[Tea Fundamentals] Pu Er 101
Pu Er is the ancient name of a large administrative area of five major cities, including Si Mao and Xi Shuang Ban Na. It was a central hub for tea trading in Yun Nan Province, so people started calling tea from this region, Pu Er. The city of Si Mao was restored to its old name Pu Er in 2007. There are two types of Pu Er tea:
Sheng Pu (Raw Pu Er) –Officially a green tea, it is made in a classic green tea method. It is pan-fried at a lower temperature to allow some enzyme to continue to “live” in the tea leaves and continue the fermentation process later.
Shou Pu (Cooked Pu Er) – This is made by fermenting the already made Sheng Pu with added heat and moisture to facilitate “compost” of the leaves with assistance of beneficial microbes, making it a black tea.
ShouPu is NOT an “artificially aged” Sheng Pu. They are different teas and Sheng Pu aging does not result in Shou Pu.
Both types of Pu Er can be aged. Sheng Pu is to complete the enzymatic metabolism of the leaves, eventually become similar to red tea. Shou Pu will continue to decompose whilst the bacteria in the tea continue to break down the leaves.
Sheng Pu desirability is directly tied to the age of the tea trees. Highly sought after Pu Er come from trees 200-700 years old planted during Ming and Qing Dynasty, often referred to as da shu cha or gu shu cha. Sheng Pu from newer tea trees planted following traditional practice with prospect for the trees to be independent of human shaping and become big trees is called xiao shu cha. Majority of Pu Er come from newly planted bush tea trees in high density called tai di cha. Organic Pu Er is referred to converted tai di cha.
Though pressed Pu Er is common, both kinds are sold as loose leaves as well. Traditional pressed Pu Er are in shapes of cakes and bowls. Standard cake weight is 357 grams.
Like all Chinese tea, location where the tea trees grow matters a lot. Prices for Pu Er tea produced in different mountains vary greatly.
Wu Liang Shan – Ai Lao Shan (Jing Dong): least pricy
Lin Cang – Meng Ku: trending
MengHai – Meng La (Ban Na): 15 famous tea mountains, pricey
The Three Eras of Pu Er Planting
This is essential to understand the Pu Er phenomenon and critically view the many claims about Pu Er.
#1. Tea as a vital part of the local people (800-1800 years ago)
The province Yun Nan, where Pu Er comes from, is home to about 30 different ethnic groups including Thai, Ha Ni, Yi, Ji Nuo, Bu Lang, etc. Most of these cultures have a long tradition of cultivating and making tea with history going back as far as 1800 years ago. In 1950, when an official count was done, there were still 20-500 acres of very old tea trees, planted by the ancient ancestors of these indigenous people in varies mountains in southern Yun Nan, many are over 1000 years old. Only a fraction of them are still alive today, but almost every village has a few tea trees from this era and they are often crowned as the king tea trees. Teas from these trees are rare and often protected.
#2. Tea as a large-scale government sponsored activity (1415AD – 1913AD)
Even though there has been private trading of tea for horses from Tibet and Si Chuan since the 1100s, it was not until Ming and Qing Dynasty that a large scale organized activity of tea planting and official trading for horses started. It has long been considered a brilliant political policy by historians: as a measure to cover war needs of horses; to maintain attachment of Tibet; to unite a very diverse boarder region; and to increase tax for the central government. The record in 1950 shows that there were still over 100,000 acres of tea trees from this era. Today, that number has been reduced to half - of which about 30,000 acres are from Ming Dynasty, mostly in the Meng Hai/Meng La region (15 Ancient Mountains). The highly desired old tea trees and big tea trees are usually from this era.
#3. Pu Er Bubble
Due to war and a series of unfortunate events, large scale tea production of Pu Er halted for most of the first half of 1900s. After 1950, there were some organized tea efforts, but very minimal. Pu Er started to surface the market again in late 1990s, but it was not until 2003 that producers paid any real attention to Pu Er. By 2005, Pu Er was the talk of the tea industry and its unique history and demographic had captivated the market. By 2007, Pu Er prices had increased more than 100 to 6000 fold; many claimed it as the most valuable investment one can make. However, in 2007, the “Pu Er Market” crashed and price dropped drastically. This is known as the Pu Er Bubble. Building up to the Pu Er Bubble, large amount of older tea trees were cut off to move space for the plantation teas known as Tai Di Cha. Not only were many low quality Sheng Pu produced to meet the demand of an irrational market, many Shou Pu were also produced and sold as an “aged” Sheng Pu. These low quality teas are still circulating in the market, and a large quantity of them were sold off to Hong Kong, Korea and the US. 2009 is often referred to as the year that Pu Er started to be “professionalized,” where the producers demonstrated more expertise and consumers became more educated. The Pu Er phenomenon had kick-started a new aging practice in Chinese tea drinking, which was NOT a tradition in China before.