Authentic pu-erh tea comes from Yunnan province in China, a remote South-Western province sharing borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Interestingly, there is an old city there called "Pu-erh" from which this tea gets its name. A main distinguishing characteristic of this tea is that it can be aged for as long as 30 or more years and people like to collect them. Like all other tea, pu-erh is a product of the camellia sinensis plant but in this case we have a couple major types, widely varying terrior and storage choices that make for a dizzying array of variety in this genre.
First off, there are two main types of Pu-erh: Raw (ch. Sheng) and Ripe (ch. Shou)
1) Let's talk about raw tea first. Tea in this area of the world has a VERY long history and in the old days, there was only raw tea. This means that it is simply picked, heat-treated and usually pressed into hard disks called "cakes" (ch. bing). This made it easier to transport on animals and it is usually set aside to age for a long time. Very few people drink younger pu-erh in China. According to Chinese Medicine, the older a tea gets the more it becomes a type of soothing health drink good for digestion, blood circulation, etc... Westerners will notice that the older teas can be very smooth, complex and enjoyable to drink. Some Western-facing vendors specialize in younger raw pu-erh as they may be more accessible financially and can be very complex on their own.
The next layer of differences among raws (and ripes) is Terrior. There are several growing areas in Yunnan that are famous for producing tea - with distinctive terrior like in the wine world. Some areas are high elevation, some low, some large fields, some wild trees, some young plants, some plants as old as 1,400 years! Among the well-known areas are Yi wu, Bulang, Jing Mai Mountain, Lao Ban Zhang and many others.
Now, there are basically two ways of storage that determine the next layer of the tea: Natural Storage and Dry Storage or a combination thereof.
Natural storage just means that you set it on a shelf somewhere and age it indoors at a warehouse or even in your home in normal weather. In Southern China, Taiwan and Malaysia, the natural storage is "wetter" in character as the climate is more humid and very hot in the summer. The advantage to this storage is that the heat and the humidity changes the original character of the tea rapidly by encouraging enzymes and microbes.
In Kunming or more arid places in China the natural storage will be of course dryer so it takes longer for a tea to change and this may be preferential for some people. Tea drinkers all have their own preferences. Dry storage can also be enclosed climate-controlled storage at specific humidity levels.
We prefer wet natural storage for a long time and then dry them out a bit to get the best of both worlds ;)
2) Subject to the same terrior and storage as Raw Pu-erh, the other main type is Ripe Pu-erh and is a newer invention. The idea here is that old raw pu-erh is hard to find so a method of quickly "aging" the tea was developed. It's basically composting the leaves in big piles, turning them over every so often until the leaves are ready to press into cakes or bricks. Ripe Pu-erh can be a good choice for beginners as the price is generally less expensive.
Many people over the world take up collecting aged pu-erh cakes like people collect stamps. Part of the fun of this hobby is taking a cake out ever few years and brewing it up with friends comparing notes on how it changed in the last few years. Serious collectors will spare no expense on good aged pu-erh.
At BTTC, we specialize in Taiwanese stored pu-erh from Yunnan. The high humidity and heat of the summers here year after year produce excellent aged pu-erh.
Keep an eye out this Summer as we're adding many new... I mean, old Pu-erh teas to our site for your collection ;)
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