For pu-erh, normally one bud and 3-4 leaves are plucked which is just like oolong tea. Here the third leaf plays an important role in contributing to the floral note or fruity flavor. As compared to the first bud or second leaf, the third leaf has grown much longer on the tree; therefore the third and fourth leaves are indispensable when it comes to a strong flavor and aftertaste, as they are very rich in polyphenols and minerals. The variety of flavors depends primarily on the fermentation technique, and sometimes upon the specific type of cultivar.
Customarily pu-erh starts as a raw product known as “rough” máochá (毛茶). It is sometimes marketed in this form or more commonly pressed into a number of shapes and sold as “raw” shēngchá (生茶). Then both of these forms are subjected to the manifold process of gradual fermentation and maturation over time. Pu-erh is usually labelled with the region and year of manufacture since all forms of pu-erh can be stored to ripen before consumption.
Raw pu-erh tea was invented and introduced during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD). Ripe pu-erh tea was formulated in the 1970s. In 1973 the Kunming Tea Factory improved the fermentation process to create a new kind of pu-erh tea, wòduī (渥堆). This technique involves a sped-up fermentation into “ripe” shúchá (熟茶) which is then stockpiled loose or pressed into various shapes. Shortly thereafter the Menghai Tea Factory embraced and scientifically advanced this fermentation process. However, some tea classicists challenge the validity of shúchá in comparison to aged teas.
Raw pu-erh tea and ripe pu-erh tea are two different types of tea that have separate refining mechanisms. Raw pu-erh tea goes through the process of:
- Pan-frying to deactivate enzymes,
- Drying in the fresh air and sunshine for spontaneous fermentation, and finally
The raw pu-erh tea may then be stored until it has aged into vintage raw pu-erh tea.
Raw pu-erh tea dried on a sunny day has a more invigorating flavor with a very fine taste and less astringency. If raw pu-erh tea is dried on a cloudy or rainy day, it develops a distinctive smell like dried mushrooms and the taste can be quite astringent. Once this acerbic flavor is developed, it doesn’t dissipate and can remain in the tea even after many years of aging. Therefore, it is imperative to monitor the weather during tea production season.
Freshly-produced raw pu-erh tastes similar to green tea. With average oxidation during storage, its characteristics become similar to that of white tea. With further oxidation, the attributes of the tea change slightly closer to oolong tea, and finally it becomes similar to black tea.
The Chinese believe that raw pu-erh is beneficial for weight loss and for stomach problems because it has a strong fragrance that will help stimulate the stomach as well as produce saliva.
Unlike the method for producing vintage raw pu-erh tea, ripe pu-erh tea is created by using mold to ferment the loose raw pu-erh tea, which is then compressed. Therefore the process for ripe pu-erh tea is as follows:
- Pan-frying to deactivate enzymes,
- Drying in the fresh air and sunshine,
- Fermentation by mold, and finally
While the tea goes through fermentation, the mold produces a certain organic acid that causes the pH of the tea to lower, resulting in a complete fermentation within a much shorter period. This process causes the color of the tea leaves to change to dark brown and produces a mellow taste with thick body. Ripe pu-erh is generally more popular outside of China.
The bitter taste is reduced in ripe pu-erh, and it has a deep fragrance and wonderful flavor. Chinese tradition maintains that ripe pu-erh protects the stomach, promotes weight loss and can help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol problems.
Usually the paper wrapping comes in two different colors: deep brown or red for compressed ripe pu-erh, and green for compressed raw pu-erh.
How is Pu-erh shaped?
Pu-erh is often available as a compressed disc of tea known as a beeng cha or as a traditional tea button called a tuocha. Tuocha means “dome-shaped bowl tea” and it bears a resemblance to a bird’s nest. Tuochas can vary in weight from 3g to 3kg and up. Pu-erh teas are pressed into other shapes as well, such as rectangles, squares, small and large melons, and mushrooms.
To make pu-erh into a shaped tea, first a measured quantity of dry máochá or ripened tea leaves relevant to the final weight of the beeng cha is weighed out. It is then placed in punctured cans to be gently steamed in order to moderate the tea and make it more sticky so that it will stay together and not disintegrate during compression. Additional embellishments like brightly colored ribbons or a certificate, called a nèi fēi (内飞), are placed either on or in the middle of the leaves and wrapped in cloth or turned upside down into a fabric bag. The measured mass of tea is gathered inside the cloth bag and squeezed into a ball, with the extra cloth tied or curled up around itself. This cloth knot is what produces the divot on the reverse side of a tea cake when pressed.