What is the reason for the fishy puer smell in young ripe puer tea?
The Fishy Smell of Young Ripe Puer Tea
My puer tea smells fishy! This fishy puer tea smell has unnecessarily cut off the curiosity of more than a few potential puer tea drinkers. Never having tried ripe puer tea, an unsuspecting tea lover buys puer from their local shop and ends up retching after they smell a fishy odor on their dark brown cake. This post will outline how this is an easily avoidable problem, but first a quick and dirty explanation of how ripe puer is made.
Ripe puer is fermented by several different processes, the most common of which was developed in the early 1970’s by Menghai Factory. The leaves are fermented in giant piles, sprayed with water, and covered in cloth. In some cases a factory will introduce microbes or other agents to the pile to guide the fermentation process. These gigantic piles of tea are then turned to keep their heat evenly distributed, all while closely monitoring the temperature and humidity. This forces the fermentation of the leaves in an effort to mimic the results of naturally aging raw puer tea. The result is a much smoother and easily drinkable tea that can be produced in a short period of time, instead of waiting for decades for raw puer tea to age. There are some debatable points in the the narrative above, but for our purposes it is close enough. (Wikipedia has a more detailed version)
Menghai factory (present day Dayi) being the pioneer of this method, is thought to have some of the best ripe puer tea on the market. However, after ripe puer tea became popular, there were many other factories that followed suit and began producing their own versions, some of which were good and some of which were unsanitary. Yunnan is a big place with a lot of tea, and anybody who has a large pile of tea can try their hand at making a shu puer tea. With very little regulation of sanitary conditions and standards, this “Wild West” of ripe puer tea processing led to some funky outcomes.
How to avoid the fishy puer flavor
This is where the fishyness come in. Fishy puer flavors comes from one of two broad sources. Either the ripe puer tea was freshly pressed or fermented (within 1-2 years), or it was made in unsanitary conditions.
If you have stumbled upon this post and had fishy ripe puer, chances are one of the following statements is true:
- You purchased a no name brand puer from a low quality factory
- You bought mini-tuos (the small single serving puer nests / generally very low quality tea)
- You bought puer that was pressed or had material from the last 1-3 years
- The tea store you bought from sells every kind of tea and just a couple of puer teas
Brand names are not always the be-all-end-all, but in the case of ripe puer tea, brand can give some piece of mind. There is no need to buy only buy Dayi, all of the teas we source at White 2 Tea pass muster, or we will list that the cake is freshly pressed and has remaining duiwei flavor [pile flavor]. However, if you buy ripe tea from a vendor who is not well versed in puer, you could end up with some unsanitary tea produced in conditions you would rather not know about. When the task at hand is for all intents and purposes, making tea from a large compost heap of wet organic material, sanitation is an important factor. One reason buying a big brand like Dayi is good for ripe tea is that they are more likely to have company policy and controls than a Mom & Pop workshop in the middle of the countryside. That’s not to say that smaller ripe producers make bad tea, but only that caution should be exercised.
Our second bullet point, mini-tuos. We advise people to avoid mini-tuos, as 99.9% of them are leftover crap. They are the bagged tea of puer. We want you to buy the best possible tea, so heed this advice: you’d almost always be better off buying a cake.
The third point, puer that was recently fermented will have a dui wei [pile taste] left on it, which is often described as fishy. This has nothing to do with sanitation or factory pedigree. Even a freshly fermented Dayi 7572 (their classic ripe tea recipe, pictured above) smells like somebody gutted a bass on top of it. The smell goes away within a year or so, depending on storage. After a little time, the good smells settle in and the bad smells are gone.
Last point, is that puer is a different animal that most other teas. If you go to a tea outlet that sells every kind of tea imaginable + a couple of puer teas, you are likely to get junk puer. Though not always the case, we would advise against it. Stepping into a mass market store and buying puer is like going to Italy to order Chinese food. If you want good puer tea, buy from a store that specializes in puer.
Should I Throw out the Fishy Puer Tea?
Never! If your fishy puer is giving you trouble, you can always store it and wait for the flavors to dissipate. Unless you isolated the issue as being a dirty cake, store the puer on your shelf and revisit it in a year. As we mentioned, a brand new Dayi 7572 smells like a bait shop. But, if you store it for a couple of years, it is a great ripe puer. Throwing it away off of first impressions would be a complete waste. If your puer smells like fish, let it sit and calm down. Aging is your friend. Make a note of what you taste and the date you brewed, stick in to the wrapper and come back in a year. The tea will be much less fishy by then, and if it’s not, there is always next year!
What are Some Ripe Puer Teas that I Can Drink NOW?
If you are looking to drink ripe puer tea as soon as your package arrives, any of our teas over a few years old will not have dui wei [residual pile flavor] and were made in cleanly conditions. Check out our ripe tea selection.