Raw (Sheng) Puer: A Buyers' Guide for This Unique Tea | blog and more | white2tea Blog blog

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September 08, 2023 11 min read

Understanding the unique character of raw Puer tea is like traversing a figurative jungle, or maybe even a literal jungle with some old forest teas, but more on that later. Luckily, white2tea is here to guide you and we’ve been drinking Puer tea for nearly 20 years. The topics and definitions below will provide you with an easy-to-follow map for understanding this complex and engaging tea type, demystifying the origins and intricacies of raw Puer.

Sheng Puerh tea sorting

Raw Puer tea being sorted by hand, removing the larger leaves called huangpian

What is raw Puer tea?

The defining factors for Puer tea are its origin, which must be the Yunnan province of southwestern China, and the processing that goes into producing the tea. Raw Puer is also sometimes called Sheng or green Puer. You'll see these terms used interchangeably — don’t worry, it's all the same type of tea.

Kill Green step in raw Puer tea processing, Shaqing

The kill green phase, also called shaqing, where fresh leaves are dry fried in a wok

The essential steps for making Puer are picking, withering, kill green (dry frying in a wok), rolling, and sun drying. Relatively minor variations in these steps between tea-makers can produce noticeable differences, even when leaves from the same plants are processed differently.

How to shop for raw Puer tea

The world of Puer can seem vast and even intimidating, but we're sharing the most important qualities to consider for each tea. With the proper understanding, you'll be equipped to navigate the options and find teas you love.

If you're brand-new to buying Puer, it's wise to try a lot of different samples (or at least smaller purchases) that fit comfortably within your budget before you commit to large quantities of tea. Similar to having a crush in seventh grade, your preferences are likely to develop as you get more experience! Take your time and find the teas you love.

Puer Tea trees in Yunnan

 Fresh raw Puer growth in a tea garden in Yunnan

Here's what to look for:

Flavor profile and region

Raw Puer has an incredible wealth of character — the broad spectrum of experiences available is one reason so many of us have fallen in love with it. Sweet to bitter, smooth to astringent, with flavors ranging from fruity to floral, herbal to medicinal. You might discover leathery funk in one raw Puer and crisp stone-fruit sweetness in another.  

Here are some tea suggestions that showcase different flavor profiles:

The set of characteristics of the exact location where the tea is grown — or, to borrow a fancy wine term, terroir — is also a major influence on a tea's character. For example, Bulang is a region known for its bold, intense, stimulating qualities, while Yiwu is gentler and softer. Add in other factors such as variations in aging and blended teas (white2tea’s specialty, we’ve been blending since 2012) and you’ve got the formula for an engaging experience.

Along with the specific region, other myriad factors of terroir affect raw Puer tea as well, such elevation, soil types, climate and seasonal weather, unique plant varietals, and more. As you can imagine, the nearly endless variation is part of the mystique.

That being said, at white2tea, we don't always consider region and terroir to be the most important attributes of raw Puer. While certain famous regions rightly command a premium price due to high demand, we feel that some tea drinkers become overly reliant on assumptions about particular regions, especially considering how many teas are mislabeled in the broader Puer market. Be sure to take it into account, but don't let region and terroir blind you to the authentic experience in your cup.

Gushu old arbor sheng Puerh tea tree

An old arbor Puer tree in Yunnan

Tea age

Historically, aging occurred when Puer cakes were stored in southeast Asia in humid climates. This process tempers the astringency and bitterness that can occur in fresh raw Puer teas. If you like a smoother experience with your teas, drinking aged tea can be a great fit, while some people enjoy the brash youthful vigor of a young raw Puer.

Today, aged cakes are in high demand and limited supply. In general, aged teas command a higher price. Today, a properly stored Puer cake from the 1980s can sell forten thousand times what it cost to buy originally.

Aging effects occur because of chemical changes to the tea leaves caused by oxidation and fermentation — natural chemical processes that occur because of tea enzymes and benign bacteria that feed on the plants. While every type of tea can change with age, Puer is one of the few teas you'll find that's commonly aged intentionally.

Freshly pressed raw Puerh cake

Freshly pressed raw Puer tea cakes being cooled on a rack at a tea factory

Another fascinating aspect of Puer is that the flavor and other characteristics of a cake will evolve constantly over time, even before it accumulates significant age. For example, a freshly pressed raw cake will taste noticeably different after a month, six months, a year, and so forth. In general, these teas mellow out over time while slowly gaining richer, low-end notes.

The most distinctive aged Puer characteristics begin to appear at around seven to eight years (depending on storage method) and become more dramatic and noticeable after 10-12 years or longer. However, it's likely that you'll notice changes even if you only store a cake for 6-12 months.

Tree age

Along with the age of the cake, the age of the tea tree itself is another factor that affects the quality and characteristics of tea. Tea trees can live decades or even hundreds of years. Older trees with thick trunks and deep root systems are prized for their tea. 

Fresh sheng Puerh tea buds in spring

Young tea growth on a Puer bush in Yunnan

Many teas, including Puer, are produced from tea plantations that primarily contain very young bushes. These are certainly drinkable and affordable teas, but for the most part, aren't quite as nuanced or interesting as older and larger trees for more experienced drinkers.

You'll hear terms like old arbor and gu shu (ancient tree) used to refer to plants that are 70-100 years or older. In some cases, these trees are from abandoned tea gardens that are once again used for commercial production, and in other cases they even grow in the wilds of Yunnan jungles.

As with the region, we would recommend that you take these claims of tree age with a grain of salt. There's a lot of financial incentive for sellers to embellish regarding age, so don't be wowed by claims that a tea is from a 500-year-old plant (this is almost certainly not the case). However, tree age does matter, and there's a good chance you'll be able to taste and experience the difference between plantation teas and old arbor teas.

Sun dried raw Puer tea

Sheng Puer tea that has been rolled, ready to be sun-dried on bamboo mats

How it makes you feel

This is one area where raw Puer shines. Many raw Puer teas have a strong feeling well beyond their obvious outward flavor and aromatics. These feelings are a bit difficult to describe online without sounding like a bunch of hokum, but suffice it to say that tea is a complex plant with hundreds of chemical compounds that go far beyond “just caffeine.” 

Taking a few deep breaths before a tea session and noticing some of the changes that occur during your tea experience is part of the fun. Common reactions are a feeling of relaxation, increased focus or uplifting energy. We hesitate to say X tea produces Y results because we are each so individual, the best way is to make the leap and experience it for yourself.

Our 2021 Hotline Space Coyote is an entry-level affordable tea that often gets positive feedback from customers on noticeable sensations, while 2023 Last Thoughts is a higher-end tea that frequently gets praise on its unusual bodily effects.

aged sheng Puerh maocha loose leaf tea

Aged 2017 raw Puer maocha, taken in 2023 with six years of age

Price point

Raw Puer tea price and quality are not always directly correlated. Famous villages might be priced highly due to a high demand and low spring yield, though this doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best tea! It’s important to find teas within your budget that you enjoy, rather than chasing teas that cost the price of a new car. (We are not kidding. This actually happens.)

One way to evaluate your own budget for tea is by looking at the price per gram of a tea and how many grams you plan to use in a session. A typical gongfu tea session is about 6 grams of tea. If a 200-gram cake of raw Puer tea costs $50, that would mean:


  • $50/200 grams= $.25 per gram


So, your 6 grams of tea would cost around $1.50 for a session. Considering that you can re-steep most raw Puer teas at least ten times gongfu style, it’s a damn bargain compared to even an inexpensive cup of coffee or a tea bag.

aged raw Puer tea cake

Our 2017 Tuhao AF cake, taken with six years of age in 2023

What about high-end raw Puer that costs $200-400 for a cake, or $1 or more per gram? These cakes often boast special attributes (unique flavors, mouthfeels, older trees, intense sensations, etc.) that aren't always appreciable by beginners. That said, at a cost of about $6-15 per session for one to four people, they're still very affordable when you compare them to fine dining or whiskey.

If you're brand-new to drinking raw Puer, you're probably better off spending around $30-100 per cake initially, as you'll get to experience a wider variety of teas instead of blowing your tea budget on one or two pricier cakes. However, you can still try smaller samples of high-end teas to get an idea of what they're like. We'd recommend samples of 2022 Sambas or 2023 Serpentine to beginners looking to experience high-end teas at an affordable price.

At a market value below 10-15 cents per gram ($20-30 for a 200-gram cake) we have found that quality tends to fall off a cliff, but don't let white2tea make your mind up for you. We endorse trying as many teas as possible, and you might even find a hidden gem or two out there in the lowest pricing tiers!

The white2tea monthly Tea Clubcosts under $30 per month with free shipping around the world and features bargains on expertly-chosen samples and cakes. We include raw Puer and other unique productions and offerings (including fresh seasonal teas not available to most people in the West), and over a year, we typically send out more than 50% Puer, though the club is a surprise and varies month-to-month.

Pressed sheng Puerh tea cake using fresh material

A freshly pressed 2023 raw Puer tea cake

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Raw Puer Tea

Why is raw Puer tea compressed into a cake form?

Traditionally raw Puer went on long journeys on the Tea Horse Road throughout Asia. Imagine packing a mule with huge bags of fragile, loose tea draped over its sides versus a compact container full of tea cakes. The most common shape is called a qizibing or just bing, which means cake, but raw Puer tea can also be pressed into bricks or even mini cakesdragon balls, and other assorted shapes (bells, mushrooms, and more). In addition to being ideal for shipping, raw Puer cakes are also ideal for aging.

How should I store my raw Puer tea?

If you’re planning on drinking your tea in a short time frame (1-2 years) you can be pretty liberal or relaxed with your tea storage. Avoid the big storage hazards: no strong odors nearby — tea readily absorbs odors so the spice cabinet is a no-no, no direct sunlight, no extreme conditions of heat, dry, wet or cold. For longer term storage, you may want to get specific about aging goals and consider temperature and humidity control more closely, but it’s nothing to worry about in the early stages on your journey.

What are the health benefits of raw Puer tea?

While tea has polyphenols, antioxidants, vitamins and a bunch of other interesting stuff, we aren’t big on presenting tea as some medical miracle. We’re not white2clinic for a reason, we’re just tea people. Personally we think you’ll probably feel better drinking tea in your daily life than if you don’t, but it’s also no substitute for the big health factors like a proper diet, regular exercise and plenty of sleep.

Fresh Raw Puer tea leaf large leaf varietal

Freshly picked tea leaves, waiting to be withered and processed into raw Puerh

What characteristics make a good Puer tea?

Different people will seek out different qualities in a tea.Huigan, a term in Mandarin Chinese that means “returning sweetness” may be a prized mark of a good tea for one person, while another may enjoy a tea with intense bitterness. Seek out teas that appeal to you and fit your budget. Or try a tea like our 2022 941 blend that is an all-around favorite for most people. 

What is the best raw Puer tea?

The “best tea” is a very subjective topic that has inspired many a belligerent debate at the tea table. Rather than asking what isthebest, it’s more about what is best for you. Your first step is to try and identify some characteristics that appeal to you and sample around (we sell 25g samples of most of our teas for exactly this purpose).

If you like strength, our 2023 Notes has an excellent depth of feeling with bright and intense aromatics. For a more elegant feeling and smoother experience, our 2023 Last Thoughts is a rich and engaging tea with a more soothing bent. 

Raw Puer tea pressed in 2017

Our 2017 She's Not Me, six years of age taken in 2023

How should I brew raw Puer tea?

The best way to brew raw Puer tea is gongfu style, which means multiple, quick steeps using a large amount of leaf in a small vessel, for example 6 grams in a 100 ml gaiwan. Gongfu style provides a totally unique experience that changes with each infusion and, as we mentioned previously, can provide ten or more steepings. There's no better way to appreciate the nuances of Puer tea.

Alternatively, if you're strapped for time or appreciate minimalism, you can brew raw Puer tea grandpa style by using much less leaf (around 2 grams, though some people prefer up to 5-7 grams) in a medium or large mug. With this method, you'll repeatedly refill the mug at about the halfway mark with boiling water. You don't need a "grandpa mustache" to filter the leaves — the large Puer leaves will sink down to the bottom and you can sip directly from the top of the mug with no strainer!

Brewed sheng Puerh tea with a teapot and teacup

Our 2023 Brutal!!! raw Puer cake

It's also acceptable to use a small amount of leaf (3-5 grams) in a large western style teapot or with an infuser basket, with longer steeps of 1-2 minutes or more. If you prepare your tea this way, you'll get around three to five infusions from your teapot or infuser.

There are probably endless ways to enjoy raw Puer and certainly very few ways to ruin it. This is a tough tea that can withstand experimentation, carelessness, and even abuse, and still deliver a rewarding sipping experience. If you want a really heady brew and don't mind bitterness, try throwing a mini-cake or some leaves into a hot thermos, or even boiling your "spent" leaves for 15-20 minutes. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what you enjoy the best!

What causes the price differences in raw Puer tea?

Why are some raw Puer teas so expensive? Several factors play into the cost of a tea; the terroir, the age of the trees or bushes, the rarity of a production, the season the tea was picked, and more will all influence the price. Generally, aged teas cost more than fresh teas, old arbor trees cost more than plantation teas, and more rare or sought-after regions with name recognition will cost the most.

Puerh tree old arbor in Yunnan tea garden

Fresh tea buds on a large leaf varietal Puer tea tree (camellia sinensis assamica)

What is the difference between small bush tea, wild tea and old arbor tea?

Smaller bush tea (also often called plantation tea, terrace tea ortaidi) tends to be cheaper and more brash than old arbor teas or wild growing teas. Generally speaking most consumers shouldn’t get too bogged down in these labels, especially considering how often information such as tree age or tea rarity is exaggerated. In the world of raw Puer tea, good teas are rarely cheap and you generally get what you pay for.   

Where should I begin with raw Puer tea?

The best starting point for most tea drinkers is an inexpensive but good-quality tea like our 941 blend, which is sweet, soft and approachable with a fruity profile. If you are adventurous and prefer a stronger profile (think Scotch whisky or mezcal) then you might prefer something like our Space Coyote blend. If your budget is flexible, read a few descriptions and nab samples of some teas at a higher price point to compare. Regardless of what teas you choose, start your journey and get steeping!
white2tea co.
white2tea co.

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