Why “Pu Head”? Well, I guess to answer that question, I have to answer a different question: What is puer tea? The answer to that question seems to be a bit elusive! Puer (also spelled pu’er, pu-erh, puerh, and a variety of other ways, none of which my spell check recognizes, and sometimes called pu for short) is a type of tea which is not well known in the west, and even when it is known, it is frequently misunderstood. It is easy to see why it is misunderstood, there seems to be no consistent definition of what puer actually is. As Jinghong Zhang puts it in her book Puer Tea Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic (a book I highly recommend if you want to know more about Puer): “As Puer tea’s definition is debated, it is hard to tell what exactly Puer tea is, although some aspects are less controversial than others.”
Here are the basics as far as I interpret/understand them (please do your own investigation and form your own conclusions!) Puer tea comes from Yunnan, which is a province on the southern border of China. There are teas that come from the areas bordering Yunnan (Myanmar and Laos) which are processed in the same way as puer, but just as we call sparkling wine made outside of Champagne France “sparkling wine” and not “champagne” usually these teas are refered to as “processed like puer” or something similar. All tea (real tea not “herbal tea”) comes from the camellia sinensis plant, which is a small tree or bush. Puer comes from the assamica variety or subspecies of camellia sinensis and has large leaves in comparison to the other varieties.
There are two basic types of Puer tea, known as sheng (also called raw) and shou (ripe). The processing for both starts out the same, and is very similar to the processing of green tea. After the leaves are picked, they are wok fired in a kill green step. This kills off the enzymes that will cause the tea to oxidize over time. The difference from green tea, is that for puer, the enzyme destruction is not complete, which allows the tea to oxidize slowly over time. The tea is then rolled and sundried to produce what is known as maocha, which is essentially a loose leaf young sheng puer. This is where the processing of the two types of tea diverge.
Sheng puer is pressed into cakes called beengs (or bricks, or a variety of other shapes) soon after the rough processing. This young sheng puer has more in common with green tea than shou puer. Frequently, sheng puer is allowed to age, for decades. Some people will say that a sheng puer is not ready to drink until it is at least 30 years old. As the tea ages, it transforms into a dark, or post fermented tea, the flavors change, and deepen… some sort of magic happens, and the value of the tea skyrockets. A good aged sheng can easily run thousands of dollars for a 357 gram cake. So there are really two types of sheng puer, young and aged, but obviously this is a spectrum, where a tea can be any number of years along the path to aging. The storage plays an essential role in the aging process, and can make it go faster or slower, and poor storage can ruin a tea.
Shou puer goes through a ripening process where the leaves are piled, and the temperature and moisture are carefully controlled to transform the tea over a period of a couple months into a dark tea (also known as a post fermented tea). The tea is then pressed into cakes. This ripening process was developed as an attempt to simulate/expedite the aging process. Even though they missed the mark of reproducing an aged sheng, they did create a very drinkable dark tea. Shou puer is usually (in my experience) what is sold as puer in the west.
I can’t really write an article about puer without mentioning the lies and deceit that go on in the puer world. Remember that there is a massive market for puer in China, and it is not well regulated. Here is the best advice I can give: trust your experience, not the vendors. Daunting advice for someone unfamiliar with this tea I know, but false claims are really the norm for the industry. There are villages which bring ridiculously high prices for tea (Lao Ban Zhang, Bing Dao, Bohetang, etc.) these names raise red flags for me, especially if the prices do not match. The older the tea trees, the more expensive the tea that comes from them. I just assume the age stated for any trees are exaggerated (and usually ignore the number given anyway) anything stating 800 year old trees, 1000 year old trees, etc. are almost certainly lies. from what I understand, there is not that much material from trees that old out there, and what there is, is probably not making it to the west. Anyways, the village the tea came from, the age of the trees it was picked from, these don’t necessarily make a tea good. Taste the tea. Do you like the taste? How does it make you feel? If you are enjoying the experience, the marketing claims really aren’t that important are they?
Thanks for reading this (rather long) post. What would you like me to write about next? I would love to hear your thoughts!