Over the next days and weeks we will be writing a series of blog posts on Puerh tea, a fascinating and enjoyable area of tea to explore. Pure tea is the only tea type whose processing involves maturation, analogous to the élevage of fine wine. Like fine wine, too, the greatest cakes of puerh can be aged for many years after sale, and fifty- or sixty-year-old examples command a very high price. Authentic puerh is grown exclusively in Yunnan province, with the best picked from ancient wild trees.
Puerh tea was first produced in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and became famous throughout China by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Emperor Qiang Long particularly appreciated Puerh from Yi Wu. Puerh is not a word describing the colour or nature of the tea, nor is it named after a place where the tea is produced. Rather, it’s named after Puerh city which has never been a production centre for tea but rather a trading centre. It found one of its first major markets in Tibet, especially along the Old Horse Road, a network of roads through Yunnan to Sichuan (and onto Tibet), neighbouring Guangxi and Guizhou Provinces, Vietnam, Burma and Laos. There are disagreements in the tea world about what puerh tea is – but most agree that it is a fermented tea made from the Big Leaf (Da Ye) cultivar of tea tree grown and picked in Yunnan Province. Yunnan soils are perfect for growing these tea cultivars, as this province contains acidic (pH 4.5-5.5), laterite and crimsons soil types. The climate is also constant throughout the year, although there are huge fluctuations in temperature throughout the day. Tropical Southern Yunnan is particularly suited to the Big Leaf tea cultivar, as it has high rain fall and richly red, fertile areas, with high variation in fauna. Puerh has broken the traditions of other tea types since its first production. It is not consumed when fresh; and historically, it was not just sold in the local area where it is produced but was transported far and wide; it was transported in a unique way – being compressed and packed into bamboo baskets to aid transportation rather than being packed loose in chests. There are two types of puerh tea: 1) Naturally fermented puerh tea (also known as raw puerh or sheng cha in mandarin), 2) Purposely fermented puerh tea (also know as cooked puerh or shu cha in mandarin).
Processing of all good quality puerh begins with the following steps: 1.) Picking, 2.) Natural withering, 3.) Hand firing in a hot wok to kill enzymes in the leaf, 4.) Hand rolling of the leaf (shaping) to achieve specified shape and squeeze moisture to the leaf surface 5.) Sun drying of rolled and shaped leafIn addition to this, raw and cooked puerh undergo further distinct processing. In the coming months we will be looking to expand our range of puerh teas so keep an eye on the puerh tea section of the site.
Coming up: Part 2 – Raw Puerh – Production and Storage