Pu’erh Tea: sheng…shou…who…what?

There is much history around tea evolution and production techniques in China—the following discussion represents just a small part of historical tea production.   In ancient times within Yunnan Province, tea leaves were plucked, laid out to dry and then transported to a central processing facility where they were moistened, rolled and compressed into bricks.  The bricks could be easily packed on to camels and horses for transport—primarily to Sichuan Province and Tibet.  During the 12-18 month journey, the cakes were subject to fluctuating weather (rain, sun, morning dew, heat, cold) as well as camp fire smoke and camel smell.  The varying temperatures, storage methods and moisture had the effect of providing a natural environment of composting the tea, such that the aged product was changed…improved considerably from the “raw” stage in which it started.   Over the years, it was found that longer aging continued to improve the flavor of the tea.  This type of pu’erh is commonly referred to as “sheng” or raw pu’erh because it is finished as a raw product and allowed to age and ferment naturally—10, 20, even 30 years.

 Demand for pu’erh tea increased over the years and the Chinese experimented with ways to speed up the aging process—so they could enjoy their tea without waiting 10 years.  In 1970 The Kunming Tea Co. perfected this process and soon began producing pu’erh tea that tasted similar to the aged tea, but had a “pluck-to-cup” processing time of three to four months.  This quick-method pu’erh is created through a carefully controlled (and highly secretive) composting process—cooking the tea leaves.  Appropriately, this type of pu’erh is known as “shou” or cooked pu’erh.

 In my next post I’ll touch on some things to look for and questions to ask when buying pu’erh tea.