A Beginner's Guide to Pu'er Tea

Think of walking through a forest in late autumn, a few hours after rain. The smell of wet leaves, moss and rich earth mingle as you scuff the gently decaying leaves.

This is how a good cup of pu'er tea should taste and smell - complex and earthy. Forest and stone, woodsmoke and lichen.

Having grown up on supermarket English tea with milk and sugar, Chinese teas were a brave new world for me. Mostly, they were a revelation - fresh and vibrant grassy green teas, and delicately floral oolongs. But I remained unconvinced about pu'er tea, thinking it tasted dank and musty - less like forest and more like wet basement and mouldy attic. I didn't like it at all.

Pu'er is considered the pinnacle of tea-drinking for the Chinese, and often the most difficult for the rest of us to appreciate. Like wine, pu'er improves with age and develops more complex flavours. 

I hoped that by travelling along parts of the ancient Tea Horse Trail in southern Yunnan - the route by which tea travelled from its origins in Yunnan overland to Tibet, Mongolia and the rest of China - it would give me a new appreciation for the China's finest tea. 

Completely unable to convince the rest of the family that visiting a tea workshop in the middle of nowhere followed by a climb up a mountain to a grove of ancient wild tea trees would be a fun way to spend the day, I went by myself on my own little tea trail, and learned a lot. 

The owner of the guest house in which we were staying (Yourantai) happened to be good friends with Chen Ying, a quiet Chinese woman my own age who had left a career in forestry conservation to run a tea workshop in a quiet, clean, remote part of Yunnan blessed with clean air and water and robust tea trees.

Starting in Jinghong near the Myanmar border, south of the ancient town of Pu'er for which the tea is named, I headed west and up into the hills past Menghai, visiting first the tea workshop, then tea terraces in the surrounding countryside, and lastly the mountain of Nanla, home to some of the oldest tea trees in Yunnan. 

Here's what I learned (with still a great deal more to learn), thanks to my knowledgeable teachers that day.  


下面这就是那天我了解到的一些东西 (还有很多东西要学习) 感谢知识渊博的老师们.

Chinese Tea: The Basics 中国茶: 基本要素

Chinese tea falls into three main groups based on the degree of oxidation (the effect of air on the enzymes and chemicals within the tea leaf):

1. Unoxidized: green tea, white tea

2. Partially oxidized: oolong tea, yellow tea

3. Fully oxidized: tea  pu'er tea, black tea

Southern Yunnan is where tea originated, a place of lush green hills terraced with rows of tea bushes, patches of thick green jungle, valleys filled with sugarcane and banana trees. Large leafed pu'er tea,  related to the original wild teas of the region, is grown on the sides of steeply sloped hills and harvested twice a year in spring and autumn. 

Just like the influence of terroir on wines, the altitude at which pu'er tea is grown, the age of the trees, the mineralization of the soil, the water supply, the hours of sunlight, the rate of oxidation once picked and the skill of the tea artisans controlling the oxidation process all add to the unique flavour profile of pu'er tea.

Differing from green and oolong teas, after full oxidation (drying and warming) pu'er tea is left to naturally ferment, causing it to develop complex flavour characteristics over time.


Making Pu'er Tea 制作普洱茶

After picking, the leaves are first converted to 'rough tea' or maocha by drying for 5-6 hours on bamboo trays, then briefly cooking in warm metal pans and 'rolling' by hand, curling the leaves a little. The leaves are then sorted to separate the premium larger leaves from twigs and small leaves.

The leaves spend one day in the 'greenhouse' drying further - a large airy room with a glass roof concentrating the warmth. 

在采摘之后,叶子首先通过在竹盘上干燥56个小时被转化成“粗糙的茶”或者说是毛茶,然后短暂的在金属平底锅里蒸煮处理一下,在用手“揉搓”,将叶子弄卷曲一些。然后将茶叶分类,将大一些的叶子和细枝和小叶子分隔开来。 用一天的时间将叶子在“温室中”进一步烘干——一个有玻璃房顶保暖又通风的大房间。

The dried tea is measured into 200g portions, placed into a cotton bag and steamed briefly before being compressed into a cake or bing. The bag's twirled knot gives the pu'er cake its distinctive indentation.

Each cake is then placed under a heavy stone weight and the stone 'rocked' to further compress the tea

The tea cake is removed from the cotton bag, still steaming but now compressed flat, and placed to dry on racks for two further days. After this the tea is fully oxidized and ready to start the process of aging or fermentation.

Wrapped in locally made paper, free of chemicals that might taint the tea, the tea is stored in traditional bundles of seven cakes wrapped together in banana husk - qi zi bing cha

This is sheng cha or green pu'er tea. Over the next eight to ten years the residual moisture in the tea leaves will allow it to slowly ferment, developing more and more complex flavours with age


Brewing the Perfect Cup of Pu'er Tea 酿造完美的普洱茶

The mysteries of the perfect cup of tea seemed insurmountable to a mere tea mortal like myself with way too much fuss, bother, equipment and paraphernalia involved.  So it was entirely refreshing to have Chen Ying tell me she makes her pu'er both the traditional way, and a quick way if she's drinking tea alone.

The necessary equipment:
1. A small teapot made from pure clay (eg Yixing ware), so as not to cause any chemical impurities to seep into the tea.
2. A glass jug into which the tea can be decanted
3. Porcelain tea cups
4. Boiling water and tea

1. Break off a small of amount of pu'er tea from the cake, add tea to pot
2. Fill the pot to overflowing wth just-boiled water, replace lid and pour water over pot to warm it
3. Allow to brew very briefly then pour the first brew of tea over the tea cups - this rinses both  the tea leaves (removing any dust or impurities) and the tea cups
4. Fill pot for a second time with boiling water
5. Allow to steep for 30 seconds
6. Decant tea into glass jug, and from there pour into individual tea cups
7. Refill teapot with water and repeat for up to 15 steepings, according to taste

If she's in a hurry Chen Ying says she just puts some leaves into a lidded porcelain teacup and allows it to steep in the cup, adding more water as needed. She explained though, that tea drinking should always be a relaxing activity, with the proper time taken to do it well.

When to Drink Tea
There is really no better reminder of the best times to drink tea than to follow the esoteric directions in Hsu Tse Shu's Ming Dynasty poem:

Proper Moments for Drinking Tea

When one’s heart and hands are idle.
Tired after reading poetry.
When one’s thoughts are disturbed.
Listening to songs and ditties.
When a song is completed.
Shut up at one’s home on a holiday.
Playing the ch’in and looking over paintings
Engaged in conversation deep at night.
Before a bright window and a clean desk.
With charming friends and slender concubines.
Returning from a visit with friends.
When the day is clear and the breeze is mild.
On a day of light showers.
In a painted boat near a small wooden bridge.
In a forest with tall bamboos.
In a pavilion overlooking lotus flowers on a summer day.
Having lighted incense in a small studio.
After a feast is over and the guests are gone.
When children are at school.
In a quiet, secluded temple.
Near famous springs and quaint rocks.







Pu'er Tea: The Taste  普洱茶:味道

I tried five different pu'er teas that day - a recently pressed sheng cha or fresh pu'er, which had a light herbaceous taste, then a one, three, four and five year old tea. Each different year brought a variety of new tastes - light smoke, polished wood, wet leaves and earth. None were musty or mouldy tasting, and there wasn't a single hint of basement or attic. They were all smooth and very refreshing.

I had officially been converted. I bought two cakes of the oldest tea I could afford, which turned out to be three years old. One to drink now, and one to keep for as long as possible. Chen Ying's oldest tea, eight years old, was entirely out of my price range at around $150 per bing. Imagine the price of a twenty, thirty or fifty year old tea!


Buying Pu'er Tea 购买普洱茶

As the exclusivity and value of pu'er tea has increased in China, so has the ingenuity and guile of those willing to risk prosecution to make money from the everyday consumer - you and me. 

Scams I heard about included (but clearly weren't limited to) the classic bait and switch (try a tea of very high quality, then be sold a pu'er cake of inferior tea) and the sale of semi-fake cakes of pu'er with high quality outer leaves (so when you break off a little and test it, it seems the genuine article) but filled with cheap, inferior tea on the inside.

Buying aged pu'er is also problematic, as the price rises exponentially with the age of the tea. What condition has the tea been stored in for all of that ten or more years?  Has the tea changed hands during that time?

Just as it's difficult and daunting to know which red wines to buy when you first start out (and in China the red wine market is equally full of fakery and quackery) the suggestion is to make friends with a tea lover and learn from them. Taste plenty of teas and learn which you like best, find out who their trusted tea suppliers are buy only from them.

Ultimately though, it comes down to taste - your taste - and buying what you enjoy drinking even if it's inexpensive or younger than fully aged pu'er tea.


Storing Pu'er Tea 储存普洱茶

Pu'er needs to be stored in a clean, dark, dry, airy place, wrapped in its original paper to keep it clean. Excessive moisture will lead to mould. 


Resources for Learning More:

Seven Cups  - a US website dedicated to Chinese tea

Making Pu'er tea - a demonstration video at www.dianxitea.com

Information about Pu'er tea and Chen Ying's tea workshop can be found at her website www.qualitea2005.com