Made only in the wild mountains of Yunnan, the ancient type of tea known as puerh is my absolute favourite tea category. I love exploring the complex, fruity, bittersweet and unique tastes and textures this category has to offer, as well as its rich culture among tea enthusiasts in China. Even though the tea markets for puerh in China are booming like never before, the taste of puerh is not something that's been widely experienced in the West. This is something I'd like to see change, and so I'm very excited to introduce this tea. We choose tea leaves from Ai Lao Mountain to be pressed into this cake. Selected for their accessible but exemplary taste, we wanted a raw puerh cake that would appeal to puerh fans, as well as allow new puerh drinkers to dive into the category.
In this deep dive I’ll take you through everything you need to know about the origin and craft of puerh and explain why we think this one is the perfect entry into raw puerh tea drinking. I also had a few sessions with this tea at home, so I’ll be sharing my top recipes for making it so you too can experience the best of its flavour.
Origin: Ai Lao Shan, Zhenyuan County, Yunnan, China
Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. assamica ‘da ye zhong’
Name: Much like French wine, puerh tea is all about provenance, so batches of tea are often named after the specific village or mountain range where the tea was picked and produced. The year and season of its production are also included, as puerh tea is often collected and stored for long periods of time. This information reminds tea drinkers of the age of the tea, as well as giving them an idea of the taste and quality of the tea through reputation of the terroir.
Style: Raw puerh tea compressed into a cake
Terroir: This tea comes from a high mountain tea garden, with tea trees that were planted from seed 50-60 years ago. The garden sits on a slope adjacent to a dense forest with large biodiversity.
Picking Season: Spring 2020
Leaf: Long and weaving, mottled green leaves layered with flashes of silvery buds.
Production: Grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
Infusion: A golden oily colour, with a greenish tint.
What is Raw Puerh tea?
Raw puerh (also known as sheng puerh in China) is a style of tea from Yunnan province in south west China. Only ever made from the large leaves of the indigenous assamica tea trees, the initial stages of processing are similar to green tea – the large leaves are picked, withered and quickly pan fried. To make raw puerh, these unoxidized leaves are then compressed into round shapes, often known as cakes, and these cakes are then aged. Raw Puerh is prized for its complex, fragrant, and bittersweet taste that continues to mature as the tea cakes age over often decades in storage.
Raw puerh is different from its ‘cooked puerh’ counterpart. Usually made from a lower quality of leaf than raw puerh, cooked puerh goes through an extra process of fermentation. This gives it a flavour that’s dark and earthy, while young raw puerh maintains a naturally zesty, lighter taste. Both styles should have a characteristic tanginess and a long, minerally-sweet finish to them.
In the west this earthy tea is sometimes served in Dim Sum restaurants, as the flavour and composition are thought to help digest the steamy dumplings, buns and other sticky delights. However, outside of these restaurants and a few specialist tea emporiums, it’s not often found. We think this is disappointing as the puerh category of tea is so rich with a huge amount to explore – both in terms of flavour and culture. In China, the bitterweet, complex flavours make puerh one of the most popular tea types – way ahead of black tea in terms of consumption.
Why is Ai Lao Mountains Raw Puerh pressed into a cake?
Though it can be found as a loose leaf tea, you’ll very often see puerh pressed into shapes like cakes, known as ‘bings’ in Chinese, or even bricks and bars. This compressing dates back hundreds of years to when puerh tea was traded for horses between China and Tibet and would have been carried on foot or horseback in large quantities. Pressing the tea into stackable shapes made it easier to transport and store. Nowadays the compressing is a key part of the flavour development, as it enables the tea to age or mature in a way that brings out the specific puerh tastes.
How Does Puerh Tea Age?
During the making of puerh, the leaves are pan fired. When this happens, they are fired to a lower temperature than would be used for green tea and as such, some of the enzymes which react with the air and concentrate the flavours in tea are left in the leaf. This means over time the leaves do slowly oxidise, changing the plant compounds as the leaves rest and turning the tea much darker, while developing richness and complexity over the years. During the ageing, humidity, temperature, and airflow will affect the speed and subsequent results – so all of these factors must be carefully controlled.
How did we source Ai Lao Mountains Raw Puerh?
Even though it’s all concentrated in one province, there is a lot to consider when looking for puerh; where and when it was picked, the age of the tea trees and the right level of compression when pressing the cakes. These are the intricacies that not only deliver the complex flavour we’re looking for, but also what makes puerh such a fascinating prospect and an intriguing tea to venture into.
For us, it was important to balance a high quality experience in the cup with an expression of a specific mountain terroir. Some puerh cakes are pressed using the tea leaves of a few different regions, blended to create a unique taste. So, we looked to the Ai Lao Mountains as an area of Yunnan that doesn’t come with the hype (and so very high prices) of other mountains and villages but is confidently building a reputation for its flavoursome tea, and also crucially for us – tea in this area is almost always free from the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
The peaks of the Ai Lao range lie between Yunnan’s capital city, Kunming and Lincang, a town some 600km to the South West, close by to the border of Myanmar. Ai Lao is a green, mountainous area home to villages of ethnic minority communities such as the Yi, Dai and Lahu people. At an altitude of 2,000-3,000m, the slopes of the mountains are covered in forests intertwined with tea gardens, where the once small, sapling tea bushes now grow tall after decades of cultivation. Most of these forested peaks remain untouched and are full of biodiverse tree species like wild oak, beech, pine, and rhododendrons, which thrive in the sub-tropical climate and seasonal, summer rains.
How was this tea made?
As is the case in the majority of rural Yunnan, puerh tea is produced at small-scale by the local villagers, such as Mrs Feng who crafted this batch in Spring 2020. The leaves were harvested from a garden of tea trees planted just after cultural revolution, making them 50-60 years old. They were each planted from seed and grown with plenty of space between them, allowing them to grow tall and wide unlike regular plantation tea bushes or hedgerows. The garden is adjacent to a wild forest, and because no chemical pesticides or fertilizers are used, it is a clean environment with plenty of wildlife.
Soon after the freshest spring buds and leaves are harvested, they are withered on bamboo mats for a few hours to let some of their moisture evaporate. Then they are fried in a large wok by hand over a wood fire. Here, Mrs Feng uses her experience and intuition, as well as the feel, smell and sound of the tea leaves frying to understand if the temperature is too hot or too cold and how long to fry the tea for. Too hot and the leaves will start to burn, too cold and the leaves will steam in their own juices. Both would ruin the flavour.
The key here is to heat them enough to reduce their moisture content while killing off most of the enzymes in the leaves (hence the name for this process is ‘sha qing’ in Chinese, meaning ‘kill green’). Once fried, the leaves are rolled in a small machine to squeeze the last bit of moisture out, before being left to rest and then dried out under the sun.
The tea can be left to rest for a few weeks up to year to allow for an initial maturation, but it's then usually pressed into cakes for longer storage. In this case, our 100g cakes were made by lightly steaming the leaves before being pressed into stone moulds for a few hours to dry and maintain their shape.
What is this tea like to drink?
On opening the cake, you’ll see plenty of silvery juicy buds, which will add good sweetness to the flavour. The stone pressing means the leaves are not compressed too tightly, and so are easy to pry apart and keep the whole leaves intact.
I made this tea gong fu style in a 120ml gaiwan, which is how puerh is usually prepared and used 5g of leaf which I left as the chunk, knowing the leaves will naturally come apart during infusions. The aroma from the tea immediately reminded me how complex good puerh is. I found everything from grapefruit, incense wood and a subtle spice – reminiscent of fresh turmeric. These fruity, earthy notes gave a great indication of what was to come from the taste. In a gong fu session, the first infusion of pressed puerh tea is always a bit light as you have to allow the leaves to unfurl or decompress, but here there was already a fruity distinctiveness. This developed into a flavour of dried apricot with a bittersweet tang, reminiscent of citrus peel, and I got a mineral-rock earthiness in the finish. The flavours are so full and complex so it’s easy to get lost in them, but being a raw puerh it has a lightness that leaves you feeling refreshed. The taste sticks in your mouth and means you’ll want to keep going for a few more infusions.
What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?
The first thing you’ll need to do when preparing this tea is to unwrap it on a surface with plenty of space, then carefully prise apart some of the leaves to infuse. You can do this with a specific puerh knife or a pointed letter opener by finding a small opening and lightly twisting the point to naturally loosen the leaves. You must be extremely careful though and never use excessive force. Also NEVER use any kitchen knives! I used a puerh knife – but it’s possible to do this with your hands too if you gently squeeze the cake back and forth until the layers and chunks prise off.
Tea Master (Gong Fu):
This tea is usually enjoyed in the ‘gong fu’ style of drinking which means using our porcelain Tea Master, a small teapot or a Gaiwan, with a high proportion of leaf to water and preparing multiple short infusions. Making tea in this way delivers a more concentrated view of the flavours and aromas which for this tea means a light fruity sweetness and hints bittersweet complexities in the first infusion, allowing a few more seconds for the leaves to loosen from their compression. As the leaves begin to open, you’ll find much more of the oily, thick texture coming through, as well as the long and minerally finish, especially by the third Infusion. However, this tea will give you many infusions and I enjoyed upwards of ten before the leaves stopped giving up any flavour. Just remember to maintain the right temperature throughout the infusions to get the best results .
Method: 5g per 120ml; 100˚C; 40 seconds for the 1st infusion, then 20 seconds for the 2nd, adding 10 seconds incrementally for each subsequent infusion (at least 10 infusions).
Single Serve One Cup Method (250ml):
This tea does also work when made as a single serve if you just want a delicious cup or mug of tea. All you have to do is use slightly less leaf, cooler water and leave it for a little longer. You should get a thick infusion with a balanced bittersweetness, plenty of zesty fruit and lightly spiced notes. Just remember, after three minutes, pour out the entire infusion into your favourite mug for the complete, perfect cup. You can certainly infuse the leaves again too, just add 30 seconds when re-infusing for a consistent flavour.
This is our go-to method using our One Cup Tea-iere: 4g per 250ml; 90˚C; 4 minutes per infusion (can be re-infused at least twice)
Who is this tea for?
This tea is a must for those looking to enter into the world of raw puerh. If you’ve tried our earthy and rich cooked puerhs – Cooked Puerh Mini Cakes or Vintage Imperial Puerh – then I would highly recommend giving this tea a try to see how the lighter and more fruity flavours compare. It’s also a great option if you’re someone who craves a tea with intriguing and somewhat complex flavour that’s still really easy to drink and fun to make, with many infusions to be had. Finally, it’s certainly one to try if you’re someone who enjoy teas that have a touch of quenching astringency, such as the phoenix oolongs which balance their fruity flavour with a hint of dryness and minerality.
How best to store a Puerh Cake
Each 100g cake is wrapped in two layers of fine tissue-like paper which will act as a decent barrier against most of the detrimental factors that you want to avoid exposing your cake to: light, heat, water and odours. However, I would advise storing it inside a container and especially if you have other puerh cakes then they do like to be stored together. Puerh storage doesn’t have to be airtight as this can inhibit its ageing. It needs oxygen and moisture from the air, plus good ventilation to age well without becoming musty or damp. The warmth, moisture and oxygen in the air speeds up ageing and the ventilation prevents dampness building up.
So if you’re looking to purposefully age your tea, my advice is to keep it in its own container with a boveda humidity pack to regulate the level of humidity surrounding your cake and stop it from drying out. Anywhere between 60%-75% relative humidity will be fine, though the more humid you go the quicker the tea can age, but there is always a risk of mould. So make sure you keep the temperature stable and avoid extreme heat and cold, while continually airing out your tea storage once every couple of weeks or each month to maintain circulation.
My biggest piece of advice though – do not store this tea in your kitchen, not even in the kitchen cupboard! Tea loves to soak up moisture and rehydrate, so all the steam and odours from cooking, as well as the other ingredients you have in your kitchen, will contaminate and ruin the taste of puerh and likely many other teas. It’s much safer to create your own tea stash in a clean and odour free place to keep your precious leaves separate.
Ai Lao Mountains Raw Puerh 2020
This fruity and distinctive compressed tea cake is produced from the leaves of half century old tea trees grown in the wilds of the Ai Lao mountains. You'll find notes of apricot, incense wood and a tangy, refreshing bite reminiscent of fruit peel. A great introduction to the raw puerh category.