Recent Update: The Anatomy of Pu-erh
A Brief History of Pu-erh
Pu-erh is named after its trading center, Pu-erh county in southern Yunnan. Pu-erh county belonged to Ying-Shen region (now SiMao and XiShuangBanna) in Tang Dynasty (618 ~ 907). So the old name for pu-erh tea was Ying-Shen tea. Its name changed to Pu tea in Yuan Dynasty (1271 ~1368) and not until Wan-Li period of Ming Dynasty (1368~1644) did it earn its name Pu-erh. The peak of Pu-erh production happened in Qing Dynasty; record said that "Pu-erh administrates 6 famous tea mountains in a region as wide as 800 miles, and the count of people who make teas for living is over several hundred thousands."
Ming Dynasty established six “Cha Ma Gu Dao”, meaning "Old Tea Horse Road" centered from Pu-erh
and radiated outward to inland of China, Tibet, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand.
However, researchers have found that those Gu Dao may be started as early
as Western Hang Dynasty (202 BC ~ 8 AD). This could establish the history
of Pu-erh teas to be 2200 years old! In 1897, France and England set up
customers in SiMao to overlook the export of teas to Europe, the popularity
of Pu-erh teas soon became worldwide.
In Guangdong and Hong Kong, Pu-erh teas are called "Pu lee". The tea is a daily necessity for people there, and traditionally restaurants and tea houses would have “tea warehouse?to store large amount of pu-erh teas to make sure enough supplies to the market. So the “aged?value of Pu-erh teas is discovered and started in Guangdong and HK. But, not until around 1980 did the hype of collecting aged and antique pu-erh teas really started. Pu-erh tea goes beyond what normally a tea can do: people enjoy its taste, its multiple health benefits, and people enjoy collecting and researching the rich cultures behind it. The market value of aged pu-erh teas in HK and Taiwan increased by at least 10% every year. Not uncommon to hear the value of some extremely rare and antique pu-erh teas to double the value every two to three years.
What was Pu-erh made of?
In general, pu-erh tea refers to the tea made by broad-leaf type tea trees from Si-mao, Pu-erh, XiShuangBanna, Menghai, etc. How “broad?is the leaf? The following picture explains the point the best! Of coz,
your pu-erhs were made of much tender leaves than this.
There are three types of tea trees in Yunnan: Antique Trees, Old Trees, and New Trees. Antique trees refer to those more than 100 years old arbor tea trees, mostly wild in the fields and mountains.
Old trees refer to those more than 30 years old tea trees. Most of them are semi-wild: they were from wild arbor type tea trees and was planted in tea farms. Now the tea farms are gone, and survived
tea trees become semi-wild. New Trees refer to those now planted in the tea farms. They are mostly short bush-type tea trees.
Yunnan has very long and rich history of tea cultivation. There is one 800-plus years old
cultivated-type antique tree in Menghai Nan-nuo. One in Bada Great Black Mountain was found
in 1961 and proved to be the original wild arbor-type tea tree and was almost 1700 years old!
The other is the 1000-years old semi-wild type antique tea tree in Bon-wei. The three tea
trees are really living fossils, and are called “The Three Oldest Kings of Tea Trees?
The Anatomy of Pu-erh
This section explains some common “jargons”.
These terminologies are essential to verify the authenticity and understand the true value of pu-erhs. Collectors carefully inspect the
material of the wrapper, the quality of the ink on the wrapper, the details of the nei fei, the details of the nei piao, etc. Together with the tasting
of the tea, we can get a very good estimate of the authenticity/age/storage/leave quality. We will explore all the details in our future updates!
Pu-erhs are sometimes called "Chi Tse Beeng Cha" (meaning "seven-cakes tea"). Why? Traditionally, seven pu-erh cakes are packed in a bamboo wrap. The material of bamboo is actually
the shell of young bamboo shoots. Note: young, not tender, as tender shells may contain to much moisture and sweetness which easily invite the unwanted insects or fungus. Pictures below shows a "tong" (bamboo wrap of seven cakes) and
a man demonstrating how to wrap the pu-erhs by the bamboo shells. The bamboo shells traditionally are fixed by bamboo threads. Newer productions sometimes use metal wires.
Below we explain several common terminologies for a pu-erh cake.
Uncooked pu-erh is the original form of pu-erh teas. Following traditional method, new uncooked pu-erh teas are little or no fermented.
The taste of those new teas, especially those made of wild arbor-type tea trees, has a strong astringency.
People gradually found that by storing them in a dry condition for several more years, the
teas become more mellow and lingering in the taste. In fact, the longer you store those
uncooked pu-erhs, the better and more mellow the taste. Again, this especially applies to
those made of wild arbor-type tea trees.
It is commonly accepted that the "cooked" method was invented in Kumming Tea Factory around 1972. However, a recent report
identified that the cooked method was already started in Jin-Gu Tea Factory as early as 1950.
Cooked pu-erhs are made of the same raw tea leaves as uncooked ones. However, to speed up the fermentation process and improve the mellowness in taste, the tea factory added a Wuo Duei step -
Wuo means "wetted by spreading water", and Duei means "stored as many layers". Basically, it is an auto-thermal and enhanced oxidation process that quickly increases the fermentation degree of pu-erh teas.
Because of the auto-thermal nature and the heat generated during the step, people call this
kind of pu-erh "cooked". The following picture shows clearly the difference in appearance in four types of pu-erh:
New Uncooked, Very aged Uncooked, New Cooked, and Old but wet-stored Cooked. The last one is definitely a no-no!
While the taste of uncooked teas can improve year after year in
good dry storage conditions, the taste of cooked teas usually reaches its peak at around 15
years. However, the most important thing is: no matter cooked or uncooked, you always want
to store them in a dry and airy condition.
Some FAQ about Pu-erh
Q: I know pu-erh. Isn’t it the tea that are black and taste like dirt?
I guess most of people got their impression of "pu-erh" tea from the
chinese restaurants or dim-sum houses. Well, great chances are what you had were low-quality
wet-storage cooked pu-erhs in the restaurants. Even some chinese call pu-erh tea the "Chou Pu Cha",
meaning "Smelly Dirt Tea". Believe me, good pu-erh teas and those you had in restaurant are from two
different planets which are 1000 light-year apart!
A good dry-storage pu-erh tea has strong clean and flowery or camphor-like aroma, or both. As it ages
naturally in a clean and dry condition, the mellowness of the aroma improves and the aroma changes to
someitmes more fruity or sometimes more ginseng aroma. Of coz, pu-erh is a very big world. But, please give
good pu-erhs another chance to impress you ... well, greater chances are you will never turn back!
We have a wide selection of quality pu-erh teas. All clean and dry-storage. You can start by trying the 1oz sampler, or
contact us for some recommendations!
Q: What does 7542 or 8582 mean?
Started in 70’s, Yunnan pu-erh producers started to use this special coding system to trace and manage
the production of huge varieties of pu-erhs. The following figure explains the basic formula of this system:
With the code 7542, "75" means that this recipe started being used in 1975. However, 7542 green cakes have been produced every year since 1975! "4" refers to the special "Blend" that was used
to make this cake: raw leaves after harvest are usually sorted into 10 different grades. Then, the tea producer, following the "recipe", blend several grades of leaves together. Of course, sometime
a single grade is used for a "blend". They may use one blend for the surface of the cake, and the other blend for the body. For example, 7542 green cake is usually made by 3~4 grade "blend" for the surface, and
5~6 grade "blend" for the body.
The fourth digit, "2", refers to the producing tea factory. As explained in the above figure, "2" refers to Meng Hai Tea Factory. Mostly you will see 1 ~ 4 as the last digit, but
when a new tea factory being strated up, he will want to pick his own number if he is important enough.
So, "8582" means that they used a recipe that started in 1985, Level 8 blend, and was produced in Meng Hai Tea Factory. Usually you can tell from the code if the cake/brick is cooked or uncooked: for example, 7542 and 8582 are
both uncooked(green) cakes, and 7572, 8592 and 7663 are all cooked pu-erhs.
The last three digits, XYZ, are usually not shown and hard to determine! But, definitely, even with the same "7542" different batches may exihibit different characetristics! "7542" during 70s had four different batches: 205, 206, 503, 504.
Sometimes one batch is more compressed than other ones, especially if they were all compressed by stone molds instead of machines.
The weather conditions also affects the characteristics of different batches: one batch may be sun-dried in a very sunny day, and the other batch may have to be assisted by burning pine woods to dry it. The later batch will
naturally have more "smoky" feeling to it than the sun-dried batch.
Q: Now I have my newly acquired Pu-erhs. Then what? What to do with them to
make my pu-erh tea?
There are two ways to loosen a compressed Pu-erh (cake, brick, mushroom,
1. Brutal-force way! Use hammer, knife, chisel or whatever your landscaping
tools (kidding, of coz) to chip or knock down enough amount for brewing.
2. Steaming method: This is a much more civilized version. Several advantages
from this method:
a. The loosened leaves will retain more complete and original shape than the brutal force way.
b. If you are like me, it is fun to get your hands "tea-y"!
c. It becomes more convenient to have all the loose tea than having to find your hammer everytime you try ot enjoy.
We use the following pictures to illustrate how we do the steaming to loosen
two 2004 Jia Ji XiaGuan Toucha.
Step 1: Find a wok and a bamboo steamer (or whatever have
similar functions). Put a bowl of water into the wok. Then put the two toucha
onto the steamer.
Turn on the heat and cover the steamer. Your pu-erh is now enjoying some steamy
Sauna! Steam for around 3 mins. The time is only experimental; different cakes
or bricks may requires different steaming time.
Step 3: See... after 3 mins Sauna, the toucha are looking very "relaxed"!
Q: What to do with the nicely-looking wrapping paper?
Step 4: Now is the most FUN part! Use your mighty hands
to gently loosen the
toucha and try NOT to cook your fingers! They can be very hot. The toucha now
is soft and flexible, as you can see how I "bend" one of them.
Final: Now, you have a pile of good loose Pu-erh for easy enjoyment
: ) However, newly steamed pu-erh need to be dried for about 2 hours (more is
better) before you put them into containers. Just let them dry in an open and
dry place without direct sunlight. Otherwise, those nutritious leaves will invite
some fungus to grow on them very quickly.
You can make a brew of the loose Pu-erh tea just like ... yea, a loose tea.
Try this! I am sure you will love the extra connection you build between your
pu-erhs and you.
I like to put the nice wrapping paper in a frame. The small ticket you can find on the cake
is also highly collectible. See the picture below how I frame them together. Or, you can prepare a photo album
to store them.