Shu Puer Production
Although both originating from Yunnan province, both Sheng PuEr Tea (生普洱茶) and Shu PuEr Tea (熟普洱茶) are distinctly different in appearance and taste. This arises primarily from the unique processing techniques used for Shu puer.
In this section we take a look at the Shu Puer production process. For information on Raw Sheng Puer production please visit our tea facts section.
Ripe Puerh - Some important distinctions
Unlike many aspects of Chinese tea culture the origin of the production of Ripe Puerh is refreshingly transparent and directly traceable, albeit unromantically, to a decision by the Kunming tea factory in 1973 to replicate the natural ageing of what we now call "raw" Puerh. It is important to consider that without this invention of 'artificial ageing process' there would be no need to distinguish Puerh types, and only vintage and origin would suffice. This artificial ageing process, commonly translated as 'artificial fermentation', was designed as means to accelerate the natural transformation of Raw Puerhs.
Ripe Puerh is produced under the control and supervision of factories that specialise in this articifical fermentation process. These factories may be small-scale operations located near tea plantations or larger-scale and found in county capitals such as Menghai or Pu'er city. The actual specifics of the process are the preserve of each factory's 'special recipe', some factories may well include the addition of micro-organisms to act as catalysing agents accelerating the ageing process.;
Generally speaking, the source mao cha 毛茶 material for producing both Raw and Ripe Puerh is approximately the same. Although it should be noted that factories producing Ripe Puerh may select source leaf from different tea regions to create a signature blend.
The basic method of producing Ripe Puerh is as follows:
Large batches of recently finished mao cha 毛茶 arrive at the factory and after undergoing inspection are piled up into heaps and organised into mounds of a manageable height. A breathable canvas is then placed atop these piles of raw tea leaves and a fixed amount of water onto the canvas to create the desired level of humidity.
This wet-piling method, called wo-dui (渥堆) in Chinese, as mentioned above, was invented by the Kunming Tea Factory, under the name of 'Artificial Fermentation'; although whether or not this process is actually fermentation is still a matter of debate.
During wet-piling, the confluence of temperature and humidity is paramount to the fermentation process, and is adjusted according to both the condition of the raw leaf and the prevailing weather conditions. Throughout this period the fermentation supervisor is in direct control of the process and at precise intervals will instruct workers to stir the mounds of fermenting leaves. This stage of production may take several weeks, or even longer, depending on the depth of maturation required.
When the fermentation procedure is over the leaves are then sorted in-house. In larger factories, this is first by machine into different grades, then manually, as workers, crouching on small stools, meticulously pick out undesired leaf and twigs from large, circular bamboo trays. The resultant leaves are weighted and prepared for compression into the desired shape.
The ripened leaf is weighed accordingly and placed into buckets perforated at the base, which are then placed atop a steaming device. The steam sifts through the perforations and disperses through the compacted leaves. This short period of steaming helps soften the leaf and increase its malleability. The softened leaf is lifted from the bucket and placed into linen bags for shaping. These small tea parcels are then either compressed manually or mechanically, and placed individually onto nearby shelves.
4. Final dehydration
At this point the cakes still retain certain amount of moisture and so they are removed from their linen wrap and placed into a dehydration room to allow natural evaporation. It is vital that the Puerh cakes are fully dehydrated before being packaged, otherwise any moisture concealed or trapped inside the packaging will adversely affect the quality of the Puerh tea cake.