Though it has a devoted following, pu-erh tea can seem like a daunting category to explore. The bold, earthy flavors of these aged and fermented teas are often an acquired taste, and poor quality examples can have fishy or musty flavors that are particularly off-putting. But pu-erh teas can also be delightfully rich, crisp, fruity, and even sweet. If you’re shopping for these unique teas, understanding the difference between these two basic types of pu-erh can help you know what to expect.
By definition, pu-erh teas are fermented teas grown and crafted in the province of Yunnan, in southern China. Yunnan has always been home to wild tea trees, and pressed tea cakes were exported to Tibet as early as the Tang Dynasty. But pu-erh tea as we know it today didn’t become popular until the 20th century, when immigrants in Hong Kong adopted the aging process to create a dark, hearty tea unlike any other. Since then, two styles of pu-erh crafting have emerged, creating two distinct categories: sheng (“raw”) pu-erh and shou (“cooked”) pu-erh.
What is Sheng Pu-erh?
Sheng, or “raw” pu-erhs are so named because they are fermented naturally over a long aging period. This is a lot like the ripening of cheese, rather than the fermentation of alcohol. Typically pressed into discs, or otherwise packed for storage, these teas must be aged for at least 10 years before they are considered “drinkable”. Well-aged sheng pu-erhs are generally favored by connoisseurs for their complex and subtle flavors, but the time required for proper ripening means they are generally the most expensive type of pu-erh teas.
This naturally fermented style is rumored to have roots in the Tibetan tea trade, dating back to the Tang Dynasty. For portability, teas from Yunnan were pressed into bricks or cakes, and fermented naturally during the months-long journey to Tibet. On the steppe, the fermented teas were stewed and combined with yak butter to create a nutritionally valuable beverage.
In Yunnan, however, where the teas were harvested and crafted, the indigenous people stewed freshly wilted tea leaves, known as maocha, or “unfinished tea”. In the historically poor region, this was also a hearty daily drink with important nutritional benefits. Today, many pu-erh lovers drink green, or unripened, sheng pu-erhs, a less expensive option that is usually bitter or grassy, but full bodied and thick in the mouth.
Ripened sheng pu-erhs as we know them today, aged and brewed without additives, were popularized in Hong Kong by immigrant populations after the Chinese civil war. Teas imported from Yunnan began their fermentation process during travel and storage, and as the economy grew in the 1960s and 70s, aging became an integral part of the pu-erh crafting process. The humid aging environment in Hong Kong facilitated the fermentation process, creating rich, dark teas, with earthy flavor notes like peat and camphor.
For those interested in buying young sheng pu-erhs to age, climate is an important consideration. While fermentation is relatively rapid in the humidity of Southern China, the arid climate of California, for example, can slow the fermentation process considerably, or even halt it altogether, leaving the leaves green and bitter. With that said, we love the bright flavors that come from long term storage in a dry environment after ripening. Our Wild Leaf Menghai 2003, for instance, was aged first in Guangdong before coming to San Francisco, resulting in a wonderful balance of rich, peaty flavors and a crisp, clean mouthfeel.
What is Shou Pu-erh?
In the 1980s, demand for pu-erh teas began to outpace the supply from traditional aging processes. To keep up, tea makers developed a technique to accelerate fermentation and imitate well-aged sheng teas. This new style was called shou, or “cooked” pu-erh.
To make shou pu-erh, the green maocha is heaped into a large pile. Tea makers often mix in a small amount of a previous batch of tea to introduce desirable microbes, and then the leaves are left to ferment. This process works a lot like composting, with the dense pile producing heat that encourages fermentation. The leaves are then turned regularly until they are fully fermented, at which point they may be pressed into cakes, already ready to drink.
Aging is still important for these teas, though. Many young shou pu-erhs have a distinct ‘fishy’ flavor note, which can mellow or disappear with age. Flavor profiles often become more complex, as well, though shou pu-erhs will not change as much as sheng pu-erhs over time. In the case of our Grand Shou Wild Leaf 2006, long term dry storage in San Francisco has brought out a crisp, sweet note reminiscent of dried bing cherries.
Shou pu-erhs are best viewed with a critical eye, since most mass produced pu-erhs are made using this method. Low quality leaves are often grown with heavy use of pesticides, and can leave a tea tasting flat, while poorly managed production and storage can result in the aforementioned fishy quality, or even dangerous mold. With the market for these teas booming, misinformation abounds, and few vendors are willing or able to navigate the remote regions where these teas are made.
It gets harder and harder each year to find high quality examples of sustainably grown pu-erh teas, but for us, the rare gems make the search worth it. By establishing personal relationships with responsible farmers and testing independently for over 300 common chemicals, we can ensure that any pu-erh on our shelves is both delicious and safe to drink. But with such a wide range of styles and flavors in this single category of tea, knowing the difference between these two types of pu-erh is key to choosing your perfect tea.
So, sheng or shou? Let us know what you look for in a pu-erh in the comments below!
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