Puerh and Winter Teas
For many reasons, Puerh tea is the most exotic in all of China’s vast repertoire. Puerh tea only comes from Yunnan in Southwest China, a place of unbelievable beauty and diversity. It is home to twenty-five percent of all species, plant and animal, in all of China. Mystic and vibrant, Yunnan is blossoming with life, rain, aroma, and growth. It is the birthplace of all tea and home to more varieties of tea trees than anywhere else on earth. Yunnan is a series of stepped plateaus, the westernmost of which neighbors Tibet. The waters that flow through this region all originate within crystal mountain springs and glacial streams high up in the Himalayas. Puerh tea has deep, ancient roots in this land where the great tea journey began long, long ago.
Tea enthusiasts often develop a life-long obsession with puerh tea because it offers so many worlds to explore; new puerh, vintage puerh, sheng puerh (natural fermentation) and shou puerh (facilitated fermentation). Many people are intrigued by the bountiful array of shapes and sizes that are unique to cakes of puerh tea; rectangles, squares, giant mushrooms, small coins, nests, and melons that can weigh up to sixty pounds. Most commonly, puerh is shaped into a compressed, flat disk roughly eight inches in diameter called a beeng cha. In this special seasonal offering, Fallen Leaves Sheng Puerh is comprised of broken-off pieces from old-growth 2019 cakes, while Inside the Mountain Shou puerh comes from pieces of large 2007 bricks of tea.
The thing that makes puerh unique in the world of the tea is the magic of fermentation. In the forests, villages, tea processing centers and moist tropical environment of Yunnan, a magnificent variety of bacteria, molds and fungi thrive. In the fermentation process, these attributes of the tea allow it to transform over time into rich, complex, earthy, energetic brew. The recent discovery of Puerh in the Western world contains a certain irony because Yunnan Province is the ancient birthplace of all tea. Long before tea was brewed into a beverage, the indigenous people of the region found that these large old-growth trees provided strength, vigor, vitality and clarity of mind when the leaves were chewed. Over time these leaves were dried and processed in such a way that they could be transported and traded throughout Burma, Laos, Vietnam and other areas along the Western border of China, providing important minerals and vitamins in the diet. Compressing the tea into cakes and other shapes allowed for larger quantities of tea to be carried on the back of horses and mules for the long mountainous trip all the way to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and elsewhere throughout Asia.
The processing and trade of Yunnan tea stretches all the way back to before the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). However, for the sake of this little article we are focused more on tea processing. More than any other genre of tea, the health and age of the trees, the growing environment and the overall terroir are of greater importance with Puerh tea than processing skill. Generally, the best Puerh tea comes from old-growth (at least 100 years), wild-grown (as opposed to plantation teas), and of course, free of any ago-chemicals. There are two methods of fermenting Puerh tea. Sheng Puerh, also called “raw, green, or uncooked,” does not undergo fermentation throughout the processing of the tea, but rather is left to ferment on its own, reaching full maturity at 70 years of aging. Shou Puerh, also called “ripe” or “cooked,” has steps similar to composting added to the processing of the tea that speeds up the fermentation process with a typical fermentation lasting forty-five to sixty-five days. Here are all the steps of Puerh processing, followed by a brief explanation of the extra step added to the production of Shou Puerh.
Sheng Puerh Processing
- Plucking – The leaves are carefully harvested from the trees. The season, size of the leaves, growing environment and age of the trees all play an important role in the final tea that’s produced.
- Withering – The leaves are brought back to the place where they will go through the initial processing steps. They are laid out on mats to wilt, which reduces the moisture and begins oxidation. The wilting process makes it easier to work with the softer leaves during the subsequent step.
- Firing – The leaves are then rapidly and continuously flipped in large wood-fired woks to remove the fresh, raw, bitter “enzyme-rich” flavor of the leaves. The frying is done to a lesser extent with Puerh tea than other teas because some of the enzymes must be left intact to help the later fermentation process.
- Shaping/Rolling/Kneading – This rolling process is done by hand and causes the leaves to bruise, which breaks the leaves down further and allows for further fermentation. Tea processing is incredibly labor-intensive and takes great skill, which can be especially seen in steps like Firing and Shaping. Experienced tea farmers move with grace, ease and focus, using their entire bodies. They embody the practice of “wu wei” or effortless effort, which you can read about in the Autumn Tea Club on the Blog.
- Sun-drying – This step allows the tea to dry sufficiently. Ventilation, temperature and sun-exposure are closely monitored to avoid excess drying, which will affect the taste of the tea and later fermentation. Once desired drying is reached, the tea is bagged and brought to the factory for further processing.
- Sorting – First at the farm and then again at the factory, the leaves or carefully sorted. Ripped, damaged and improperly fired leaves are removed. Also, the leaves are graded by size, separated by quality, type, and other criteria.
- Steaming – The leaves are weighed and placed in thick cotton bags or metal pans, which is then exposed to steam. The steam is carefully monitored and used to make the leaves slightly moist, supple and more flexible. The control of this step is important to avoid further oxidation of the leaves, which is very important with Puerh tea.
- Compression – The moist leaves and bag are twisted tightly to form a ball of tea leaves. This ball is then placed between two stone blocks with a slight indentation in the middle, which gives the cakes their characteristic shape. Traditionally, the tea producer would stand on the upper block and roll in circles, using his/her body weight to compress the cakes. Most puerh nowadays, however, are pressed by machines that vary by degree of technological sophistication.
- Drying the Tea Cake – The leaves are removed from the cloth bags and placed on shelves to dry for up to ten days. Drying times vary, depending on many factors including the type of puerh, the shape, the level of compression, how wet the cake is after compression, the ventilation system and the desired outcome for the tea.
- Wrapping/Packaging – This final stage depends on different factors, including the factory producing the tea, the type of wrapping paper used, the style of the writing and ink used on the wrapper. The wrapping paper is hand-made and designed to avoid the forgery so common in the modern world. The discs or “beengchas” are bundled into groups of seven called Tongs and wrapped in bamboo bark. The bamboo keeps the cakes fresh and helps them to age evenly. Twelve tongs are then wrapped together into a Jian, which is twelve tongs of seven. At this point, the tea goes to market, or in the case of Sheng puerh, it may be brought to a facility for further storing and aging.
Extra Step in the Production of Shou Puerh: To produce the dark, rich, earthy, “fermented” flavors of shou puerh, an extra step is added before compression, step 8 above. This step is similar to composting in that the tea leaves are set at a fixed level of temperature and humidity after being piled and moistened. Sometimes blankets are placed over the leaves in order to bring about the desired temperature. Also, a bacteria-rich blend of a previously fermented tea may be mixed in with the leaves to promote bacterial growth. Generally, the fermentation process lasts from 45-65 days depending on the desired level of fermentation. Historically, many shou puerh were not fully fermented which allowed them to continue aging, becoming more complex and interesting teas. Most modern day shou puerh is processed to full fermentation and will not continue to age. Having learned the basic steps of Puerh processing, try and discern these steps in the flavors and experience of drinking the three puerh teas included in this seasonal offering. What steps do you think are different in the processing of red tea, which we will explore in greater detail in the Spring?
The Winter Collection
Living Tea seeks out farms or wild tea gardens that have a healthy, reverent relationship to all aspects of tea production. The following are qualities of a Living Tea: seed propagation instead of trees from grafted clippings with shallow roots, plenty of room for the trees to grow instead of tight rows like you see on tea plantations, biodiverse growing regions instead of clear-cut mountainsides or valleys, growing practices that avoid all chemicals including pesticides, chemical weed-killers and fertilizers, no irrigation, and living wages for all employees.
During the winter we tend to drink aged shou and sheng puerh, malty Yunnan red teas, strong yencha rock oolong, heavily oxidized and dark, aged oolong. These teas are rich, full-bodied, flavorful, grounding, earthy, vegetal and deep. Aged teas are warming in the body, which is helpful during the colder months. Aged shou and sheng puerh support digestion, which is helpful as we eat heartier meals during the winter. Further, we often drink tea later in the day during the colder months because we spend more time indoors. Shou Puerh and rich sheng puerh facilitate quietude, reflection, and relaxation, which are ideal states as we wind down for meditation. Red teas tend to be more moving and enlivening, so we drink them on cold mornings when we feel sluggish or when the limited activities of winter are creating stagnation in the body. However, due to the age of the trees of the red tea in this selection, this is a more calming red tea.
WINTER TEA SERVINGS: We recommend using 4-6 gm of tea per session, or simply, use enough leaves to lightly cover the bottom of the pot. This is true as a general rule of thumb for all teas included in this collection.
BREWING WINTER TEAS: We recommend brewing all of the winter teas with water between 200 and 210 D Fahrenheit, pouring off the first flash steeping to “awaken the leaves,” and brew the first five to six steepings for very short amounts of time (2-4 seconds). This practice of short steepings is different than European tea whereby you steep the tea for a long time. Groundless is great brewed as leaves in a bowl, and you may want to try Searching for the Moon brewed gongfu with a small gongfu pot and small cups. Otherwise, all of these teas are great brewed as sidehandle bowl teas or with whatever teaware you have available.
GROUNDLESS – Old Growth Dian Hong Red Tea – Menghai, Yunnan 2019
Malty, clean melon, bright mild astringency, strong, and exquisitive bittersweet balance, Groundless captures the sought-after flavors of the best Yunnan Red Tea. This beautiful tea comes from Old-Tree Yunnan trees ranging from 200-350 years old at roughly 2000 meters. The old tea trees grow naturally in an ecological forest tea garden that doesn’t use any fertilizers, pesticides or agrochemicals. The biodiversity is full intact, and the special physical status of the old tea trees makes the red tea produced from them more true to the traditional taste of tea in ancient times.T his is a tea to draw you into the old world with leaves brewed directly in a bowl or with sidehandle on the days when you wish to step out of the modern world for a brief respite. We tend towards old-growth red tea in the winter because it’s more calming and expansive than other more stimulating, upwards-moving red teas.
FALLEN LEAVES – Big Snow Mountain Sheng Puerh – Lincang, Yunnan 2019
Fallen Leaves comes from old-growth trees on Big Snow Mountain in Lincang, Yunnan. The fresh leaves are aromatically pungent with a concentration of Huang Pian late summer leaves that yield complex flavors and sweetness from the larger leaves, as well as the calm, grounding Qi. The liquor is ethereal, both in terms of the deep, expansive energy and perfect balance of acrid, bitter and sweet flavors. With a height of 3,500m Big Snow Mountain is the most prominent peak of the Indo-Malayan Mountain Range of Southeast Asia. One of the five mountains where all tea originated, we feel that despite this tea being harvested in recent years, it is connected to the ancient way of tea. It was harvested by the Wa aboriginal tribe and completely stone-pressed in the traditional way, leaving the cakes looser and better for aging.
We wanted to include a younger Puerh in the seasonal offering because one can truly taste and feel the old-growth material, and better appreciate the process that we discussed in this pamphlet. We also find that Fallen Leaves evokes a flavor and feeling of fresh spring water, which connects us deeply to the water element of winter. We suggest brewing less leaves 2-3 grams and shorter initial steepings. This tea brews for a long time; the big, loose leaves open slowly.
INSIDE THE MOUNTAIN – Wu Liang Mountain Shou Puerh – Yunnan 2007
Inside the Mountain is a superbly clean, smooth shou puerh that epitomizes refinement due its balanced qualities. The brew is simultaneously rich yet light, full yet not thick, enlivening yet centering. The strong aroma evokes minerals and stone, while the flavor offers qualities of thick moss, morning dew-drenched soil and dark forests. The age has yielded a steady, patient, satisfying tea that has a straightforwardness and accessibility. This is partially fermented mid-aged shou puerh at its finest, made from wild, old-growth trees on Wuliang Mountain. This mountain contains some of the highest tea in Yunnan with peaks at over 3,000 meters and this brick comes from old trees growing at around 2,000 meters. The tea was harvested from trees that are all two hundred or more years old. They are also all wild, seed-propagated, chemical-free and from rich biodiverse ecologies. This is shou puerh made with intention rather than from leftover material that wasn’t used for Sheng Puerh. We recommend brewing it with water just shy of a boil, and especially love shou puerh brewed as sidehandle bowl tea.
SEARCHING FOR THE MOON – Bulang Mountain Aged Shou Puerh Blend 1998
The strong aroma of Searching for the Moon evokes wet earth, while the flavor offers qualities of thick moss, morning dew-drenched soil, oak, kelp, and umami. The age has yielded a steady, patient, dark tea. This tea was well-priced for the quality and age, and is particularly loved by those who enjoy musty, earthy Shou Puerh. The twenty plus years of aging have harmonized the flavor, texture, aroma and Qi into a well-balanced succession from cup to cup. The body is smooth and oily with a pleasant aftertaste. Slightly warming, grounding, relaxing and satisfying, Searching for the Moon is good for any time of day or early evening. The name speaks to deep yin meditation, stillness, and inward movement. We suggest brewing around 205 F/ 96 C using a sidehandle pot and bowls, or even more ideally brewed gongfu with a small pot and cups. This tea represents a deep dive into the world of aged puerh tea.