conversion, which only loosely mimics the quality of natural dry storage aged pu-erh. Wet storage pu-erh not only does not acquire the nuances of slow aging, it can contain mold, yeast, and bacteria cultures if it has not been attended properly during that period of storage.

Pu-erh properly stored in different environments can develop different tastes at different rates due to environmental differences in ambient humidity, temperature, and odors. For instance, similar batches of pu-erh stored in the different environments of Taiwan and Hong Kong are known to age very differently. Because the process of aging pu-erh is a lengthy one and teas may change owners several times, a batch of pu-erh may undergo different aging conditions, even swapping wet and dry storage conditions, which can drastically alter the flavor of that tea. Raw pu-erh should not be stored at very high temperatures, or be exposed to direct contact with sunlight, heavy air flow, liquid water, or unpleasant smells, since such poor storage conditions can ruin even the best quality pu-erh.

Although low to moderate air flow is important for producing a good quality aged raw pu-erh, it is generally agreed by most collectors and connoisseurs that raw pu-erh tea cakes older than 30 years should not be further exposed to "open" air since it would result in the loss of flavors or degradation in mouthfeel. The tea should instead be preserved by wrapping or hermetically sealing it in plastic wrapping or ideally glass.

Ripened pu-erh

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Since the ripening process was developed to imitate aged raw pu-erh, many arguments surround the idea of whether aging ripened pu-erh is desirable. Mostly, the issue rests on whether aging ripened pu-erh will, better or worse, alter the flavor of the tea.

Aging ripened pu-erh a little is often recommended to "air out" the unpleasant musty flavors and odors formed due to máochá fermentation. However, some collectors argue that keeping ripened pu-erh longer than 10 to 15 years makes little sense, stating that the tea will not develop further and possibly lose its desirable flavors. Others note that their experience has taught them that ripened pu-erh indeed does take on nuances through aging and point to side-by-side taste comparisons of ripened pu-erh of different ages. Though the storing period increases the value of the tea, it is not often that such actions will be taken as it is not economically efficient.