• What are the names for shu Puer tea?
• What exactly is shu Puer?
• How is shu Puer tea made?
• What kind of shu Puer is best for beginners?
• How should I brew shu Puer tea?
What’s in a name? Are Shu Puer, Shou Puer, Ripe Puer and Cooked Puer the same thing? The answer is Yes. All of these names refer to same style of tea. The different names come from a discrepancy in Mandarin Chinese of the word 熟 which has multiple regional pronunciations in China; both shu and shou are acceptable pronunciations of the word. The word also has been translated multiple ways into the English language, as both ripe (as in a ripe fruit) and cooked (as in the opposite of raw). Nothing is more boring than discussing which of these is truly the “correct” nomenclature. Even within Menghai tea factories that produce this tea full time, the pronunciation and nomenclature will vary from person to person. Isn’t language fun? All you need to know is that these terms will all be used interchangeably to describe shu Puer.
Shu Puer is the fermented version of raw Puer tea. The fermentation process is used to smooth out the rough edges of younger raw Puer and create a new tea with different character. The resulting tea is darker, smoother and has an entirely different flavor profile from raw Puer. Typical flavors include the woody, earthy, sweet red dates and other dark fruits. Some of the flavors are very foreign the western palate and may even read as fishy or dank. In some cases, recently fermented teas will have unpleasant flavors. These flavors usually dissipate with age.
Like asking “how is soup made?” the answer is “it depends on the chef, but you usually start with water.” Shu Puer tea starts with raw Puer maocha [the loose, unpressed raw Puer tea] and water. The traditional way that shu Puer was made was by piling the raw Puer material on a cement floor. The pile of tea is mixed together (if multiple areas are being fermented together) and the tea is sprayed with water at the discretion of the person controlling the process until the tea is sufficiently wet. The pile is then covered with tarps or heavy cloth to trap in the moisture and the heat. The tea will begin to collapse onto itself like a giant compost heap and the center of the pile will begin to generate internal heat. All manner of molds, microbes and countless other things that we scarcely understand begin to act on the tea. This process continues for between roughly 25-40 days. When the process is finished, you’ve got shu Puer.
When you’re buying shu Puer tea, aim for teas that either contain aged material or teas that were pressed and aged for at least 2-3 years. This will help you avoid unpleasant flavors. Though, if you are new to shu Puer, you may experience some shock at the flavor profile no matter what as the flavor profile can be off putting at first taste. Don’t worry, this is totally normal with acquired tastes. Think of the first time you had a beer, a coffee or an intense cheese. Rarely does a child enjoy aged sheep's cheese and a cup of coffee, but as we mature we find there are beautiful flavors in these foods. There is a learning curve for your brain to get accustomed to any new flavor profile. Give yourself a bit of time and a push to get through and you’ll be rewarded. Our standards like our Waffles blend tend to be very beginner friendly and we press them with aged material to help people avoid the initial freak out.
If you plan to age your tea, how you choose to store your tea is crucial to avoiding mistakes. Having a tea storage plan for aging will vary from person to person, but there are a few key ideas that remain constant when deciding how to set up your Pumidor or tea storage space. Even if you’re not a diehard planner with a big tea collection, these simple rules will set you on the right path to keeping your tea in good shape.