[Tea Fundamentals] Sheng Pu
SHENG PU (RAW PU ER)
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 snobbery. Pu Er, a historical tea that even few Chinese have heard of before the 1990s, is on its way to become one of China’s finest teas.
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 historically famous teas have 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. From location hierarchy; to varietal; to soil composition; to refining processing techniques; we are the generation to figure Pu Er 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. The names can be confusing - each often has interchangeable names and sometimes are just called by its most famous inner region. 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 it fits into the location; this will build a good conceptual understanding of the terroir over time. Remember, Pu Er specifications are still in 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 have large protected forest areas, harboring almost 1/3 of China’s endangered species, making them important for more than just tea. Especially Wu Liang Shan, which is also geologically significant; technically, the famous 15 tea mountains in Ban Na 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.
The Pu Er produced in this area is considered valuable, with old tree Pu Er often times selling for as much as small tree Pu Er in other region’s famous villages. It is also notorious for having the most plantation teas. The Pu Er from this region is usually sold under the name Wu Liang Shan or Ai Lao Shan, with no specific labeling of villages, making them unrecognized 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: 勐庫)
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. In tea profession, the “lower” or the more specific the location name, the more the valuable 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 micro-terroirs.
The most famous village of Lin Cang tea is Bing Dao (冰島, previously 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, the name of the jurisdiction village, consists of five natural villages, including one village also called Bing Dao, which is 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壩糯 – 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 tea trees in this area have such an usual shape because of the unique picking practices adopted by the farmers. 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 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, Xi Gui 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, 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 and brighter than the other regions; but also has a thinner body and is more tannic. Lin Cang Pu Er is usually rubbed a little more between the hands, or against the wok during the making process, to help smooth out some of the rougher tannins.
• Xi Shuang Ban Na (Jing Hong) : Meng Hai - Meng La 西雙版納（景洪）：勐海 －勐臘
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 were called the New and Old Six Ancient Mountains (yes, that’s 12 total). If you are 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 keeps these mountains 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 and not nine? Because the Chinese like symmetry. Throughout the 90s and 2000s, there has 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 - certainly not for the sake to maintain symmetry. It really is only in the past 3-5 years that people have started to refer to the west side as nine mountains instead of six. This did change the dynamics in the Pu Er market and pricing.
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 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 the 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.
There are also a few villages that are not exactly part of the 9 mountains, but have 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. It is very highly sought after.
Mang Jing (Weng Ji) 芒景（翁基）– right next to Jing Mai, the taste profile is very comparable to Jing Mai, but a little more “shy”. 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.
It is important to know that Yi Wu back in the day, 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 are 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.
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, we feel obligated to clarify two things. 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.
- China never ever had a tradition of aging tea.
- A Pu Er’s price is almost never related to its age, but always related to 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 other words, 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.
Pu Er making follows 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. Aggressively 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.
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. Before the 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.