What is Puerh Tea?
Before a fuller examination is presented below, the short answer is that Puerh is a term used to describe a range of teas made using large leaf (Camelia sinensis var. assamica) harvested from bushes or trees from three specific areas of Yunnan, all of which undergo either managed or natural, post-processing fermentation or ripening. This ripening, involves, to varying degrees, the presence of microbial organisms present within the leaf, that promote the chemical reactions necessary to the ageing process.
A distinction is made between two types of Puerh, sheng and shu, called here Raw and Ripe. Raw refers to those Puerh teas which undergo a natural ageing or ripening process which is chiefly fermentation; Ripe Puerhs, on the other hand, are produced using a technique developed in the 1970s called 'wet-piling' method (which, admittedly is not the most attractive of terms), a technique that encourages oxidation of the leaf under controlled conditions. When sold in their finished state, both Raw and Ripe Puerh teas can be stored and aged for several years.
Typically, both Raw and Ripe Puerhs are pressed into a variety of compact shapes, reflecting their cultural legacy as part (and parcel) of the Tea-Horse trade carried out between the border areas of western and south-western China. There is also a growing trend of drinkers who prefer to age their Puerhs in loose leaf form, and it would be interesting to compare how loose Puerhs age compared to pressed versions of the same leaf.
The easiest way to distinguish between these two types of Puerh, apart from the obvious course of drinking, is to inspect the finished product: Raw Puerhs are inky greens with supple, light-some leaves, while Ripened varieties exhibit many of shades brown, ranging from light caramels to dark mahogany.
To sum up, Puerh is a term applied to teas from a specific region, that may refer to either naturally-aged or artificially-aged types.
Many tea drinkers, especially in Asia, have come to associate Ripe Puerhs as the standard or orthodox form, for no other reason than they are sold in huge volumes and have been successively marketed by traders from Guangdong, Hong Kong and, either as weight-shedding elixirs or as desirable premium teas to invest in and store away, as one would a vintage wine. In truth, if there ever were to be a cast-iron term for a 'real' Puerh, its original raw form pressed into a disc or brick would be most appropriate.
As it is, Puerhs represent an entirely different tea tradition to what could be considered mainstream Chinese tea culture, the foundations of which were laid down by that most intellectually stimulating of clowns, Lu Yu, who, after discovering 'the path of tea', retired from the world of entertainment to fully investigate the nature of tea and tea drinking. Yunnanese tea drinkers are always on hand to remind people that Lu Yu, despite his peripatetic life, never set foot on 'Puerh' ground.
On the whole, Raw and Ripe Puerhs help to define and complement each other, because increasingly, the test of high-quality Ripe Puerhs is whether they can replicate some of the tasting qualities of older, or naturally-ripened, Raw teas from the same area. One way to do this is to compare and contrast two Puerhs from one location, one Raw, one Ripe. By taking a Raw 2010 Puerh from Lao Man Erh and comparing that to a Ripe 2015 Lao Man Erh, you can analyse the quality and success of the accelerated ageing process.
The problem that Puerhs create is that ordinarily Chinese teas are defined by the process by which they are made be it Green, White, Yellow, Wulong or Black. Each type representing distinct sum of processes or manufacturing methods.
To these five main types, one further is added: hei cha 黑茶, literally, black tea. This is commonly translated as Dark Tea, for fear of conflation with Black teas (which are called red 'hong' 红茶 in Chinese). To remedy this confusion, the simplest thing would be to revert to the Chinese method of calling Black teas red. Perhaps though this confusion exists to add room for Puerh to develop its own identity. This is another topic which we will come back to when it can be explored in more greater depth, but with regards to Puerh teas, neither Ripe nor Raw versions fit neatly into the category of 'Dark teas'.
In fact, Puerh tea is the only major tea to be defined not by its processing method, but by a geographical region. One could argue that Wuyi teas have outgrown their tea typing, but its method of production defines Wulongs and does not stand separate or outside them. Raw Puerhs, on the other hand, are produced using the stages of Withering, Frying, Rolling and Natural Drying. The first three would suggest a green tea, but as it avoids the need for drying by heating, does not quite fit. Some have suggested that its finishing stage of natural drying is similar to white teas, but the frying (or kill green) stage excludes Puerhs from this distinction. Which brings us back to the initial question: what is Puerh tea? Well, it is not a green, white, yellow, wulong, black, or dark tea: it is of its own kind, a category of tea in its own right.
Man Hua Puer Cha, Deng Jia Gou, Yunnan Minzu Chu Ban She, 2004
Puer Cha, Chi Zong Xian, Huang Shan Shu She, 2009