We’ve looked at puerh twice now and the last time we spoke of the difference between raw and cooked pu’erh. In the spirit of ‘there no such thing as too much of a good thing’ this time we want to spend a bit more time on the manufacturing of raw ‘Sheng Cha’ puerh.
From Tea Tree to ‘Mao Cha’
While many Chinese teas are produced from a variety of c. sinensis var sinensis, the most desired puerh teas are typically from c. sinensis var assamica (see Camellia Sinensis). This is a much larger leaf version of the tea plant than var sinensis. Even more desired are the spring picked leaves of old growth wild tea trees rather than younger wild trees or cultivated tea bushes.
After picking the leaves undergo a process of heating to quickly ‘kill the green’. This process of heating the leaves effectively stops most oxidation, makes the leaves more flexible and pliable, and leads to the next step of rolling. Rolling, in turn step serves to break down the cellular structure inside the leaves allowing the juices inside the leaves to move about more freely and creates small tears in the leaf structure. This critical step enables extraction of flavor when the tea is infused in water many years in the future.
Once the leaves have been rolled they are left in the sun to dry out. The amount of time, like other steps in this process vary from factory to factory but can be up to a couple days. It’s at this point that we have ‘Mao Cha’ and the process diverges for raw ‘Sheng’ puerh vs cooked ‘Shu’ puerh.
‘Mao Cha’ to Raw ‘Sheng Cha’ PuerhThe real magic happens with Sheng Cha after the initial steps leading to Mao Cha. At this point the normal process is to process the Mao Cha into finished pressed tea cakes. The rough product is often stored for some amount of time before its ready to be pressed. When the manufacturer determines it is time the rough Mao Cha is sorted into grades and steamed to prepare it for pressing. This steaming ensures the leaves are pliable again and slightly sticky so the resulting form holds together.
Steamed and ready to go the tea is pressed into a desired shape. This is often a large round disc or cake but can take many other forms like bricks, coins, balls, or even a sort of mushroom shape. Traditionally this would be pressed into the shape by a heavy stone placed over the form though mechanical presses often do this in many factories. Pressed tea is much more dense and easier to handle. During the time of the tea-horse road this was essential to facilitate trade and today it still makes the tea much easier to handle and transport.
Pressed into the desired shape, Raw ‘Sheng’ Puerh is now stored for long term ripening, or fermentation. Unlike other forms of tea which are best used within about a year, raw puerh is best when aged. It mellows over years of aging and becomes more sought after the older it gets.
If you haven’t tried puerh its best to take some time and learn about it. Sheng and Shu puerh both provide very unique experiences. However, to fully enjoy them its best to also get a Yixing tea pot and learn how to quickly infuse this tea many times, exploring how the taste changes between infusions.