Welcome to Part 2 off our Puerh Tea Series – an introduction to Raw Puerh.

This post follows on from Part 1, so just to recap a little before launching into how Raw Puerh is produced, here’s an overview of how all good quality puerh is produced:

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 leaf

For Raw Puerh, production then runs as follows:

The sun dried loose tea may be immediately compressed into cakes by weighing the leaf into correct portion, placing it into a metal mould through which steam is passed to soften the leaf and make it pliable for compressing it into a cake of desired shape – either flat disk (bing in mandarin; often of 357g which are then packed into a ‘tong’ of seven cakes, then packed into a case of 84 or 42 tongs, the latter being more standard today), bowl (tuocha in mandarin; 100g, 250g or even 3g and 5g mini bowls), mushroom shape (called Panchen Tuo after Tibet’s Panchen Lama), or bricks.

The best Raw puerh cakes are composed of a blend of a variety of teas of different ages.  These will be perhaps of 3 years, 2 years and 1 year of age.  Before compressing, loose leaf will have been allowed to mature in an uncompressed state for a years.The tea will ferment faster in loose form, due to the high surface area.  Where there is a blend of older and younger tea, the older tea aids faster fermentation of the younger tea and continues to aid fermentation after compression.Compressed tea ages more slowly than loose tea but compressing the tea ensures that the flavour and essential life of the tea (cha qi) is preserved even if the cake is aged for 50 years or more.  Its compact form also allows space-efficient storage.Many connoisseurs consider Puerh tea to be sufficiently aged after ten years of maturation, by which time the flavour develops and the nature of the tea changes from a slightly astringent and cooling drink to one of  more soothing and harmoniously character.Some insist that only after 20 years is raw puerh ready for drinking and that optimum age is 30-50 years.  These connoisseurs are prepared to devote the time or money (or both) to ensure supply of tea of this age.

Storage conditions are crucial to quality of the matured tea – the combination of high humidity, warmth and excellent air circulation and ventilation is of utmost importance.  The presence of high quality old tea, greatly contributes to ambient aroma in the warehouse and aids maturation of the younger teas.  Warehouses of this quality smell rich and heady, a little like the inside of a cigar case.  Such conditions are rarely achieved, usually resulting in musty tea of poor quality.

Puerh tea should never taste musty or wet – but due to poor management of every part of production and storage, most puerh teas available today have this quality.  Many consumers actually expect this musty quality, as it has become so commonplace and as a result puerh tea is greatly misunderstood.   Much of the puerh consumed in Hong Kong (Bolei in Cantonese) has this very wet and musty flavour.

Next in the series – Part 3 – Cooked Puerh Processing and Storage