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Journal

Our final “new” pu-erh is even older–it’s a loose pu-erh sold to us as “17-year-old Menghai Dayi Gong Ting Pu-erh.”  Like our unwrapped 2003 brick, this tea comes to us without formal packaging or pedigree, so we’ve got to take its provenance with a grain of salt and pay attention to our senses to determine its quality.  “Gong Ting” refers to the erstwhile tradition of the best teas being gifted to the Chinese imperial court.  Today, it’s often used to describe loose cooked pu-erh of the smallest grade.  One look at the leaves of this tea and it seems to be a fair appellation–they’re tiny!  The tea seems to be almost entirely composed of buds, too, which range from dark brown to golden in color.  I can see this grade being included in a blended cake, but it’s hard to imagine a cake made of leaves this small–it seems like it wouldn’t manage to stay together!

As might be expected, the high number of tea buds included in this tea indicate above-average sweetness.  When it comes to pu-erh, though, tons of buds also seem to inevitably bring high notes in aroma as well as the strength and occasional harshness that improves significantly with age.  Luckily for us, this tea’s already had its fair share of storage and the flavors are blending pretty well.  Compared to our other new teas, the mouthfeel is surprisingly dry–I wouldn’t say astringent, but it doesn’t leave a thick or oily texture in the mouth after swallowing.  There’s also a considerable amount of strength to this tea–what would most likely come across as intense bitterness in a raw pu-erh is here a slight sharpness that develops into musty sweetness in the finish.  It’s pretty amazing to me that a tea can undergo ripened pu-erh processing as well as aging and retain as much of an edge as teas like this have.  To me, these kinds of characteristics are indication that the tea will only continue to mellow with further aging.  As it stands today, this is a great ripened pu-erh option if you’re interested in a tea with a bit of a kick.  It’s not the supremely mellow experience of our 2003 brick, but it’s also a better choice for gong fu, with quite a bit of development and stamina over multiple steepings, developing deeper flavors as the infusions wear on.  I wouldn’t rule out mixing a bit of this with the 2003 brick for a broad-ranging blend, either!

Our next “new” pu-erh has actually got some age on it–it’s a 250 gram brick from 2003.  Like our ’09 7452 cake it’s hard to start talking about this one without raising some common confusing aspects of the pu-erh experience.  For starters, the brick is called “Menghai,” and as the last notes mentioned, this tea was created in Menghai county, Yunnan province, but not at Menghai Tea Factory.  Secondly, you can see that this cake is a different shape–indeed, it’s not the standard 357 gram bing (disc-shaped cake) into which the majority of pu-erh is pressed; it’s a 250 gram rectangular brick.  Though this shape is not the #1 norm, it’s relatively common and 250g is the standard brick weight.  You may also notice that these bricks have no wrappers (aside from the bamboo wrapper that holds multiple bricks).

  As is sometimes the case with aged pu-erh, this cake was either never wrapped or was removed from its wrappers some time in its eight years of storage.  Although this does mean that there is much less information to verify a cake’s age, origin and authenticity (no wrapper, no nei fei pressed into the cake), it usually means that the cake will sell for much less.  In other words, you can get a better deal on an unwrapped aged cake than a wrapped one, and just because it’s unwrapped doesn’t mean it’s not good!  Rather than relying on information provided on a wrapper, though, we have to use our senses to decide whether a tea’s a worthy investment.

This brick’s relatively dry Yunnan storage means that the leaves flake pretty easily off the cake surface–in fact, the brick itself is a bit flexible in hand.  What has struck me most about this cake during tasting is its mouthfeel–it’s by far the smoothest and roundest of our three new teas, and there’s nary a hint of astringency to be found from start to finish.  The tea liquor is also the darkest of the three–it’s a barely penetrable black, even in our glass cups.  While I described our 7452 as the best choice for gong fu brewing, my recommendation for this tea is “Western”-style brewing in a mug or pot–like we serve most of our teas at Miro.  While it does stand up to a few repeated steeps, the body is fullest and most impressive when it’s allowed a nice long 5+ minute steep.  Additionally, the flavor more fully develops given some extra steeping time.  The tea isn’t quite as complex as the Menghai Factory blend, but it’s a brilliant example of ideal mouthfeel for any pu-erh.  The eight years of aging have definitely contributed to this characteristic, as well as the mellowing of the flavor.  There aren’t as many high notes up front, and there’s little to no remnants of the flavor that freshly-processed ripened pu-erh exhibits.  Some teas seem designed for careful connoisseur attention over the course of numerous steeps.  This one, however, seems best drunk casually on a relaxing afternoon, as it exemplifies the calming, mellowing characteristics to which all pu-erh should aspire.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had new ripened (cooked) pu-erh offerings at Miro Tea; a few months ago we sold out of the last of our 2007 Chang Tai Red Crane cakes, and shortly after our 2006 International Tea Expo Memorial cakes disappeared–a lot of customers have asked after the teas, wondering when we’ll be restocking them.  Sometimes the unfortunate thing about the aged pu-erh world is that once something is gone, it’s really gone–our supplier sold out close to a year ago, so all we have of those two cakes is memories!  Fortunately, though, it’s also an opportunity to try some new teas, thanks to our new partnership with Yunnan Sourcing!  We have three new (to us) ripened/cooked pu-erh cakes that are already available at Miro for your tasting pleasure–Jeannie has introduced a couple of them at our weekly tea tastings (Saturdays at 1 pm) and they’ve gone over quite well.

Before I launch into notes about one of our new cakes, it might be helpful to reference the introductory article that’s been on this blog a few years already.  We get a fair number of customers inquiring about this strange pu-erh tea they’ve had once or only heard about, but in most cases it turns out that they’re more specifically looking for ripened or cooked pu-erh.  It’s the one that looks extremely dark in the cup (sometimes almost black) and is usually extremely smooth in the mouth, with full body, earthy flavor and often times a nice round sweetness.  Raw/green pu-erh, on the other hand, looks much lighter in the cup, has more of a straw-like flavor, is often bitter and astringent, and only develops rich smoothness after many years (often decades) of careful storage.  If you don’t care to reference the lengthy article, here’s the main thing that separates ripened pu-erh from raw: ripened pu-erh is artificially aged over a short period of time using a special process not unlike composting wherein the leaves are heaped, sprayed with water and change physically and chemically due to the autothermal generation of heat.  The piles are shifted by knowledgeable tea masters to ensure their even processing, and when they’re ready, the leaves are usually compressed into large cakes (just like raw pu-erh).

This, the first of our new offerings, is a 2009 example of Menghai Factory’s 7452 recipe.  One sentence in, and I’ve already mentioned some of the classic confusing pu-erh details.  What’s Menghai?  Well, Menghai (pronounced mung-high) is both a county in China’s Yunnan province (where all pu-erh comes from) and the name of the most famous pu-erh producing factory.  Therefore, it’s possible to describe a tea as “from” Menghai without it being from Menghai factory (as you’ll see with our next tea).  Menghai Factory is widely believed to be the first factory to have perfected the processing whereby ripened pu-erh is created, though there’s some disagreement as to whether it was back in the 1950’s or later around the 1970’s that this was accomplished.  Either way, their recipes are tried-and-true in the pu-erh world and we’re happy to be able to share with you an example of “industry standard” pu-erh.  Speaking of recipes, the final confusing issue is that of recipe number–7452 is read as “seventy-four five two.”  “Seventy-four” refers to the year the recipe was created (1974), “five” refers to the average grade (size, corresponding from low to high) of leaves used, and “two” is Menghai Factory’s “code”–any recipe tea purchased from Menghai Factory will always end with a “2.”

Many Menghai recipes are made every year.  This one, in fact, isn’t–there’s a red ribbon embedded in each 357 gram cake denoting its status as a special release.  Unlike raw pu-erh, which takes decades to mature, ripened pu-erh is ready to drink immediately.  This doesn’t mean, however, that it won’t improve with age–the fact that this tea’s already a couple of years old means that any sharpness or “fermented” taste from its processing has had some time to mellow and the flavors are well-blended.  The reasonable percentage of buds visible in the cake indicate that it’ll have some sweetness or at least some nice higher notes in the flavor.  It doesn’t disappoint in that regard–the first thing to come out in tasting was a nice malty sweetness.  The body of this tea is also somewhat light for a cooked pu-erh, which can be a nice change of pace from what is often a rather heavy tea genre.  Of our three new pu-erh teas, this is my pick for gong fu brewing–you might need to use a few more leaves than usual (I’d recommend at least 7 grams for 100ml), but the blend of leaves produces a nice session that really gets going after the first two infusions–full of changes on the palate, varying degrees of mouthfeel and a welcome bit of complexity.  Brewed long in a mug or pot, the tea is quite flavorful, packed on numerous different levels.  There are more “boutique” brands of ripened pu-erh, but Menghai Factory continues to deliver quality tea at extremely affordable prices–this 7452 cake is a solid stand-by and a good reference to which our customers can compare other teas.

This cute little mini-cake is 100 g, the same weight as a standard “bird’s nest” or tuo cha, and about 250 grams smaller than your average pu-erh bing. As the attractive wrapper (I love the texture and slight transparency of the paper) says, this tea was produced by Chang Tai factory to commemorate (Ji Nian) of the 2006 tea culture expo in Taipei, Taiwan. The Chang Tai blender reportedly blended this cake from the best of 150 loose pu-erh leaves provided by the factory, and the aim was to reproduce the characteristics of the legendary “Hun Tie” (iron cakes) from the 1950’s. While it’s difficult to imagine how a blender could know (much less reproduce) how the 1950’s cakes tasted and smelled when they were young, there’s no question that this is high-quality pu-erh.

It’s evident from viewing the exposed cake that it’s very well-compressed, which happens to be one of the defining characteristics of “iron” cakes. There’s a healthy proportion of buds on the surface, and also plenty of dark, juicy-looking leaves. One of the more difficult things about iron cakes and machine-molded cakes in general is that it’s more difficult to break into the cake for brewing without breaking or damaging all of the leaves. The fact that this is a mini cake compounds this difficulty, since it’s thinner and smaller than your average bing. Using a small pick meant for tuo chas with care, though, I was able to break the cake into relatively whole and manageable pieces, using an intact specimen for tasting. This pu-erh is so well-made that it’s a shame it’s only available in mini cake size; I’d love to own large cakes of this tea.

The aroma itself is a complex puzzle, shifting between thick, date-like fruit smells to intoxicating wet flowery notes. There’s no smokiness and no off or dirty smells, and the shifting nature of the aroma is a really good sign. I found the elements of the aroma variously popped up in the liquor, which complemented them with a hearty but subdued bitterness, a smooth finish, and a nice thick, viscous mouth feel. This isn’t arbor pu-erh, but it’s about as good as plantation pu-erh can hope to be. The only real drawback is the mini-cake form, which isn’t really necessarily a drawback; the small cakes are extremely affordable, especially for someone who’s interested in experimenting with aging pu-erh but doesn’t want to break the bank. The unfurled leaves are in pretty nice shape (provided you can get them free without breaking them)–some large examples for full body as well as healthy buds and fledgling leaves for light sweetness. As far as Chang Tai leaves are concerned, they’re much better than the average.

As with all of our pu-erhs, we’re offering this tea in 1 oz samples as well as in whole cakes, and both are 15% off through the end of November, making this cake an even better deal.

Elliot

This 400 gram cake is one of the older cakes we offer at Miro, and tasting it soon after tasting 2007 and 2006 cakes makes its slight aging very apparent. Chang Tai used to be a pretty small factory but upgraded to a substantially larger “Manufacturing Group” in 2005. Still, its product rivals and often bests many of the huge, well-known pu-erh factories like Menghai and Xiaguan, especially in the “wild leaves” department. This cake makes no claims about being exclusively old growth, but it does contain a healthy proportion of semi-wild “old plantation” leaves from Yi Wu mountain (hence the name, “Yi Wu Original Peak”).

Like the 2006 Chen Guang-Ho Tang cake, this cake is stone-molded. Here, though, it’s even more apparent; as you can see in the picture, the edges of the cake are pretty loose, and leaves are already coming off without any effort. Smelling and visually observing the cake, the four years of aging are very apparent to me–more so than the liquor will eventually reveal. I can already smell that “forest floor” camphor and earthy musk that is evidenced so well by well-aged pu-erhs, which means this cake is on the right track for some future delicious aged sheng pu-erh. You can also notice the slight changes that have taken place in the leaves’ appearance; they’re a bit darker, and many of the buds have changed to a slightly more golden hue.

Taste-wise, this tea reveals its age less. The liquor is a dark gold, though, and its aroma is full of rich, woody, earthy pu-erh character. With a sip from the first infusion, it’s apparent that the tea exhibited a slight smokiness when it was newborn, but it’s swiftly retreating and is absent from later infusions–good news that this tea won’t be one that still tastes like smoke when it’s over 10 years old! There is still a formidable bitterness in this tea’s finish, but the aftertaste develops sweetness with every breath. There’s a lot of debate about which ages better–strong pu-erh or subtle, complex pu-erh–and if you’re of the “strong” persuasion, this one is certainly a contender for a good aging choice. I’m of the belief that both types of tea have plenty of potential, though they’ll very likely produce aged pu-erhs with very different temperaments. Surely, though, abundance and strength of flavor in a young pu-erh is unlikely to disappear over the years and result in a weak aged pu-erh. Either way, this tea fulfills a couple important criteria for pu-erh aging potential: 1) It’s complex enough to be appreciated now, despite its acceptable “young” characteristics, so it will likely be complex as an aged tea. 2) It already shows signs of aging, which means that it should continue on the promising path it’s on if properly stored.

The brewed leaves of this tea reveal something about Chang Tai’s method that seems to happen with many of their teas–many of the leaves are fragmented or broken, with sometimes tattered edges. This may partially account for the tea’s powerful taste, and time may prove that the aged flavor of these cakes will be enhanced by the added strength this imparts. Next up in the tasting note series is another Chang Tai offering.


Elliot

The second pu-erh to be featured in November’s celebration of pu-erh tea, this sheng (raw, or uncooked) pu-erh is an excellent tea to contrast against the 2007 Xi-Zhi Hao 8582 cake from the last entry. This is primarily because the 8582 cake is a spring production and this “Yi Wu Yeh Cha” is fall-harvested. Whereas the XZH 8582 is a lively, energetic and potentially fierce tea, this pu-erh is mellow, round and a fair bit more difficult to over-brew.

Chen Guang-Ho Tang is a relatively small pu-erh production group that has been around since the late 90’s. It’s comparable to Xi-Zhi Hao insofar as they both provide premium, often ancient tree and famous mountain pu-erh, though Xi-Zhi Hao probably has the edge in terms of prestige and reputation since they put out some of the most exclusive and super-premium pu-erh available. This tea comes from one of the most famous mountains in Yunnan, China’s pu-erh-producing province–Yiwu or Yi Wu Mountain. As a side note, since famous-mountain pu-erh leaves are in such high demamd, some less scrupulous pu-erh manufacturers will sometimes label their cakes “Yi Wu” or “Lao Ban Zhan” when only a small percentage of the leaves (if any) came from said mountain. One of the better aspects about premium producers like Chen Guang-Ho Tang and Xi-Zhi Hao is that they have excellent street cred when it comes to the accuracy of their tea leaves’ origins. Regardless, taste will always be the deciding factor–with even a limited amount of experience, it can be relatively easy to pick out the harshness, lack of complexity, and lower durability of plantation leaves that dominate so-called “famous mountain” cakes. This cake’s inner ticket declares that the leaves are a blend of three different Yi Wu regions, so we can expect varied characteristics, but (hopefully) a common denominator of big, healthy-looking leaves and buds and not too much harshness.

Gong fu brewing of this pu-erh reveals a somewhat rare experience in young sheng pu-erh: a tea that’s actually enjoyable to drink when it’s young. At two years old, this tea hasn’t had much time to age. Nevertheless, it’s full of dark, dried fruit, woody and mushroomy flavors along with hints of that characteristic earthy character that is present in even the most flowery young shengs. There’s no smokiness whatsoever and the bitterness is slight and it blends well with the tea’s other characteristics. The body is full with little astringency, though there is room for aging improvement in its smoothness. Compared to the XZH 8582 cake, this autumn production is rounder, mellower and darker, with few of the high and potentially piercing notes of the spring cake. Both are unmistakably young pu-erhs, though, which makes comparing them an excellent and instructive exercise in the difference between spring and autumn pu-erh leaves, which both seem to have very particular strengths.

The spent leaves of this cake seem to confirm their origin–there are few broken or ragged leaves and plenty of complete leaf sets with large, strong-looking veins and thick but not brittle stems. It’s also worth noting that this cake is stone-molded, which is different but not necessarily better than the modern process of machine-molding. Stone-molded cakes tend to be more irregularly-shaped than machine-molded ones, and they also tend to be compressed more loosely, which can lead to faster aging (because the inner leaves have more exposed surface area). Overall, tasting these two cakes is an exciting endeavor, especially when contemplating what will happen to the flavors of each as the cakes slowly age.

Elliot

November is over half over and I’ve yet to announce the tea of the month to our online audience. We’re celebrating pu-erh tea this month. All of the usual benefits apply–we’ve got informational handouts and samples in the store, and all of our pu-erh stock is 15% off for the month. If you’re unfamiliar with pu-erh, you can check out the rather lengthy introductory article I compiled in May. A Google or Wikipedia search will also deliver some good results–pu-erh is becoming quite a craze in the West (it’s been extremely popular in Asia for at least 10 years though) and there are a lot of enthusiastic bloggers and hobbyists online. In a market saturated by the mediocre, cheaply-made pu-erh that has become commonplace since pu-erh’s recent surge in popularity, we’re happy to offer several choices that don’t have much trouble distinguishing themselves from your average teas! I’ll hopefully be able to present several of our pu-erh choices before the month is over, starting with this 2007 Xi-Zhi Hao 8582 sheng (raw pu-erh) cake.

Xi-Zhi Hao (Double Happiness) is a premium pu-erh line produced by San Ho Tang pu-erh factory. The owner, Mr. Chen, began researching the historical pu-erh production methods in the 1990’s and began producing his own pu-erh at the end of the decade. Today, Xi-Zhi Hao stands as some of the highest-end (quality-wise and price-wise) pu-erh available on the market. Essentially what makes this type of tea high-end is the leaves–since the late 90’s there has been a surge of interest from pu-erh collectors and producers in using “ancient,” “wild,” “arbor” or “tree” pu-erh leaves (as opposed to plantation leaves, which can vary in quality). These leaves come from either completely wild tea plants or from plants that were once cultivated but have grown wild for decades. Generally the plants are very large (more tree-like than bush-like), and the leaves are sized to match; vigorous, bold and healthy-looking, with bold but complex flavor and high propensity for successful aging. Leaves of this type come from very specific (usually mountainous, like “Yiwu,” for example) areas in Yunnan province, China, and there are only so many leaves to go around (hence the high price tag). Manufacturers will often label their tea cakes with these words when they only have a small percentage of the old, famous-mountain leaves, but the Xi-Zhi Hao brand has a good reputation for quality and reliability with their “ancient tree” pu-erhs. In addition to their heralded super-premium pu-erhs, they have also produced some outstanding upper-mid-level pu-erhs. This cake falls into that category–high quality leaves which are mostly from plantations around Menghai county. The title “8582” refers to the classic Menghai Tea Factory blend recipe, which was provided to Xi-Zhi Hao by an ex-Menghai factory master blender. Menghai has been a quality-standard pu-erh brand for decades, and this blend (“85” for 1985, when the recipe was invented, “8” for the “level” or “grade” of leaves used, and “2” meaning Menghai Tea factory) is designed to recapture the pu-erh quality that existed when this recipe was new.

You can see in this picture that the cake is composed of nice-looking whole leaves, and there are plenty of silvery buds visible on the surface, which lets you know that this should be a pretty sweet-tasting pu-erh. Since the cake is very young, there is plenty of contrast between the buds and leaves. This will change in a few years as the buds gain a more golden coloration. The cake is well-compressed; not as tightly as an “iron cake”-styled pu-erh, and not as loosely as a traditionally stone-molded cake. Just opening the wrapper, the aroma floats gracefully out and fills the room.

For tasting, I gently pried off a small chunk (the fewer broken leaves, the mellower and less harsh the tea will brew). 3.8g in a 100ml teapot, with a 20 second rinse to open the leaves up a bit. After that, it was 30-20-30-40-60. Not overly methodical for gong fu brewing, but good enough to catch some of this tea’s intricacies. This is a spring-harvested tea, and it tastes that way. It’s simply brimming with energy–after a rinse and first infusion, the aroma really dominated our tasting area. Floral, fruity and slightly woody/earthy tones permeate the complex aroma, and depending on when and how deeply you inhale, it can change completely. The liquor is a deep golden color with good clarity. Flavor-wise, this tea has multiple strengths. First is complexity: all of the elements from the aroma are present in the liquor, as is a potent sweetness. Second is hui gan, or “returning aftertaste.” The sweet finish pervades long after the tea is gone, which is a very desirable characteristic in a pu-erh. Also notable are a couple absent aspects: smokiness–commonplace among low-end pu-erhs–is virtually zero, which means this pu-erh was processed very carefully, with delicate care during the firing, drying and steaming processes. The other characteristic–bitterness–is somewhat muted and mostly transforms to sweetness in the aftertaste. Bitterness in a young sheng pu-erh is almost universal and is not regarded as a flaw, and it’s nice to see that it fits comfortably among this pu-erh’s other attributes.

Having tasted some of Xi-Zhi Hao’s single-region pu-erhs, I can say that this 8582 recipe cake could be described as less refined, but to me it’s also somewhat more interesting–rather than leaves with uniform character, this cake is a blend of different-sized and styled leaves (see the picture below for more evidence of this), which gives it a shifting, active, dynamic, even clamourous(!) complexity that isn’t necessarily present in the super-premium cakes. For personal drinking I’d probably use more leaves, but not too much more–this cake can be extremely potent and aggressive if you use too many leaves (partly because it’s a spring, plantation cake and partly because it’s so young), and I think it tastes best and most complex when it’s toned to a more light, floral and ethereal tea like I cupped it today. I’m very excited for this cake’s aging potential; the original 8582 Menghai cakes are tasting really good these days, and I can see this cake’s complexity becoming really nice as it mellows out a bit. We have this cake available for in-store drinking as well as bulk–1 oz samples or entire 400 gram cakes. With all pu-erh stock 15% off for the month, now is a great time to snag one. Stay tuned for more tasting notes!

Elliot

This article is intended to act as a somewhat brief (though it’s still pretty long) introduction to one of the most mysterious, ancient, complex and collectible tea genres–Pu-erh, the compressed tea cakes or bricks that have potential to improve with age. Although it is gradually becoming known in the West, this enigmatic tea genre is still subject to a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation. Hopefully, this entry will clear up some potential questions about pu-erh and provide you with enough general knowledge and tools to begin exploring pu-erh from an informed perspective.

History:
In terms of processing, pu-erh (pronounced “poo-air,” or “poo-er”) is a living fossil–the practice of compressing teas into bricks or cakes was widespread and industry-standard hundreds of years ago, but today, in terms of popularity, it has been replaced by tea in loose form. Pu-erh tea is named for a county in the Yunnan province of China; Yunnan is generally regarded as the primary source for best pu-erh tea leaves because the province’s high mountains receive more sunlight than most areas of China, making for ideal strong, large leaves. The “traditional” pu-erh processing methods that today’s production emulates were threatened during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960’s and 1970’s–during this time, much of the country’s stock of antique pu-erh was destroyed. Since then, pu-erh from the 50’s and 60’s has become especially rare (and extremely expensive), and the techniques used to produce it have been pursued by modern pu-erh producers who hope to recapture the tea’s past glory. Today, pu-erh production is split between teas produced by plantations and teas sourced from semi-wild, old-growth, overgrown ancient tea plantations on difficult-to-access mountains. Since the late 20th century, pu-erh has seen an explosive increase in interest both in China and abroad, resulting in rapid price inflation of aged pu-erh, new pu-erh, and the highest quality tea leaves used to produce pu-erh.

Processing:
What separates pu-erh from the other tea types is its processing–it’s not important which tea plant cultivar produces the leaves. Depending on how the teas are processed, the result will either produce sheng (or raw, uncooked, or green) pu-erh, or shu (ripened, cooked or black) pu-erh. Regardless of the end result, the first ingredient is mao cha–“rough tea”–the loose leaves that will eventually be compressed into sheng or shu pu-erh.

Mao Cha (pictured left, click to enlarge; thanks to Guang at http://www.houdeasianart.com for these pictures) consists of buds, tender leaves, stems, and whole semi-mature leaves. In general, a good mix of these elements produces good pu-erh (i.e. not ALL buds or ALL mature leaves). The processing is outwardly simple, but the finer points of making mao cha are touchy and require fine skills and experience. After plucking, the tea leaves are briefly wilted on bamboo mats to slightly reduce moisture content. Next, the leaves go through the “killing green” process, during which the leaves are pan-fired, de-enzyming the leaves and preventing any oxidization or fermentation. The killing green process is extremely important–the liquor of pu-erh teas that have not undergone correct or complete killing green is often cloudy or murky, and it denotes low quality craftsmanship. After killing green, the leaves are carefully bruised to release flavor without breaking leaves or buds, then dried in the open air or by the sun to the ideal low-moisture (bud not brittle) content. From this point, the mao cha is transported to either large or small factories to become sheng or shu pu-erh. We’ll start with shu.

Shu Pu-erh:
Shu, or ripened pu-erh (pictured right), was invented mid-20th century in an effort to approximate the flavors and character of aged sheng pu-erh, without the years of aging and usual high price commanded by aged sheng pu-erh. This effect is achieved through a rigorously-controlled process involving moisture and heat. The loose mao cha is moistened with water and stacked into piles. In these conditions (similar to skilled compost production), the wet leaves increase in temperature by themselves (autothermally), which quickly increases the rate of post-fermentation (since the leaves are being fermented after the initial killing green process), simulating the process of aging. Of course, the process is delicate and the piles must be turned and monitored to ensure that the leaves don’t get too hot and that moisture and oxidation levels are equivalent. Since this precisely-controlled process includes increased temperature, shu pu-erh is often referred to as “cooked,” but this term is inaccurate because no cooking actually takes place. Finally, the post-fermented leaves are compressed into different shapes–usually disc-shaped cakes (called “bing cha” or “beeng cha”), but also often large and small bird’s nest-shaped forms (tuo cha). Shu pu-erh processing recipes differ from factory to factory, so it is likely that flavor and quality standards will be well-controlled or recognizable for a particular factory.

Like any tea, there are premium grades of shu pu-erh and there are types that are extremely low-grade. For many Westerners, “pu-erh” refers to very low-grade shu pu-erh (often served at dim sum restaurants) that tastes extremely earthy–often to the point of tasting like dirt. In reality, high quality shu pu-erh can make for a very refined tea experience–it’s usually incredibly smooth, rich, and abounding in flavors that can range between earthy, spicy, woody, mushroomy and chocolaty. Like sheng pu-erh, shu pu-erh’s flavor can be improved with aging, but to a lesser extent (see below for aging-related information). Regardless of its quality, though, shu pu-erh is generally regarded as subordinate in quality to aged premium sheng pu-erh, which is unparalleled for its complexity and reputation. Aged sheng pu-erh is rare, expensive, and sometimes difficult to verify as authentic, though, and shu pu-erh potentially offers a similar high-quality experience at a fraction of the cost and time commitment.

Sheng Pu-erh:
The undisputed king of the pu-erh world, sheng pu-erh’s processing is less mysterious but no less delicate than that of shu pu-erh. For sheng pu-erh (pictured left), the finished mao cha is weighed and re-hydrated using steam. This step often separates high-quality sheng pu-erh from mid-grade; if the source of the steam isn’t pure, the tea leaves will acquire a smoky flavor and character. Although smokiness doesn’t mean a pu-erh is inferior (light smokiness will diminish with a few years of aging), the absence of smokiness in young sheng pu-erh is a hallmark of quality production and attention to detail. After rehydration, the more moisturized mao cha is placed in a cotton bag and gently formed into a ball. The ball/bag is then compressed using either a large, cylindrical stone (traditional) or via a special press (modern). Both methods produce top-grade pu-erh, though stone molding generally compresses the tea slightly less, which is better for aging. The mao cha can also be pressed into other shapes, including rectangular or square bricks, birds nest (tuo cha, pictured right top), mushroom (jing cha, pictured right bottom), or even giant melons. After compression, the cakes are sun-dried, wrapped in paper, and sun dried again before being packaged for sale. Bing cha are traditionally sold by the tong, a bamboo or banana leaf-wrapped stack of 7 cakes. Bing cha usually weigh between 350 grams and 400 grams, with 357 grams being an industry standard. When packaged, each pu-erh cake will have a Nei Fei (an embedded inner ticket) and a Nei Piao (an inner ticket) which provide more information about the tea cake’s production, the factory, and the quality of the product. The dimensions and appearance of these items are especially important in aged pu-erh, since forgery is common and careful inspection of the tickets can verify a pu-erh’s authenticity.

The flavor of recently-produced sheng pu-erh can vary widely–depending on how the leaves were steamed during re-hydration, and especially on they type of mao cha used to produce the pu-erh, the flavor can vary widely to encompass floral notes, fruitiness, woodiness, flavors similar to green tea, honey-like sweetness, and many other elements. Most young pu-erhs possess a distinct bitterness; some people find pu-erh’s bitterness to be too strong, or overpowering, but it should be noted that it’s not the same type of bitterness as, say, an oversteeped green tea. Bitterness in high quality young pu-erh should transform during swallowing or in the aftertaste, taking on sweeter and more complex notes. As the pu-erh ages, its bitterness will decrease, and bitterness in young pu-erh is by no means a sign of inferiority.

Factories:
Be they produced by large, state-run companies or private producers, all pu-erhs are produced in some sort of factory. Menghai (also the name of a county in Yunnan) is by far the most popular pu-erh factory in China; it is unmatched in its brand name recognition and standard of quality. Factories like Menghai often produce teas every year based on a specific “recipe.” In Menghai’s case, each recipe has a number–for example, Menghai’s 7542 recipe is an industry standard for quality and age-ability–the first two digits in the recipe stand for the year that the recipe was created (1975) and the second two digits (usually tougher to decode) refer to the types of leaves and quality used in the blend. In essence, a recipe is the percentage of each cake that comes from a given leaf type–buds, large leaves, small leaves, stems, and quality of each type are all factors. Therefore, a given recipe can be reproduced year after year with similar results (although, of course, harvest quality and climate conditions can affect a given year’s harvest). In recent years, a number of pu-erh factories (such as San Ho Tang, whose Xi-Zhi Hao [Double Happiness] line has set the standard for premium pu-erh) have begun producing boutique-quality pu-erhs based on leaves picked from specific mountain old-growth plantations in Yunnan. These unblended productions often feature the highest quality, largest, and most beautiful pu-erh leaves available, and produce flavor that puts many plantation-sourced cakes to shame. However, blended and unblended single-region pu-erhs both have their merits; blends tend to have a larger breadth of flavors, while unblended pu-erhs tend to be more subtle and possess a more distinct character.

Brewing:
Pu-erh does have somewhat of an “acquired taste” for many people, but brewing it correctly can aid in enjoyment. First, you’ve got to get some leaves–using a knife or pick, break some leaves off of the cake as gently as possible, preferably from the side. The fewer broken leaves, the better the tea will taste. Traditional Chinese Gong Fu (to be described in a future post) preparation is ideal for pu-erh, since it brings the tea’s flavor out little by little in a less overpowering way. For this method, you’ll want to get your gaiwan or clay teapot about 1/3 full with leaves, rinse with boiling water for about 20 seconds, and discard the water. For future infusions, steep the tea for a short amount of time (20 sec or even less) with boiling water, gradually increasing the steeping time as the flavor decreases.

Brewing Western style, it’s a good idea to use roughly 1 tsp of leaves per 8 oz cup, pouring slightly cooler than boiling water for sheng pu-erh (since you’ll be brewing fewer leaves in a larger amount of water), and steep the leaves for 2-5 minutes the first time, depending on your taste. Like any tea, it’s all a matter of taste, and you should experiment to find out how you like it best.

Aging Pu-erh:
Pu-erh’s ability to improve with age is probably the quality that has made it especially popular with wine-drinking Westerners in the recent past. Both sheng and shu pu-erhs can improve in flavor with a few years of aging: sheng pu-erh improves the most dramatically and can be aged for over 50 years(!) with continuing flavor improvement, while the usefulness of aging shu pu-erh usually peaks at around 15 years. Within 10 years of aging (different pu-erhs age at different rates), the flavor of sheng pu-erh will mellow considerably–bitterness and smokiness will subside (if not disappear completely), the mouth feel will become smooth, the liquor will darken, and the tea will last for more infusions. The leaves of the cake will also change in appearance (compare the leaves in the picture on left of a 1980’s with the young sheng pu-erh cake pictured above, then compare it with the shu pu-erh). For shu pu-erh, aging generally results in the reduction of “off” flavors, like slight dirtiness or mustiness, but it’s never as dramatic as the flavor transformation seen in sheng pu-erh. It’s also important to note that aging an inferior quality pu-erh won’t turn it into a superior one! Although it will mellow out, inferior sheng pu-erh is likely to produce somewhat bland or shallow aged pu-erh. Not necessarily bad, but also not magical transmutation. What’s the best way to know if a pu-erh is age-able? Taste it! Complexity and delicious flavors in young sheng pu-erh is a good measure of aging potential, and it’s a great idea to taste your aging pu-erh as time progresses to see if your decision was a good one. There’s no substitute for experience, though, so it’s a great idea to experiment and try both un-aged and aged pu-erhs–you’ll start to recognize flavors from young pu-erhs in old pu-erhs, and it will all start to click!

If you plan to age pu-erh yourself, here are a few basic guidelines: pu-erh should be stored in a relatively cool, dark, dry (very important) place with exposure to airflow (airtight conditions will eventually kill the microorganisms responsible for the pu-erh’s aging) and an absence of strong odors, particularly food odors, since the pu-erh leaves will absorb strong smells. In general, if it’s comfortable climate for a person, the pu-erh should be okay. A good closet or cupboard usually does the trick.

In Asia, pu-erh is sometimes stored in very humid environments. This type of storage is sometimes referred to as “wet” storage or more euphemistically as “traditional” or “Hong Kong” storage. The reasons for wet storage are multiple: unscrupulous vendors may be attempting to artificially “age” sheng pu-erh via a moist environment, or they just may not have access to a humidity-controlled warehouse. In any case, approach these pu-erhs with caution–although this type of storage can speed the aging of pu-erh, it can also result in unsafe growth of mold and other non-ideal “life” on your pu-erh.

Generally, I recommend sampling a pu-erh before buying an entire cake whenever possible–this way, you’ll get tasting experience and you’ll know firsthand if you like the pu-erh or not. Most high-quality vendors offer samples, and I’d only recommend buying a cake without sampling if you’ve already dealt with the vendor and trust their quality control. Also, rather than shelling out big money for a lot of aged pu-erh, I recommend buying either premium young or premium mid-aged pu-erh; you’ll save a load of money, and if you buy high-quality, you’ll be enjoying your tea more within a few years or even when it’s young than if you bought mediocre aged pu-erh (or worse–faked aged pu-erh!) at an expensive price.

At Miro, we’re committed to offering a broad range of pu-erh; our selection includes both sheng and shu pu-erhs in loose and cake forms, and we carry a range of ages from recently-produced to around 10 years old. We offer premium pu-erh as well as great value-for-price pu-erhs, and we’re happy to let you sample the pu-erh before you buy! If you made it through this entire article, thanks for bearing with me–I hope you feel more familiar with pu-erh and educated to make smart buying decisions. Questions are always welcome, and stay tuned for in-depth tasting notes for some of Miro’s recently-acquired premium pu-erhs!

Elliot