Educational Tea Club - Sheng Pu


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No tea has received as much attention or controversy as Pu Er since the last decade. Saying “I drink Pu Er” is the “rite of passage” tagline to tea snobbishood. Pu Er, a historical tea that few Chinese even heard of before 1990s, is on its way to become one of China’s fine teas.

To get familiar with Pu Er, it is important to know its geography and history. For an introduction to Pu Er, the differences of old tree, small tree, organic tea and plantation teas, and its history outline, please check out the previous article on our website under LEARN – Educational Tea Club – Pu Er (http://tea-drunk.com/blogs/tea-drunk/98975430-march-tea-club-pu-er)

Like all other Chinese teas, Pu Er’s desirability is directly related to the location the tea comes from. The price difference between a $100 tea and $1000 tea is the location. Therefore it is essential to know the existing location division and how Pu Er connoisseurs regard them.

All of China’s historical famous teas had gone through an exercise of location specification pushed by its devoted connoisseurs. While a lot of the historical teas were endorsed and have stabilized terroir hierarchy by generations before us, Pu Er was not. One of the fascinating thing about Pu Er is that, from location hierarchy to varietal to soil composition to refining processing techniques, we are the generation to figure it out and hopefully build a foundation for the future tea connoisseurs to appreciate Pu Er at a new level of sophistication. Hopefully we do well.

 

THREE MAIN PU ER REGIONS

There are three Pu Er producing regions in Yun Nan. Each is often referred to different interchangeable names and sometimes even just called by its most famous inner region, so the names can be confusing. However, it is important to be familiar with these regions just as it is important for a wine enthusiast to know its terroir. Whenever you encounter a Pu Er name, try to see how they fit into the location division below to overtime build a good conceptual understanding of the terroir of Pu Er. Remember Pu Er specifications are still in the development so we are covering a very large region, about the size of New York State.

 

Jing Dong: Wu Liang Shan - Ai Lao Shan
(景東: 無量山-哀牢山)

 

Jing Dong Wu Liang Shan tea region is also sometimes called the northern tea region as it is to the north of Ban Na. Jing Dong is the name of the city and the two most important tea mountains in the area are Wu Liang Shan and Ai Lao Shan. It’s important to note that both mountains are significant other than tea concerns with large protected forest areas harboring almost 1/3 of China’s endangered species. Especially Wu Liang Shan, which is also geologically significant - technically the famous 15 tea mountains in Ban Na that we will talk about later are all part of this mountain range at the southern end. Wu Liang Shan has also long been praised for its beauty and magnificence throughout history and in popular culture.

 

However, the Pu Er produced in this area is considered a value Pu Er, with old tree Pu Er often times sell as much as other region’s famous village’s small tree Pu Er. It is also notorious for having the most plantation teas. The Pu Er from this region are usually just sold under the name Wu Liang Shan or Ai Lao Shan with no specific labeling of villages are they are not recognized in the market. Wu Liang Shan Pu Er is known for being overall light, woodsy, without too much of a singular character, but great value if one can find a reliable source for old trees.

 

Lin Cang: Meng Ku (臨滄: )

 

Lin Cang is also sometimes called the western tea region as it is to the west of Ban Na. It’s important to point out that Lin Cang is the city and Meng Ku is a “lower” level jurisdiction under Lin Cang, like a county. And in tea profession, the “lower” or the more specific the mentioning of a location is, the more the value proposition of the tea. In the most unembellished language, a tea called Ling Cang is cheaper than a tea called Meng Ku, which is cheaper than a tea called Bing Dao, which is cheaper than a tea called Bing Dao Old Village (Bing Dao, Bing Dao). This applies to all Pu Er and ALL other Chinese teas.

 

There’s a river called Nan Meng/Mei River or Meng Ku Big River dividing Meng Ku county to east and west sides. There are 16 jurisdiction villages in Meng Ku but because boarders of townships and villages are not always inline with tea tree coverage, connoisseurs have divided up Meng Ku into the following 18 representative villages with many even further specified into many micro-terroirs.

 

East

West

Mang Bang 忙蚌

Bing Dao 冰島

Ba Nuo 壩糯

Ba Ka 壩卡

Na Jiao 那蕉

Dong Guo 懂過

Bang Du 邦瀆

Da Hu Zhai 大戶寨

Na Sai 那賽

Xiao Hu Zhai 小戶寨

Dong Lai 東來

Bang Gai 幫改

Mang Na 忙那

Bing Shan 丙山

Cheng Zi 城子

Hu Dong 護東

 

Da Xue Shan大雪山

 

Gong Nong公弄

 

The most famous village of Lin Cang tea is Bing Dao (冰島, used to be丙島/扁島), and is currently one of the highest and most volatile Pu Er in terms of price (300% swing in some years). Bing Dao is the name of the jurisdiction village consists of five natural villages including one village also called Bing Dao, some times referred to as Bing Dao Old Village (冰島老寨). Simply put, Bing Dao is expensive, Bing Dao, Bing Dao is very expensive. The five Bing Dao villages are (also further divided by the river):

 

West: Bing Dao 冰島, Nan Po 南迫, Di Jie 地界

East: Ba Wai 壩歪, Nuo Wu 糯伍

 

Ba Nuo – Ba Nuo is known for a very unique kind of Pu Er called vine tea藤條茶, named after its vine looking shaped branches. The reason why tea trees in the area has such usual shape is largely due to the unique picking practice the farmers adopt where they pick all the leaves on a branch except the ones at the end, encouraging the tea branches to grow longer and extend towards the direction only of the remaining tea leaves. The overall east side of Meng Ku is known for vine tea trees, but Ba Nuo is the most representative.

 

Xi Gui 昔歸 – Though this village is not in Meng Ku, in recent years it has risen to be the second most expensive Lin Cang Pu Er, next only to Bing Dao, Bing Dao. The tea mountain is called Mang Li 忙麗 and is within the jurisdiction of Bang Dong 幫東 so there are also teas in the market using these names as references. But still, the more specific the location is, the more worth mentioning it is.

 

Overall, other than the a few villages specifically mentioned above, Lin Cang teas are sold under Lin Cang, or Meng Ku, as most individual villages do not have wide market recognition as its own label. On average the Lin Cang teas are less expensive than Ban Na’s but more expensive than Wu Liang Shan.

 

In general Lin Cang region Pu Er is known for being sweeter, brighter than the other regions, but also has thinner body and more tannic. Making style wise, Lin Cang Pu Er is usually rubbed a little more between hands or against the wok, helps to smooth out some of the rougher tannins.

 

Xi Shuang Ban Na (Jing Hong) : Meng Hai - Meng La

西雙版納(景洪):海 -

 

Xi Shuang Ban Na is often just shortened for Ban Na and is home to the famous 15 tea mountains. The mighty Lan Cang River divides the area into a west and east side and Pu Er connoisseurs usually have strong preferences to which side they like better.

 

For a while the tea mountains in the Meng Hai – Meng La areas is called the New and Old Six Ancient Mountains (yes, that’s 12 total). If you find befuddled by the term “new ancient mountain”, you are not alone. For reasons we are still not clear today, the historical records about Pu Er planting and trading back in the Ming and Qing Dynasty through tea-horse road are all about the Six Ancient Mountains to the east side of the river. And that’s what put these mountains still at the top of the Pu Er hierarchy. However, survey of the land and archaeologically discoveries in modern time points to equally sizable organized tea planting and trading activities in the west side of the river in the Meng Hai area. So in an attempt to credit the Meng Hai mountains with the Ancient Mountain title they deserve, but to differentiate the already well known Six Ancient Mountains, the term New Six Ancient Mountains was coined. Why six not nine? Because Chinese likes symmetry. Throughout the 90s and 2000s, there’s been debates about whether we should call the west side nine mountains or six mountains, as many argue that though some mountains are small, their tea exhibit highly distinguishable flavor profile and really shouldn’t piggyback on a bigger mountain’s name, and certainly not for the sake to maintain symmetry. It really is only in the past 3-5 years that people start to refer to the west side as nine mountains instead of six. And this did change the dynamics in Pu Er market and prices.

 

It’s worth noting that though there are only 7 mountains in Meng Hai, Jing Mai Mountain is not even part of Ban Na now, tea professionals still conventionally refer 9 mountains as the Meng Hai tea. Similarly, on the east side, though You Le is also not part of the Meng La jurisdiction, it is conventional being included when people are referring to Meng La tea.

 

These 15 mountains now demand the highest price in Pu Er market and each mountain has loyal fan followings to its unique characters.

 

West Side - Overall the west side tea is known for having more body than any other region’s Pu Er and a more substantial profile. Note that some mountains are small, therefore the whole place is well known without being specified to villages.

 

Mountain

Famous Villages

Renown Character

Nan Nuo Shan

南糯山

Ban Po Lao Zhai半坡老寨, Ya Kou Lao Zhai 丫口老寨

Body, bitter end

Pa Sha

帕沙

 

Bright, sharp, elegant

He Kai

賀開

 

Tannic , woodsy

Bu Lang Shan

布朗山

Lao Ban Zhang 老班章 – one of the most expensive Pu Er, also very volatile often with more than 300% price swing year on year

 

Lao Man E 老曼娥

Strong, full, smooth, bitter front

Xiao Meng Song

小勐宋

 

Either very sweet or very bitter

Da Meng Song

大勐宋

Na Ka 那卡

Sweet, soft

Ba Da

巴達

 

Herbal, minty, citrusy

Man Nuo

曼糯

 

Body body body

Jing Mai 景邁

Da Ping Zhang 大坪掌

Aroma aroma aroma

 

There are also a few villages that are not exactly part of the 9 mountains but made names for themselves and are very well known.

 

Bang Pen 班盆/邦盆– on the way between He Kai and Lao Ban Zhang, technically part of Bu Lang Shan range but not classified as so. The tea is known to be bright in taste but also deep in mouth feel, highly sought after.

 

Mang Jing (Weng Ji) 芒景(翁基)– right next to Jing Mai, and the taste profile is very comparable to Jing Mai, a little more “shy”. But it’s a distinguished ancient tea tree formation.

 

East Side – Overall the east side teas are known for being softer, more expansive in the mouth feel with a permeating character that goes down deep. These are the old blood Pu Ers. Note that some mountains are small, therefore the whole place is well known without being specified to villages.

 

Mountain

Famous Villages

Renown Character

You Le

攸樂

Long Pa (Ya Nuo)

龍帕 (亞諾)

Sweet

Mang Zhi

莽枝

 

Full, bright

Ge Deng

革登

 

Elegant

Man Zhuan

蠻磚

 

Bold, woodsy

Yi Bang

倚邦

Man Song

曼松

Soft tannins, slightly bitter

Man Sa (Yi Wu)

漫撒(易武)

Cha Wang Shu 茶王樹 Gua Feng Zhai 刮風寨, Ma Hei 麻黑

Aromatic, vegetal, sweet

 

It is important to know that Yi Wu back in the days refer to a much larger region than what Yi Wu sometimes today means, hence the term Yi Wu Zheng Shan, or THE Yi Wu Mountain. Technically all of the six ancient mountains nowadays are part of Yi Wu except You Le. That’s why a lot of the older books only discuss the preference between Yi Wu and You Le. The nowadays-narrower definition of Yi Wu, or THE Yi Wu Mountain, is referring to Man Sa. This can be very confusing because even today the habits of using Yi Wu varies - every year we encounter people who wanted to go to Yi Wu (Man Sa) but ended up in Ge Deng or other mountains. To illustrate how confusing Yi Wu does not equal Yi Wu is, the most “noble” Yi Wu, Man Song, is actually in today’s Yi Bang, not THE Yi Wu Mountain, which again, is Man Sa. Overall Yi Wu is the most expensive mountain on the east side and, similarly to Jing Mai on the west side, is known for its unique aroma.

 

Also, some of the most expensive Pu Er in today’s market is those from the National Forests in the greater Yi Wu area. Very recently, the government allowed the nearby farmers to harvest these tea trees in change for their stewardship of the trees and its natural habitat. Because these tea trees are ancient and essentially wild, they are highly sought after. These are the most expensive Pu Ers in the last three years with fresh leaves selling for as much as $2000/lb. (and keep in mind it takes at least 4lb leaves to make 1lb tea). Notable locations are Wan Gong 彎弓, Bo He Tang 薄荷塘, Ding Jia Zhai 丁家寨, Yi Shan Mo 一扇磨, Bai Cha Yuan 白茶園, and many more but each with very small amount of harvest. This started a wave of discovering tea trees in varies National Forests in hope to become the next goldmine.

 

VARIETAL 

Pu Er varietal is actually very simple because it is not specific. Due to the new-to-fame status of Pu Er, intricate details such as tea tree varietals are yet to be studied thoroughly and now they are mostly just called Yun Nan Big Leaf Varietals. But we do see a lot of varietals, especially in the higher and colder mountains in the Meng La region, resemble characteristics of a small-leaf varietal. Some of the most valuable Pu Ers such as Ge Deng are now unofficially classified as small-leaf varietals.

 

Unique tea trees such as the vine-shape tea trees are also yet to be studied further to see if there’s a cause-effect connection between its biology and the unusual picking style the people adopted.

 

PU ER AGING

 

Though we already touched on the topic in a previous article on Pu Er (http://tea-drunk.com/blogs/tea-drunk/98103878-what-is-pu-er), we feel obligated to clarify two things, as there seems to be an irrational trend in the West now about aging tea, similar to what led to China’s Pu Er Bubble in 2007-2008. (http://tea-drunk.com/pages/what-is-the-history-of-pu-er)

 

  1. China never ever had a tradition of aging tea
  2. A Pu Er’s price is almost never related to its made tea age but always related to mostly its location, then the age of the tea tree. A Pu Er’s aging potential does not mean the same with a Pu Er’s age. In another word, a cheap Pu Er does not become an expensive Pu Er merely by being old, just like a $10 bottle of wine’s value does not appreciate if being held for a few more years. One ages Grand Cru Burgundy, not Yellow Tail.

 

It’s also worth noting that even though there’s an impressive amount of old tea trees left from Ming and Qing Dynasty, an overwhelming majority of Pu Er produced nowadays are from plantation teas, which do not have a value for aging potential.

 

MAKING

Pu Er making follow a very typical green tea process, that’s why it is academically classified as a sun-dry green tea. Pu Er picking is usually one bud with two-three leaves. The teas are usually shade wilted to lose some moisture before being wok fried in large batch. The large batch of Pu Er being processed each time is the “mistake” that cause the tea’s enzyme not being damaged thoroughly, providing the basis for aging Pu Er later on. The hot and moist tealeaves are then rolled and shaped quickly before being evenly spread out under the sun to dry. Aggressive strong sun is the most preferred in Pu Er making. There’s a price difference between one-day dried Pu Er and two-or-multi-day dried Pu Er.

 

BREWING 

Pu Er’s standard brewing size is 7 grams with a standard gai wan. Being one of the hardest teas, Pu Er can withstand boiling water. Actually before gong fu method of brewing was introduced to the region, tea farmers in Yun Nan often just boil the tea directly in pots.

 

It is important to use standard brewing size to not dilute any flaws of inferior tea and comprise the complexity of a good tea.

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