So now you should have an idea of the two types of pu’erh tea: sheng/ raw; and shou /cooked. As you shop, you will find these teas in various forms: loose leaf; round cake (beeng); tou cha (small basket shapes); square bricks; and small squares…you name it and pu’erh tea has been shaped like it. In fact one of the tea stores in Kunming had several huge sculptures made of pu’erh tea.
Pu’erh is highly sought after and can be quite expensive both in the US and abroad—an example would be a four year old sheng cake, 150 grams, for $100. As a result, there is some counterfeiting of the tea: you might find pu’erh that has inferior/spoiled tea pressed into it (smells really yucky); there is “shou” that is passed off as “aged sheng”; there are cakes that have ingredients other than tea…it behooves the buyer to ask questions and buy from a known, reputable source. The production years of 2007 through 2009 seem to have the most known problems with counterfeiting of the tea.
Basically, the dry, finished tea should have little-to-no smell…or should have a pleasant light scent. It will typically be classified as sheng or shou; will indicate if it is from new cultivars or old/ancient trees; and will indicate the year it was processed.
Any good tea house will let you try/taste some pu’erh before you buy it. Smell it, look at it, read about it and taste it…and above all else, know your source. Then enjoy your pu’erh tea. You are experiencing history with each steep and sip.