The Tea Detective
Uncovering and Exploring the Facts About Tea
China's Pu-erh Teas-Aged to Perfection
China's pu-erh teas are much different than the other five main types of tea.  
Pronounced POOH-airs, these "black teas" as they are known in old Chinese
are truly fermented during processing, and not merely oxidized like the other
types of tea.
With most teas it's a race of
sorts to get the tea from
field to factory and on to the consumer in as
short a time as possible.  That's because
most teas begin to lose their freshness
within months, lasting a year or two at most.

But once pu-erh teas are finished with
processing they're immediately wrapped in
paper and placed on shelves in cool, dry
storage, and left to age for anywhere from
two to fifty years.

Pu-erh tea likely gets its name from Pu-erh
county, located in the steamy hot south-
western corner of China's
Yunnan Province,
in the tropical region known as Xishuang-
banna.
Even though no tea is made in the town of Pu-erh it was an important dis-
tribution and collection point during the
Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the
starting point of the
Tea Horse Roads, one of the main routes for tea, horses,
and other commodities between China and Tibet.

Once barely known outside of Yunnan, and then only enjoyed and collected
by wealthy Hong Kong and
Taiwanese businessmen, today pu-erh tea is mak-
ing an enormous comeback. Tea drinkers in Southeast Asia, Japan, Europe,
and the
United States have become pu-erh enthusiasts.

                                 Women from France, Spain, and throughout Eastern Europe, America, and,
                                 of course, China enthusiastically drink pu-erh teas for their believed
weight
                                 loss and slimming properties.

                                 Pu-erh teas are believed to have many of the same health benefits as
                                 
green tea, high in vitamins, minerals, and especially antioxidants.  Along
                                 with aiding in weight loss, pu-erh teas are believed to lower blood press-
                                 ure and cholesterol, and the Yunnan Tea Branch, established in 1944 and
                                 one of the prestigious producers of pu-erh tea claims it "quickens your
                                 recovery from intoxication."  I assume they have tested this claim to know
                                 that it works ;-)
The King of Tea Trees
The Xishuangbanna district, the main area where pu-erh tea is grown in China's Yunnan
Province is a lush, subtropical mountainous region.  This area is one of the most perfect tea
growing regions in the world, and it's believed to be one of the locations where "wild" tea
originated.

          Many tea plants in this area are more
          than a hundred years old and qualify
          as being ancient. In fact, locals report
          that hidden away in the forests sur-
          rounding this area are trees 500 and
          1,000 years old.  There is even one
          named the "King of Tea Trees," on
          Nan Nuo Mountain that is  reportedly
          1,700 years old!

          The tea plants that grow in Xishuang-
          banna are Camillia sinensis var.
          assamica (the Assam bush), different
          from China's primary type of tea,
          Camillia sinensis var. sinensis (the
          China bush) that's kept pruned and
          picked seasonally.

          The Assam bush or minor varieties that are indigenous to the area are known locally as
          Yunnan Big Leaf, or dayeh.  The broad-leaf dayeh tea bushes are really tea trees, many
          of which have grown to heights of 20-30 feet, and have been producing tea for hun-
          dreds of years.

          Many of the best pu-erh's are made from these large-leafed plants that are indigenous
          to Yunnan, and one of the most famous regions to find these broad leafed tea trees is
          the Six Famous Mountains region in Xishuangbanna.
The Two Different Styles of Pu-erh Tea  
Sheng & Shou
         There are two different styles of China pu-erh tea: Sheng pu-
         erh, or green (also called raw), which is the original, tradition-
         al form.  And Shou or black pu-erh (also called cooked), a re-
         cent style which was developed in the 1970's to meet the in-
         creasing demand worldwide for pu-erh teas.

         If the leaf is to become the traditional classic Sheng or green
         
pu-erh, the leaves will first be fixed on a hot surface after harvesting, then withered until
limp, and lastly steamed hot and compressed into cakes.

The cakes are then wrapped in paper and placed in a climate controlled room where they are left to age for any-
where from two to fifty years.  At this point the cakes are called Mao Cha or "young green."

Shou, or black pu-erh teas are a more recent development, made to increase the supply of pu-erh teas to meet the
ever growing demand worldwide.  Because true, aged pu-erhs have become so rare, Shou, or black pu-erh is now the
most common style found in the U.S..

                                               Tea makers from the Menghai Tea Factory devised a method to speed up the aging
                                               process by oxidizing the fixed green teas, anywhere from 40 to 90%, then put the
                                               tea through Wo Dui or "moist track."

                                               The oxidized leaves are then placed in heaps where bacteria and fungi decay the
                                               leaves at an accelerated rate.  After a few months the leaves are fixed to stop the
                                               oxidation and decay process.

The leaves are then formed into beeng cha, a flat disk shaped cake, and kept in storage above 80% humidity and
occasionally wet down to accelerate the aging (fermentation) process.  This type of Shou pu-erh tea costs much less
than authentic aged Sheng pu-erh, and will be ready for consumption in about two to three years.

For loose-leaf Wo Dui Shou pu-erh, the same process is followed as with all pu-erhs,
only the leaf is never compressed.  Instead it is finished as an oxidized tea would be
and given a final firing to expel any excess moisture and prevent spoilage.  This loose
leaf Wo Dui style of Shou pu-erh is then ready for immediate consumption.

No one outside of China really knows or understands the exact science of the pu-erh
fermentation process, but it's believed that fungal and bacterial microbes in the air work
on the tea leaves in much the same way that yeasts act on wine grapes.

The fungal and bacterial microbes convert starches and other compounds in the tea leaves from
simple sugars, to "monoterpenoids," which oxidize and degrade over a period of time, into
"sesquiterpenoids," known for their earthy and musky flavors.

Both sheng and shou pu-erhs come in a delightful range of shapes.  In green, or sheng pu-erh
the shape actually influences the rate and quality of aging, but in black or shou pu-erhs the
shapes are just for fun and decoration.  Some shapes to look for are:
  • bing cha or beeng cha - a flat, round disk
  • fang cha - a square brick
  • tuan cha - melon shape
  • jin cha - mushroom shape
  • tuo cha - shaped like half a hollow globe or thick sided bowl about 3" in diameter
  • ping cha - means "iron tea."  This cake shape is so compact it's solid as iron, and
   is actually hard to break off.  There are special knives made to remove pieces, but
   a plain old butter knife will usually do the trick.

For more information on both types of pu-erh tea and to learn more about each tea's individual manufacturing
process, be sure to visit our
Sheng pu-erh and Shou pu-erh tea pages.  Enjoy.
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