Pu-erh tea still seems to be rather unknown and feel inaccessible, perhaps due to it’s funny name and because the different types can be quite hard to understand. Today, I’m going to simplify pu-erh and make it much easier to understand.
Three Types of Pu-erh
Pu-erh exists as 3 main types (which are independent of the shape, e.g. cake v. loose): Raw, Aged, and Cooked. Most tea drinkers will only encounter the raw or cooked form. Aged is somewhat of a rarity, reserved for collectors, investors, Chinese government officials, and pu-erh enthusiasts with a lot of patience.
(Picture: a raw pu-erh cake that has been aged about 6-8 years. Picture below: raw pu-erh pressed into bamboo for aging with added flavored.)
Raw Pu-erh (生茶) is the first state that all pu-erh goes through. The tea leaves are picked, sometimes quite young (similar to the green or white picking time) but not always, then they are allowed to partially dry either with sun or heat. It is important to retain some moisture, as the moisture keeps the enzymes active, while heat slows or kills with oxidation process caused by the enzymes.
Next, the leaves are rolled to soften them and help the fermentation process. Then the leaves are almost entirely dried to be ready for storage. When the leaves have fully dried, raw pu-erh is achieved and can be ready to drink. (I say ‘can be,’ because a true enthusiast would store it for decades–more on that below)
Raw pu-erh tends to have a more grassy, “green,” vegetal flavor similar to Japanese green teas. If you drink a pu-erh that tastes like earthy or “dirty” green tea, it is most likely a raw pu-erh. Some would say this tea tastes “unfinished” and isn’t ready to drink.
Because of that unfinished, green taste, cooked or ripened pu-erh (熟茶) was invented. In Chinese, that character (熟) can be either shu or shou and refer to cooked or aged, which makes it somewhat misleading and therefore easily confused with aged pu-erh.
To create cooked pu-erh, a special method was invented known as wo dui (渥堆) to speed up the fermentation process and bring on the aged characteristics.
Cooked pu-erh will tend to bring out the earthy flavors, while subduing the “green” taste. It may taste more smoky, more full-bodied, and have “richer” characteristics.
Perhaps the height of fine pu-erh, is a raw pu-erh that has been properly aged for decades. Pu-erh needs to be stored in the right humidity and temperature conditions and exposed to air for decades to evolve into a true aged pu-erh. And because of that need for extended storage, aged pu-erh is very expensive and somewhat elusive for mainstream tea drinkers.
If you are lucky enough to encounter a raw pu-erh that has been aged for 40-50 years, making it an aged pu-erh, check that the tea is still in good condition and there is no mold present, and that the leaves haven’t completely lost their essence and flavor.
Aged pu-erh, depending on how long its been aging can have light vegetal, grassy or “green” taste, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, a very complex, nuanced, full body flavor with many subtleties. Floral or fruit notes may be present, along with a cigar-type smokiness, and earthy tones. A rich liquor would be extracted from this tea.
Let’s simplify. Commercial pu-erh for mainstream consumption in the US is most likely going to be cooked pu-erh. Raw pu-erh is available through various loose leaf tea suppliers and is likely to taste rather “green” and somewhat “dirty.”
For more discussion about trying different pu-erh styles and finding one that you like, visit this discussion on teachat. Leave us a comment below: What types of pu-erh have you tried and liked? Can you tell the difference between a raw and cooked?