Puer 101 - Getting to Know Puer Basics
I started out on the world of puer about in late 2015. I remember this well because I started drinking puer a few weeks before all of the tea vendors held their Black Friday sales. It was a very magical time of year, and for someone who had quickly been immersed into the world of tea, it felt like a time for celebration. Everybody was posting photos and discussions of all of the stuff that they ordered for Black Friday, especially puer teas. However, ‘puer’ was an alien thing at the time which seemed to get more confusing the more research I did, and could have never imagined there was so much more to it than just ‘tea’.
The world of tea can definitely be a scary place, especially when people in the community actively talk about tea like the back of their hand, and there's no one to explain what certain things meant. It’s also easy to get lost in the world of tea because the tea universe is large. However, puer is a kind of tea that’s not widely known by a lot of people, and the ones who are aware of it may still only view it as ‘tea that can get old like wine’. With the following, take a minute to read a simple explanation about what puer is — in an ‘explain like I'm five’ context so you can better equip yourself with the right kind of basic knowledge to navigate the world of puer…
First, we’re going to start with explaining what puer is. Puer (pronounced like poo-er) is a kind of tea that has the ability to age and ferment. What this means is, tea can be stored (like a fine wine) in a controlled environment, and supposedly gets better with age. While the exact time period of when puer got its start is largely open for debate, over the past decade it’s quickly gaining popularity in the western market. Since puer gets better with age, you’ll often see that aged teas are more expensive. Another great thing about puer is that there’s two different kinds which are called sheng and shou.
Photo: Freshly harvested puer withering on a bamboo mat
Sheng is a variety of purer that’s green in color, and usually has a vegetal flavor. Sheng (which is pronounced like the english word ‘hung’ with the letter ’S’ in front of it) is also commonly known as green puer, because it’s processed and looks similar to green tea. Sheng puer can be aged for further oxidation because sheng puer is a un-oxidized tea. Although sheng puer is similar to green tea, it’s processed in a way that is able to age and slowly oxidize over time. Speaking of processing, sheng is not made like your typical green tea.
First, sheng puer is carefully plucked off the tea tree. The tea is handled very carefully as to prevent bruising. Then, the tea is promptly roasted in a large wok in a process called the ‘kill green’ process. This is done to halt the oxidation, and visually shrinks the tea leaves and rids it of its neon green color. Once the tea is halted from its oxidation process, the tea is rolled, rubbed, and shaped into strands. Following this, the tea is spread out on bamboo mats and typically left to air-dry in the sun light.
You may be wondering how the process of making sheng puer allows the tea to oxidize. This is mainly in part due to the fact that the tea is quickly dried out from picking. In green tea production, the tea is typically roasted or steamed long enough to kill any living enzymes within the leafs. Once green tea is done cooking/processing, its dried and stays stagnant. However, since the ‘kill green’ process in sheng puer doesn’t completely cook the leaves throughout, and is quickly dried out, not all of the enzymes in puer are killed. Since not all of the enzymes are killed, it slowly oxidizes over a slow and a long period of time (which is further explained below). Long story short, your tea is still alive.
Photo: The 'kill green' process taking place in a wood-fired wok
Shou puer is the other kind of puer tea (pronounced like the english word ‘show’, but with less emphasis on the ‘W’. IT’s also pronounced like ‘show’, but both are technically correct). Shou puer is dark in color, and typically earthy in taste. Shou puer is also commonly known as cooked tea, or post-fermented tea. Tea thats been post-fermented, and identifies as shou, is processed completely different from its counter part.
First, just like sheng, the leaf is plucked off of the tree. The tea is carefully handled before it makes its way to be weathered. Then, the leaf is completely processed into sheng. Now, unlike sheng, shou takes a much different route in the following steps. Next, shou puer is piled in a room in a humid, dark, and in a aerated condition. From there, the tea is turned and mixed in a process that typically lasts from two to three months. This process may sound a bit peculiar, and you may have done something similar with your garden at home: this is the process of composting— so, over the forty day period, the tea is being composted. However, despite knowing the general process of how shou is made, the exact specifics aren't entirely known because its a closely guarded industry secret.
Once the tea has been turned and allowed to oxidize and decompose two to three months, it is then allowed to air-dry where the tea is allowed to settle before being pressed into discs. Unlike sheng puer, shou puer is post-fermented and usually can’t age for as long of a period.
Photo: Puer tea being rolled after 'kill green'
How It Ages
Like mentioned above, puer is able to age due to the process of fermentation. The process of fermentation mainly affects sheng puer, since sheng is still green. Sheng is most affected because although it is still green, it still holds moisture. When sheng puer is cooked in a flash-like setting, referred to above as the ‘kill green’ process, it halts the oxidation. However, when sheng puer goes through its ‘kill green’ process, it’s not cooked enough to make it halt oxidation altogether. Because of this, the enzymes that react due to photosynthesis still lie dormant in the minuscule amount of moisture left within the tea. These enzymes provide carbohydrates and amino acids that are slowly released into the tea throughout time. This also helps contribute to the fact that when sheng ages, it darkens in color and changes in taste.
Although Sheng has the potential to age, shou is not typically able to go through this process due to its heavy oxidation. Since shou puer has already been decomposed, and left to oxidize for forty days, there’s not much left that can be done to age it further. However, that doesn’t mean that it can’t change. A newer way of making shou puer is a process in which the tea leaves are not oxidized completely, so after the tea is finished decomposing, there’s still some room left for it to oxidize when storing.
Photo: Puer being laid out to dry
Differences in Taste
Puer typically varies in profile due to where it’s grown. Usually, puer comes from China — the Yunnan providence to be exact, while ‘puer’ from other regions is called heicha. Due to the varying mountain ranges, weather conditions, soil composition, and landscape, the same tea grown in one region will taste noticeably different than another region. Along with this, the age of the tea tree will also affect a tea and how it tastes.
Typically, tea isn’t ready for harvest until the tree is seven years old. Past that, it is harvested at any age. Young trees hold a very different profile than old trees, and tea that comes from old tea trees are typically identified as ‘Gu Shu’ (pronounced like ‘goo’ and ‘shoe’, but ‘shoe’ without the ‘E’). Gu Shu teas are typically more expensive, and thats usually because the tea itself gives off a stronger brew. This is because the older the tree, the larger the tea leaf is able to become. To add, older tea trees are able to absorb a larger range of nutrients from the soil due to its larger roots, which affects the depth and complexity of the leaf itself.
Photo: Gu Shu tea being harvested off of an old tea tree
Shape and Size
When exploring the different selections of puer, you’ll quickly notice that there are a lot of different shapes and sizes available to purchase. The most popular, and the most common shape of puer is the disc, which is often called a beeng (pronounced like the search engine Bing). Puer is often stored in a beeng shape, and typically wrapped together with other beengs to create a tong. The traditional size for a beeng is 357 grams, and there are typically 7 beengs on a tong. The purpose of a tong is to store and package puer tea by a bulk size, and there are usually seven beengs in a tong because the weight adds up to 2.5 kilograms.
Besides the traditional 357 gram beengs, tea makers are making smaller sizes more popular due to market demands. These sizes include 200 gram, 100 gram, and 50 gram beengs. However, besides beengs, puer is also pressed in a number of different shapes. These shapes include bricks, mushrooms, squares, melons (which looks like a half-melon) balls (almost always 7g), and touchas. A toucha (pronounced like too-oh, and ‘Cha’ added after) is a shape that best resembles a mushroom without its stem. Overall, there are many different shapes and sizes available, and with new innovation making its way to the world of tea, there’s always new and unique shapes and sizes that pop up at every turn you take.
Photo: Beengs of sheng shortly after being pressed
In conclusion, puer is a tea that comes in either sheng or shou.Sheng is a green tea that’s able to age due to the process of fermentation. Along with sheng there’s also shou, which is a kind of puer tea that’s dark in color, and isn’t able to age in the same way that sheng can. Although the exact point in time that puer was created can’t be pinpointed, there is a growing popularity for it in todays market. So with all of this basic knowledge of what puer is, hopefully you can now feel more comfortable with exploring the vast universe of puer. Despite knowing the basics of puer, the puer universe is still so large and there’s so much more to learn, that the best way to learn form tea is to just drink it…
Special thanks to Crimson Lotus Tea for fact checking parts of this article, and for providing photos…
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