Puerh – Raw ‘Sheng Cha’ vs Cooked ‘Shu Cha’

Puerh Tea Cake

Raw Puerh Cake from CNNP

We’ve written before about puerh and dark teas. This style of teas are the only ones which are truly fermented instead of being oxidized like all others. In our earlier post however we just barely scratched the surface so in this post we revisit the topic in a bit more depth. Puerh emerged via a happy accident from the transport of tea along the tea horse road from Yunnan Province to Mongolia where it fermented along the journey and was traded for war horses. Over time demand overwhelmed supply and a method of speeding along production was needed. Thus production shifted to one of two methods; raw or cooked. Both provide a distinct, mellow and earthy taste though they are certainly not the same in taste or cost.

Sheng (Raw) Puerh Cake

2008 Raw Tea Cake (7 years old)

Raw ‘Sheng Cha’ Puerh

Raw puerh is also referred to as sheng or green is produced naturally, allowing the tea to ferment as it ages over many years. Some of the best raw puerh is actually decades old, like a fine wine, getting better with age. Good quality raw puerh, stored well, will steadily increase in value with some fetching tens of thousands of dollars. For some, though very risky, it’s even seen as an investment.

It is produced in slightly different ways depending on the factory producing it and their own closely guarded method. However, the general process is to air dry fresh leaves, process and knead the leaves and sun dry the leaves. Finally, the loose puerh leaf is steamed and placed in a mold for final shaping before going into storage, ideally for 15 to 20 years of aging and fermentation.

Raw puerh cakes generally look a bit more green and the liquor color tends to be quite a bit lighter than that of cooked puerh. As it ages the flavor will develop and mellow.

Cooked ‘Shu Cha’ Puerh

The far more modern development is cooked puerh. Also called shu or ripe, this version is artificially aged in order to produce products in a short period of time and satisfy some of the demand for puerh. Like its raw cousin the factories which produce it each have their own variations, though the process originated in 1973 at Kunming Tea Factory.

Production of cooked puerh is substantially different than for raw. In this case leaves are piled on the factory floor and watered down in a process akin to composting. The specific steps here vary as does the length of time depending on the desired speed of this artificial aging. As a last step, like raw puerh, it is finally steamed and compressed.

Cooked puerh cakes are much darker, with leaf tips having darkened considerably to a golden or brown color. Similarly, the liquor of cooked puerh is a deep red or brown color.

Puerh in All Shapes & Sizes

Just one of the shapes of puerh.

Mini Puerh Bricks – Easy Single Serving

Puerh is available in loose leaf form, though more often it is found compressed into various forms.  Puerh cakes can be quite large, almost the size of a dinner plate or even a discus. While this is a very typical form, it can be compressed into any number of shapes and sizes. For example some puerh is compressed into small squares, enough for one serving and sold in boxes of many squares. Other options include rectangles similar in size to a large candy bar, balls, small birds nest shapes, large balls, coins, and more.

A great place to start is with a small package of cooked puerh. This allows you to dip a toe in the water without waiting years to enjoy your tea and experimenting at a reasonable starting price.

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Puerh Tea and an Introduction to Dark Teas

Pu-erh Tea is truly fermented unlike other teas.

Puerh Tea (tuo cha) – Fermented tea formed into cakes and producing a very dark infusion.

If you’ve been exploring tea for a while you’ve undoubtedly heard a bit about puerh (aka pu-erh), or fermented tea, though you may not yet given it a try. If you consider yourself a regular tea drinker then puerh and dark teas really are a must for your tea ‘bucket list’. Originally from China, puerh and dark teas offer a very different experience. Smooth and earthy, this class of tea is produced using a very different process from other teas and offers a different taste profile which may even serve a as a great entry for coffee drinkers looking to add tea to their repertoire.

Unlike white, green, black, and other varieties of tea which are oxidized and heated or fired to stop oxidation, puerh tea is truly fermented. It develops, usually in the form of compressed tea cakes over years, developing flavor and becoming smoother the longer it ages. Unlike other teas, puerh is produced by partially heating tea leaves to stop most oxidation. Then they are rolled and bruised slightly before being processed into compressed forms. The compressed forms such as bricks, discs or cakes, and small birds nest shaped, called tuo cha, are then either artificially aged or left to age naturally, sometimes for decades.

Puerh Tea History

The development of puerh teas dates back many thousands of years to Yunnan province in China. The necessity of trade led to packaging of tea in compressed discs which could be more easily transported along the tea horse road and other trade corridors. At the time tea was traded for war horses and other goods and often traveled hundreds of miles over long periods of time. During the this time, in hot and humid conditions, the tea naturally fermented and turned into dark tea by the time it reached its destination.

Puerh and Dark Tea

Its often stated that the types of tea include white, yellow, green, black, oolong, and puerh tea. However, this isn’t really accurate. Puerh is actually one variety of dark tea, albeit the most famous one. In 2008, China recognized dark tea from Yunnan as being geographically protected meaning this is the only dark tea that can be called puerh despite the fact that a number of other provinces produce fermented dark teas using much the same process and tea plant varieties.

Steeping Puerh Tea

Steeping your puerh tea is relatively straight forward but is slightly different than other teas. While you should steep with boiling water like a black tea, you will likely be able to steep puerh at least four to six times if not upwards of 10-15 times depending on the variety. Wake up the tea initially with enough boiling water to cover the leaf and quickly pour off the liquor. If you are steeping in a pot or mug with infuser then use 3 grams of puerh or dark tea and steep 3-4 minutes and re-steep another 2-4 times. If you are using a gaiwan, use a bit more tea, about 5 grams, and steep the first time for 2o to 25 seconds. For each additional steeping at about 5 seconds more steeping until it becomes thin.

Although dark and puerh teas are unfamiliar to many western tea drinkers they can be a real treat. Unlike the other teas in your collection, if stored properly, with fresh circulating air, away from other smells and aromas, these will keep and mature for many years to come. And for those looking to make a switch from coffee, you may find both the color and flavor to be a logical first step.

There is much to explore with tea, and puerh as well. This was only an introduction to the world of dark and puerh tea. In the future we will explore more to include the world of counterfeit puerh, other regions producing dark teas, and more so stay tuned.

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