What is Puer Tea?
It’s a little complicated to answer. Puer (also puerh, pu'erh; pronounced like pooh - err/arr) tea is many different things to many different people. It’s an anthropologically loaded beverage. History, ecology, philosophy compressed and weaponised into discs or bricks for our (in)convenience. It’s a drug, a cure, a problem, a comforting solution. It’s iridescent green-then-orange-then-dark concentrated and distilled plant matter and bio-actives, volatile to the void of time and place. Puer tea is a stimulant, a depressant, an olfactory and cognitive agitator of significant power. It’s also fucking delicious.
Many years ago, puer tea was a nobody. A regional, rural, rustic tea made and drunk by farmers in Yunnan, with the status of cheap export commodity. Mass amounts were exported across mainland China, as well as significant amounts to Hong Kong and Taiwan. People in these hot and humid environments soon noticed that puer tea, if left alone for a few years, would change dramatically - what initially was almost a green tea, soon turned thick and dark, akin to coffee. Demand for this dark tea grew so high that a factory in Yunnan developed a wet pile fermentation method to replicate years of humid aging to satisfy consumer demand for dark tea. But the real drama began when some foreign tea junkies showed up to remote parts of Yunnan, scratching for more, with tea that had been stored in relatively drier conditions. Not so dark and opaque, but more soft orange or red or brown.
The taste was unlike anything else - complex, sweet, engaging. They began to revive local production, in the old style before the dominance of big factories, and started discovering the impressive natural resources of remote southern Yunnan - tea trees left to grow in the forest with minimal intervention for tens or hundreds of years. Over the next twenty years, puer tea rose rapidly, and astronomically, in price and fame. From nothing to the peak of hype and frenzy. There were many factors in that saga, and I cannot recommend enough the excellent book Puer tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic for an insight into puer tea’s history. Despite a bursting of the bubble in 2007, the tea continues to be a complex, mysterious, ever-fluid but above all incredibly delicious and unique experience.
Simplified, puer tea is a type of tea from Yunnan, China, made from large leaf varietal camellia sinensis processed in a way that allows it’s flavour to change significantly with purposeful aging.
The different micro-climates and growing conditions in Yunnan give rise to distinct region specific tastes; tea from neat rows of plantation bushes tastes wildly different to semi-wild growing old trees, and flavours vary from mountain to mountain, village to village. The endless permutations of base material, storage conditions and age of the tea make for a captivating pursuit of delicious, powerful liquid.
THE TWO TYPES OF PUER TEA
Raw (sheng; pronounced shung or sheung) tea, either ‘young’ or ‘aged’. These terms are very loose; but one might consider young tea to be around 1-7 years old, and aged from around 7+. The flavour and appearance of the tea depends on how hot and humid the storage is (wet vs dry storage). Raw tea is enjoyed in all stages, both young and aged, though many people prefer aged tea, and some don’t even consider the tea to be ‘real’ puer tea until it has aged a certain amount. As a counterpoint, the tea was not aged on purpose for most of its history, and was and still is mostly consumed young by the farmers that produce it.
Young tea at its best is a balance of bitter, sweet, complex, and refreshing. Aged tea can turn out many ways but most agree it tends to become smoother, sweeter, darker, and more complex, with all kinds of flavours and fragrances completely unique to the aging process.
Ripe (shou; pronounced show or shoe) tea, which undergoes a purposeful wet-pile fermentation step. This changes the tea dramatically. Initially this process came about as a way to replicate aged raw puer tea, but the intensity of the process, whilst making the tea much darker and smoother very quickly, doesn’t quite replicate the complexity of a ‘naturally’ aged raw puer tea. Thus, it has more become a separate thing to be enjoyed in its own right, rather than being equated with aged tea. Ripe tea can be aged, but to much less effect than a raw tea. The main changes would be a reduction in fermentation aroma and flavours shortly after processing, as most material that could be metabolised by microbes has already been used up. The main purpose of shou puer is to have tea that is smooth and dark to drink right away.
Ripe tea typically has smooth, sweet, chocolatey flavour and a thick body.
There are many delicious teas, but puer tea has a particular quality that is hard to elucidate without drinking it; it is intense in all the right ways. It is divisive. People either love it or hate it. Many people are exposed to low quality ripe puer and write the whole category off as composted fish garbage or rotting leaf matter.
But there’s a ladder.
The good stuff drives obsession; tea that is intense but enjoyable, lively, electric-feeling, unctuous. It tingles a certain part of the brain that keeps you coming back for a smack around the mouth that most other teas just don't provide to the same level. And this is ignoring the other, much more complicated and controversial side of puer; the chaqi or what we might simply call, the experience it provides other than taste, in the form of somatic and cognitive sensations. That's a whole other article.
To make a perhaps not apt and probably inflammatory analogue; puer tea is like whisky, if other teas are like beer. Puer tea is heroin, if other teas are ibuprofen. It has all the appeal of wine; terroir, varietals, processing, vintages, aging, but you can drink it any hour and as much as you like, and the worst side effect is perhaps you’ll pee a lot or maybe become weirdly introspective. (See: tea drunk) Even the most expensive puer teas are also quite a bit cheaper than booze. Or than buying a coffee everyday. Definitely cheaper than heroin (mostly...).
If you want to see what its all about for yourself, browse the shop and make a selection. If you need some help, just reach out and we can guide you.
Below are some resources for further reading and other viewpoints. Puer tea is a sometimes heated topic, so take everything with a grain of your favourite pharmaceutical grade salt, including if not especially what you read from us.
Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic
Great article I’ve bought the book so I’ll give it a read!