Puer tea is made from a Yunnan broad leaf varietal tea tree (da ye zhong), Camelia sinensis assamica. This is the main variety of tea tree in Xishuangbanna. There are believed to be a number of sub-varieties of sinensis assamica that have evolved, though most remain officially unclassified. Some areas of Yiwu as well as Jing Mai Shan for example produce Puer from a sub-varietal 'zhongxiao ye zhong' medium small leaf varietal. See here for further information on subvarieties of sinensis assamica.
Further categorisation is normally in this manner: 'Ancient' or 'Tall' tea trees (gu shu), which are generally considered to be more than 100 years old and 'Old' tea trees (da shu cha) which are less than 100 years old. The term 'Small Tall Tree' (xiao qiao mu) is sometimes used to denote a tree between 50 and say 80 years old - considered to produce Puer tea of lesser quality than old and ancient tea tree Puer, but which none-the-less can make for some reasonable tea that shares many qualities with tea from older stock. Tree size can vary considerably with area and there are also some regional variations in categorising trees - what is considered da shu in one area may be called xiao qiao mu in another.
Terms such as 'wild' (ye sheng/野生), 'wild tall tree' and 'antique arboreal tree' are common on Puer wrappers. In reality, there is a limited amount of tea produced from truly wild tea trees. Most commonly, whatever the name, most older tea trees are cultivated trees that have been, for a variety of reasons, left unmanaged for a substantial period of time and are now left to grow naturally with minimal human intervention.
Cultivated bush tea (guan mu cha/ 灌木 ) refers to a method of planting that was introduced in the 1930's where tea bushes are planted in rows. Cultivated bushes (tai di cha/台地茶), grown from old tea tree seeds are very common and there have been extensive programmes of replanting, notably in the latter half of the 20th Century when big tea factories engaged in clearing and replanting to increase productivity and meet a growing demand for Puer. The tea from these trees is generally thought to be inferior, not least because of the widespread use of agro-chemicals in their cultivation. In recent years more people have also begun to cultivate the small leaf varietal ( xiao ye/小叶) brought from other parts of China.
Yunnan Government ruled in 2008 that Puer tea should be named according to certain geo-specific and technical requirements. These were subsequently adopted as national standards by the Chinese Government.
In sheng or raw Puer, it is hard to tell the difference between the leaves from these different trees in the dried form, but it is easier to detect which type of tree a leaf came from once the raw tea has been steeped.
There are some misconceptions about what an ancient or old Puer tea leaf looks like - many people assume that the bigger the leaf, the older the tree. It is not that simple. An old tree quite likely will have less vigorous growth than a younger tree and may produce smaller leaves with shorter stems. The leaves and stems are likely to be thicker than those of cultivated varieties. New leaf tips can be a different shape and the edges of the leaves can also be an indicator, with older trees having less regular serrations on the leaf margins.
Apart from regional variations, other factors, such as the position on the tree - south or north facing , where the leaves are on the tree - higher or lower, also play a part in the rate of growth.
Once mao cha/ 毛茶 has been pressed into Puer cakes it becomes a little more difficult to identify leaf scources because the pressing process tends to break up the tea leaves so there are less whole leaves in a tea cake or bing / 饼 . But with raw Puer it is till possible to learn a lot from the spent leaves.
With cooked shu cha there is really no way to identify the original tea leaf origins because the 'fermentation' process changes the leaf characteristics.
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Apart from the quality of the leaf produced by each kind of tree and the method of processing, each area also produces a different kind of tea. Much akin to the importance of terroire with French wine, Puer from each different area has different qualities and tea drinkers will often prefer one over another. Unlike the French wine system of regional or domaine classifications, there is no strict rule about how an area is defined, so tea could be sold as Lao Ban Zhang, but it could actually come from, say Xin Bang Zhang (New Ban Zhang as opposed to Old Ban Zhang). This may seem like a small difference but the tea will have different characteristics. What is geographically considered to be Lao Ban Zhang is quite clear and there is a general acceptance of what 'Lao Ban Zhang' tea tastes like, but within that there are variations - not all 'Lao Ban Zhang' tastes the same. This is due to different strains, or perhaps ecotypes, that have developed and partly due to local topography which has created many micro-climates. But also, height above sea level, soil characteristics and orientation all have an effect on the tea.
Xishuangbanna, being in the northern region of the sub-tropics has two seasons; A wet season between May and October and a dry season. None-the-less tea is generally said to be picked over three seasons, spring Puer being the most sought after. Autumn tea is the next most popular followed by summer tea which is generally of poorer quality. Tea is rarely, if ever, picked in the winter. Tea that is picked as early as January or February will be referred to as 'Early Spring' tea. Puer tea from each season has a different flavour. Variations in weather in any given season can also greatly affect the quality of Puer produced. So for example, a particularly wet spring may produce tea leaves that have grown more quickly. They may have a higher water content. Because of this these leaves will make weaker, poorer quality tea.
Spring tea is generally defined by three periods; First Flush (da chun or tou chun - 'beginning of spring'), Second Flush (er chun - 'second spring'), and Third Flush (chun wei - 'end of spring'). Fourth Flush (yu shui - 'rain water') is sometimes called Summer Tea. Autumn Flush (gu hua) also has only one time period which can be anywhere from the end of September to the beginning of November.
In Xishuangbanna Tou Chun is typically considered the best. This generally falls in March/April; sometimes said to be after Spring Festival up to and including a few days either side of another national holiday - Qing Ming Jie, however it may well come later depending on climatic conditions. Bush tea flushes first and tea is sometimes picked as early as February (referred to as Early Spring Tea), though not in quantity. Old and ancient tea trees are also not as predictable as bushes. Older trees will typically flush later.
Although rather older trees may be picked less or less frequently than younger trees and bushes, good, healthy old tea trees can still produce tea throughout a large part of the year. Processing Puer tea includes a number of steps; picking, wilting, frying, rolling and sun drying. The end result is loose raw Puer, or maocha.
The method of making tea is largely the same for all types of tea, with some variations; one tea is wilted, another not. One is bruised another not, one is steamed, another roasted. These differences, however small they may seem result in a wide range of teas that vary considerably in their taste, appearance and properties.
Both raw or sheng Puer and cooked or shou Puer start out in the same way. But a typical difference is that cooked Puer is rarely made from ancient or old tea tree leaves. Raw Puer is also not always made from old tree tea, but there is a greater likelihood of it. Furthermore, single mountain source shou cha is not thought to produce the best tea - a blend of maybe 3-5 different mountains creates a better, more rounded flavour. The maocha from which Puer is produced is made in the following manner;
Leaves are picked - for the best tea, from ancient or old tea trees, but can come from any form of camelia sinensis assamica. The most prized tea leaves are single tips (dan ya- single tooth), followed by single tip and leaf (yi ya, yi ye - one tip, one leaf), single tip, two leaves (yi ya, er ye) and then tip, three leaves (yi ya, san ye). It is rare to find one tip, four leaves, or more in Puer tea. Some of the best Puer however is made by tea farmers who may have been been picking tea for generations, but who do not single out say, 'yi ya, yi ye' etc. when they are picking leaves. The result is that a lot of high quality Puer is a mix of the above formations, typically with tip and two leaf formations forming the majority. Trees that are less managed and growing in a more natural environment can often produce shoots with up to three leaves that can be processed without producing 'huang pian'. Because one of the aims of picking is to encourage new growth, the method of picking can also vary according to the age of the tree and the kind of new growth that the picker wishes to encourage. Older trees also need more time to recuperate and may well be picked less vigorously/frequently. Trees that are several hundred years old may only produce leaves twice a year.
Leaves are often collected in bags which the tea picker wears over one shoulder. This is practical, particularly where trees are on steep ground and when the picker needs to climb into a tree to gather leaves, but care needs to be taken not to compress the leaves since they may bruise easily and, if they remain like that for an extended period of time, they will start to ferment/oxidise. Ideally, if it is not practical for the farmer to return to the house in a relatively short period of time the leaves are transferred to a basket or spread out on mats.
There are varying practices, depending on local and individual habits, and also the distance of a farmer's tea fields from the house. A few farmers will pick tea in the morning, then take it back to their house to wilt, fry, roll, and then sun dry but it is unlikely that the drying process can be completed in the same day, requiring further drying on the second day. This is not the traditional method of making Puer tea and few tea farmers work in this way. Many farmers live some distance from their tea fields so this approach is not practical. In this case farmers will pick tea and bring it back to the house in the afternoon to fry and roll in the evening. In this case, the tea is kept after rolling and then put out to sun dry the next morning. Some tea makers spread the rolled tea out on bamboo mats ready for drying the next day, other keep the tea together, covered, and only the next day spread it out on mats for drying.
The next step is tan qing /摊青, laying the leaves out. The fresh leaves are laid out on bamboo mats at a depth of about 10 centimetres, normally in the area under the living quarters of a traditional house where it is shaded and there is a little airflow. This step is most commonly referred as wilting or withering - weidiao/萎凋 - some people maintain that Puer tea is not wilted per se - the aim, nonetheless, is to reduce the moisture in the leaves (typically by 10%) and for the moisture content to become more uniform between stems and leaves. The cell walls of the leaves also start to break down so the leaves become less brittle - i.e. so the leaves and stems don't break when the tea is compressed a little in the hand; thus preparing it for 'frying'. There is a gradual onset of enzymatic oxidation/fermentation. Proteins in the tea leaf will break down into amino acids, and other compounds such as caffeine are released. The effect of wilting tea for a longer time is to cause greater oxidation of the gallo catechins – into catechins and, if more extreme, into other compounds such as thearubigin, but Puer tea is not withered for such a long time. See here for more information on the effects of withering.
The 'fresh grassy' smell should have gone and the aromatic compounds in the tea become more prominent, typically producing more fruity,floral aromas. There should be no moisture apparent on the surface of the leaves. There is no specific time requirement for this part of the process as it varies according to the region, the moisture content in the leaves, the weather on the day, etc. The skill of the tea farmer in determining when the tea has wilted enough is critical. The effect of wilting for too short a time is to produce a Puer tea that has more 'green tea' like qualities. The effect of prolonged wilting is to produce a tea that is more strongly oxidised, and consequently a little less bitterness and astringency. This transformation is not detremental to the tea and tends to accelerate the ageing process a little. If tea leaves are wilted for too long the tea can loose some of its character, become a little weak/lacking in structure. A typical withering time for Puer is 2 to 4 hours.
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The next stage is to roast or fry the tea. The aim of frying is to stop the enzymatic oxidation, further reduce the moisture content, and to bring out the fragrance in the tea. This process of sha qing /杀青 is translated as 'killing green'.
There are two basic kinds of wok used for frying tea that will produce Puer maocha; flat or deep. A typical deep wok is 60-75 cm across and one, or often two are set on top of a brick-built oven that has separate wood fires for each wok and separate or shared flues. The wok is often tilted slightly toward the front of the oven to allow better reach for the person frying the tea and to allow the tea leaves to naturally slide down toward the person processing the tea.
The tea will typically reach temperatures of 80°C or so. If the temperature exceeds 90 degrees or so it will have a detrimental effect on the teas ageing potential. The degree of roasting should be controlled so that the moisture content is reduced to 60-65%.
The tea leaves are turned continuously using the hands and sometimes a wooden or bamboo two pronged fork. Some people wear a glove on one hand and use a fork with the other. About 4-5 kg of fresh leaves is normally fried in a wok of the size mentioned above. Scorched tea will produce a burned aroma, burned leaves and a 'lifeless' green colour. If roasted too lightly, the fragrance will be unsatisfactory and will cause some additional astringence. There will also be more leaves and stems that have a reddish-brown colour. Roasting tea to a higher temperature (over 90 °C ) tends to produce a tea that has more 'green tea' like qualities which may later impact or slow down the ageing process.
If the leaves are not lifted and turned enough, or too many are put in the wok at one time, it can result in a poor quality tea with poor fragrance. It is a matter of fine judgement to decide when the leaves have been fried enough; this will depend on the particular leaves, the weather, the heat of the wok, etc.
There should be a distinct fragrance when shaqing is complete, The bright green colour of leaves should have turned to a deeper green. The leaves should feel quite sticky from the juices which have been produced by the leaves. The stems should not break when bent over, though thicker stems may still break if bent with force. It is also important with Puer tea that the enzymes are not completely destroyed by the shaqing process as they are critical to the later process of post-fermentation.
A cylindrical oven equipped with a revolving drum and a fan that blows hot air through the oven is sometimes used instead of hand frying, but this method is perhaps inferior to hand frying as the temperature is likely to be a little higher than wok fried tea and there is not the possibility of a more tactile or sensory judgement of when the tea is ready as it is put in at one end and comes out of the other with no means of controlling the time in most cases. More advanced machines allow for control of both temperature and time, but they are not common and are not considered typical for Puer production.
After frying, the leaves are once again spread out on mats at a depth of about 3-5 centimetres to cool for 10-20 minutes before rolling. The leaves should be shaken out to help cooling and should not be rolled when hot.
As stated in Polyphenols in Puer tea a large amount of the active compounds in tea are in the cell walls. The purpose of rolling is to further release these substances which is beneficial to the flavour and also shapes the leaves. It is important that the rolling is not too heavy-handed as this will result in broken stems and leaves. The lustre on the leaves will also become subdued and they will lose some of their oiliness. If the rolling is too light , the fragrance will again be adversely affected, the flavour will be thin, the broth too light and the tea will be slow to steep. If the leaves are to be rolled twice they will be left a second time before the second rolling and then laid out on bamboo drying platforms to dry. Machine rolling is also quite common and many tea farmers have a rolling machine, but again, the results, whilst often pleasin to the eye, are less desirable than well hand-rolled Puer tea.Back to top of page
After rolling, the tea is sun dried; shai qing /晒青. If the weather is not sunny, the leaves are air-dried, under a roof if necessary, bringing in yet another variable, but this method, though significantly inferior to sun drying is still superior to oven drying. According to current legislation, Puer tea has to be sun dried, but ovens are still prevalent, even in small villages, so it is difficult to rule out the possbibilty of oven drying if the weather is wet. See here for further detail on the importance of sun drying Puer.
The tea at this stage is referred to as mao cha and provides the raw material for pressing into sheng Puer cakes in various forms, or for making into cooked/shou Puer tea. Mao Cha can also be stored as loose leaf tea and aged. It is not uncommon for maocha to be stored loose for a year or two before pressing.
The next step in the production of sheng Puer is pressing the loose leaves. For this, the tea is first weighed, steamed then, placed in a cloth bag. For cakes, it is fashioned into a round, discus form and placed on a wooden board for pressing. Traditionally, a heavy stone is used to compress the tea - normally with someone standing on the stone for a few seconds to aid compression. After pressing for several minutes, the Puer cake is removed, and then when cool, removed from the bag and put on a rack ready for drying. Drying is either natural or it is done in a low temperature oven – at a temperature of around 30-38°C. Drying can be done outside, but should not be in direct sunlight.
Hand pressed sheng Puer tea cakes are less compact than machine pressed; the amount of moisture remaining in the cake is greater and air can more readily penetrate the 'hand-pressed' cake so this affects the way the tea ferments, producing a different flavour. Stone pressed cakes are generally considered superior for these reasons though trends vary, and some people prefer tighter pressed cakes as they are thought to preserve their fragrance for longer.
Modern Puer tea bricks are generally machine pressed, so even if the same tea leaves are used to make a brick and a cake, after some years, a raw brick Puer will still appear greener, younger than the cake because the degree of compression is much greater.
Now the tea is ready to be drunk or aged. Because the enzymes and other bio-active compounds in the tea are still in tact, it will transform over time, gradually shedding some of its youthful qualities to develop other, more mature, aromas and characteristics.
There is a contention that young Puer (sheng cha) at this stage cannot be rightly called 'Puer' as it has not yet undergone sufficient ageing to render it deserving of the name. This does not fit easily with current official guidelines which hold that, once pressed into cake form, the tea has begun the ageing process and therefore can be called Puer. Others believe that the market in young sheng Puer was only popularised in recent years by tea vendors and that hitherto there had been limited or no interest in drinking young sheng Puer. This is questionable.
There have been periods of time in the past when young green Puer tea was given other names such as qing bing/青饼 (Green Cake) but the point at which a cake of 'green' tea can be called 'Puer Tea' is debatable, and any attempts to put figures (usually years) on it are rather arbitrary since they are guided by personal preference and, more importantly, the environment in which the tea is stored, which will have a profound effect on the tea; 1 year in Xishuangbanna is typically thought to be equivalent to 3 in Kunming, so a 3 year old tea stored in Jinghong would have qualities similar to a 9 year old tea in Kunming. Exactly how the tea is stored; size of room, quantity of tea in the room, temperature, humidity and airflow will all have an effect on how the tea ages.
There are similarly debateable views about the need to 'age' cooked or shu/熟 Puer. The aim of storing shu cha is less to bring about some maturation of the tea, but rather to wait for the often rather strong flavour left after the wodui/渥堆 process to abate somewhat.