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.
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
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.