Raw Sheng Puer Production
Both Raw and Ripe Puerh tea originate from the same basic finished leaf known as mao cha (毛茶). Here we look at how the raw sheng puer mao cha is produced.
The bulk mao cha, is simply processed using tea leaf plucked from 'big leaf varietal' tea bushes and tea trees and includes the following stages of production:
After plucking, tea leaves are carried back in linen satchels or bamboo baskets for processing. Under dry weather conditions, the picked tea leaves are scattered on bamboo mats on open-air balconies and exposed to the air and light.
This natural dehydration, or sun-drying, of the leaves is the first phase of 'raw' Puerh production. As the leaves dehydrate, water evaporates into the atmosphere, stimulating chemical transformation inside the leaf. On a practical level, the loss of water during this dehydration stage helps to soften the leaves, increasing the suppleness of the leaf in preparation for the kill-green stage.
Once the leaves have achieved the requisite level of softening, they are gathered into small batches and transferred onto a deep, concave metal pan, or wok, for stir-frying. The wok is fixed onto a concrete mound and heated from below. The partially-dehydrated leaves are then tossed onto the wok and dry-fried in the scolding pan.
This stage appears easy to the eye, but in actual fact it is a complex stage and requires a highly-developed sense of the leaf condition. Higher quality Puerh depends on the ability of the tea maker to expose leaves to an even degree of heat. The application of heat during this kill-green stage immobilises the enzymic activity inside the leaf and continues the evaporation of water, while simultaneously dispelling the natural 'green' gases that can impair a tea's aroma. Furthermore, this action of stir-frying further softens the leaf in preparation for manual shaping and twisting.
The freshly 'fried' leaves are then twisted and shaped by hand. This third stage of Raw Puerh production requires strength combined with careful manipulation, as the leaves are twisted and rolled, softly at first, then with increasing force. The continuous pressing, turning, and kneeding of the tea leaf helps to further breakdown the internal structure, effectively facilitating the reshaping of their external appearance. After some intervals of shaping, the leaves also begin to lose their vibrant green lustre and appear slightly duller.
Now that the leaves have passed through the stages of initial dehydration, kill-green, and shaping, they are left to recover from this exhaustive process, and placed onto bamboo mats for a period of sun-drying. The last stage in the production of 'Raw' Puerh allows for one final, natural dehydration of the Puerh leaf.
Once dried the Mao Cha is then sorted to remove undesired leaf and twigs from large, circular bamboo trays. These leaves are now ready to be enjoyed as loose puer or will be compressed to different styles.
The loose leaf is weighed accordingly and placed into buckets perforated at the base, which are then placed atop a steamer along with the nei zhang, a small piece of paper with the brand's logo. The steam comes 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.
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.
Once the cake is fully dry, the tea can then be packed. The first stage of packing is to be wrapped in a paper. Depending on the quality of the tea, the paper may be hand made which is said to improve the breathability. The next stage for traditional Qi Zi Bing (seven sons) packaging is for the individual cakes to wrapped in a leaf and bound in to a 'tong'.
One of the other main styles of Puer is called, Ripe Puerh or Shu Puerh which consists of a the second stage production (artificial fermentation) after the mao cha is dried. You can read more about the process in our Shu Puer tea production section.