Pu’erh Compendium

White Tea. Green Tea. Oolong Tea. Black Tea. Yellow Tea. Pu’erh Tea? A weird outlier in the tea world, pu’erh is a weird, unntuitive name for an odd-ball in the tea world. Pu’erh represents both an ancient tradition of tribute tea, as well as a fast-moving, contemporary urban trend. So what is Pu’erh tea? Pu’erh tea not only represents a processing method and location (two actually!), but a successful marketing campaign that is mirrored by the chaotic tea marketplace that surrounds it.

Yunnan

Yunnan. The Home of pu’erh. Source: Tea Urchin.

Grown in Yunnan, pu’erh is a genre of tea with huge variance in taste depending on the type, region, age, and storage method. Historically, pu’erh has been compressed for export or used as tribute tea. The compression serves the practical purpose of packaging, allowing for easy export. Pu’erh is closely associated with aging and similar to wine, pu’erh prices are highly driven by speculation of the future value. This leads to what are often highly inflated prices and bubbles! Market-aside pu’erh is one of the most interesting genres of tea offering some truly grand tea, with the age factor creating yet another dimension.

Basic Types of Pu’erh

There are two basic types of pu’erh processing, raw and ripe pu’erh. Another way to categorize pu’erh is with three basic types: young raw pu’erh, aged raw pu’erh, and ripe pu’erh. Despite all three types of pu’erh being compressed in a similar manner, the differences between these three is dramatic.

Raw Pu’erh

Also sheng or green pu’erh. Raw Pu’erh processing is the original or “traditional” way of processing pu’erh. The tea leaves are processed in a very similar manner to green tea. Leaves are picked, withered, kill-green(ed) (sha qing), rolled, sun-dried and sorted. Compared with the sun-drying process of green tea, pu’erh tea is not dried with hot air. This is an important omission and allows for fermentation to occur. This entire process creates mao cha. After the mao cha has been produced, processing might be finished or it might be pressed into some other form, most commonly a circular cake (beeng), brick (zhuan), or mushroom (tuo). Pressing is traditionally done with a stone press but is also commonly done with a hydraulic press. This tea can then be consumed or aged.

Note #1: Until recently, most Yunnan natives consume primarily green tea or drink raw pu’erh as green tea. Due to the pu’erh hype, this is rapidly changing.
Note #2: Because pu’erh has historically been compressed for export, it’s far more difficult to find examples of aged “sheng” pu’erh the closer you get to the source. Aged pu’erh is far more common to find in Taiwan or Hong Kong!

Pu'erh Production

Pu’erh Production. Source: White2Tea.

Aged Raw Pu’erh

While it is at best ambiguous when a tea (pending age and storage) goes from semi-aged to aged, aged raw pu’erh is undoubtedly different from its younger counterpart. As time passes, pu’erh slowly ferments, mellowing out the bitterness and creating a smoother taste. Depending on the source material and the storage method, results can vary dramatically!

Note #1: The most cost-effective way to drink aged raw pu’erh is to buy small quantities of loose pu’erh. Don’t drop $1000 on a beeng if you are just starting out!
Note #2: Most famous versions of aged raw pu’erh were not considered great teas to begin with!
Note #3: Before you buy tons of tea to age. You should see if you like aged pu’erh first!

Ripe Pu’erh

Also shu (shou) or cooked pu’erh. Ripe pu’erh was created to feed Hong Kong’s enormous appetite for aged pu’erh and more fermented tea. The process was invented by two of the largest pu’erh tea factories (Menghai and Kunming Tea Factories) in the early 1970s. Ripe pu’erh’s processing mimics the aging process of sheng pu’erh in a short 45-day span! This step called wo dui involves pile fermentation of mao cha in extremely humid conditions. Similar to sheng pu’erh, it can then be pressed into a cake or simply consumed as loose leaf mao cha. The end-result is different from that of aged pu’erh but can make for a reasonable alternative for those desiring a fully-fermented tea. The wo dui process can be done heavily or lightly. Lightly fermented ripe pu’erh will benefit from further aging (~12-15 years) more so than heavily fermented ripe pu’erh.

Due to the influx of Cantonese immigrants and their cuisine and culture into the Chinatowns of US and Europe, ripe pu’erh will typically be the first type of pu’erh westerners are exposed to. Mediocre ripe pu’erh can be a stanky experience and it is often best to go with the larger brands, specifically Menghai, for ripe pu’erh. Ripe pu’erh has traditionally been a big factory production and these brands have considerably more experience with the wo dui fermentation process than smaller factories. The big players also have a wide access to mao cha and can more easily blend for taste. The best ripe pu’erh is rarely as expensive as the best raw pu’erh, many arguing that it lacks the upside of true aged raw pu’erh.

Note #1: Ripe pu’erh is usually made for export.
Note #2: All three tea categories blend into one another. There are semi-aged teas and mixed raw/ripe teas.
Note #3: It is usually best to wait for at least a year or two for the wo dui smell to wear off before drinking your ripe pu’erh. This varies depending on the intensity of the process.

Young Raw Pu'erh, Aged Raw Pu'erh, Ripe Pu'erh. Source: Origin Tea, White2Tea.

Young Raw Pu’erh, Aged Raw Pu’erh, Ripe Pu’erh. Source: Origin Tea, White2Tea.

Important Topics & Characteristics

Aging adds several layers of complexity to pu’erh. This makes pu’erh a topic with alot of different opinions on the right and wrong way to find or store tea. This section covers a few important topics and characteristics closely associated with pu’erh tea.

Age

Duhhhh.. This is an important one for both ripe and raw pu’erh. For raw pu’erh this is obvious. While the tea ages it will mellow and the taste will evolve. The storage method will have a large impact here as well, impacting both the speed of fermentation and how the tea will age. While many can drink young raw pu’erh, the taste can be too intense for some. Waiting until the tea has aged more allows the tea to mellow (this process is still slow and can easily take multiple years). Some argue that pu’erh needs to be at least somewhat aged and young pu’erh is really not pu’erh!

For ripe, the advantages to aging are less obvious until you try some hotly pressed ripe pu’erh and get a strong, fishy taste! This usually indicates the wo dui fermentation process needs some time to wear off. Poor-quality ripe pu’erh is frequently found in Chinatowns and dim sum restauraunts and has scared away many new pu’erh drinkers.

Storage

Storage is extremely important and is often overlooked by newer tea drinkers when buying tea. Generally speaking, the more heat and humidity the tea is exposed to, the faster the aging process will be. The same base material can end up very different after a few years of aging depending on the storage. The two largest storage schools are traditional (sometimes called wet) and dry. Traditionally stored tea usually means that it was stored in some sort of Hong Kong warehouse or pu’erh storage facility. Due to the naturally high heat and humidity in both places, it lead to a wetter/more-aged tea. Proponents of wetter tea like it due to its increased fermentation while detractors label it as less clean.

Dry storage was most notably popularized in Hong Kong by tea purveyor, Vesper Chan. The owner of HK-based Best Tea House, Chan became famous for dry storing the 88 Qing Beeng. It should be noted that Hong Kong  is hot and humid, and Chan stored his teas as dry as possible. This is very different from as dry as possible in a dry climate like Nevada or Arizona! Proponents say that this method creates additional complexity due to the slower fermentation of the tea, while detractors complain about the slower rate of aging. Dry storage is also a balancing act and tea stored too dry can be ruined by a lack of humidity. This is a common problem with storage in both the west and Northern China (Beijing). Both dry or traditional storage will usually be executed by large tea organizations in warehouses with an extremely high tea to space ratio. This gives straight from the warehouse pu’erh its unique and somewhat uniform warehouse aroma.

Sealed storage is a form of storage that has recently begun to get some press. It involves sealing pu’erh airtight at a desired humidity.

Note #1: Many believe it is difficult to store pu’erh in the cooler and drier west. A common response for hobbyists is to create some sort of pumidor to introduce increased humidity to the tea and allow them to age.

Pu'erh Storage

Pu’reh Storage. Source: Puerh.fr.

Location

As is the case with all genres of tea, location plays a key part in tea quality. Lower-quality plantation tea will be grown in bulk at low elevations and will usually be shipped to factories (Menghai, Xiaguan, etc.), to be used in blends. The highest-quality young raw pu’erh teas will usually be single origin gushu pu’erh (old trees) coming from various mountains in Yunnan.

Different locations within Yunnan are also known for different flavor profiles. Menghai county is known for its stronger, bolder raw tea and its ripe pu’erh. Yiwu is known for a softer, sweeter tea with a pleasant aftertaste. Even within these larger general areas there can be individual villages with different quality tea with varying characteristics.

Note #1: Another term similar to gushu is Qiao Mu, which means trees, but does not indicate a certain age. This usually means the trees are relatively young.

Special Areas (Zhengshan/Wild Arbor/Gushu)

Yunnan has some of the oldest tea trees (trees, not bushes!) in existence and processed correctly, healthy trees make for very good tea. These trees will earn significantly money than younger, terrace bushes. As a result, tree tea is often faked and blended together, due to the limited quantity of old tree pu’erh.

Zhengshan, Wild Arbor, Gushu (also Old Arbor) terms are commonly used to describe the tea’s source material. Zhengshan means original mountain indicating that the tea comes from one of the older tea growing regions (i.e. there can be Zhengshan Yiwu and non-Zhengshan Yiwu). Wild Arbor means it came from wild trees (common in Yunnan) and gushu indicates old trees. Typically these will all garner higher prices than terrace tea,.

Note #1: These terms (and locations) serve as very useful packaging terms for vendors.

Tea Plantation and Tea Garden

Tea Plantation and Tea Garden with young and old Tea Leaves. Source: Tea Urchin.

Major Factories

Factories oversee production and distribution of tea and are usually prominently mentioned on the label of pu’erh.

Menghai Tea Factory (Factory Code #2)

Also known as Dayi, Menghai Tea Factory is the largest, most well-known factory. Based in Menghai County, Menghai Factory is located at the center of a number of pu’er-growing regions. The factory is famous for both its raw and ripe recipes (see the blending section). In 1973, Menghai Tea Factory in collaboration with Kunming Tea Factory (Factory Code #1) invented the wodui method to create ripe pu’erh. This product was sold nearly exclusively to Hong Kong to satiate their desire for more fermented teas . Shortly thereafter, some of their most popular recipes were created both for ripe and raw tea.

To this day, Menghai is still considered the gold standard for ripe pu’erh. Their 30+ years of experience and vast reach to numerous regions within Yunnan allow them access to a variety of mao cha to create shu pu’erh. Menghai County itself is a tea area known for its strong, punchy character. This character is found in most raw Menghai tea. Many of the now famous tea areas in the nearby Bu Lang mountain (Ban Zhang) have been blended into Menghai tea for years!

Note #1: If you buy Menghai tea, you will end up paying a premium for their name-recognition and brand. This causes their prices to be higher than comparable competitors, i.e. Xiaguan or Haiwan.
Note #2: Many of the most famous examples of aged pu’erh from the 70s and 80s come from Menghai tea factory.

Xiaguan Tea Factory (Factory Code #3)

Xiaguan is based in Dali City, and is the second most famous factory. They are most recognized for their Tuocha (mushroom shapped tea). Xiaguan Tuocha’s usually are compressed to 100 or 250 grams quantities. Taste-wise, Xiaguan is known for a strong, powerful tobacco-like taste.

Xiaguan also has a number of brands associated with it. The most notable ones are FT (Fei Tai), a Taiwanese based company that custom orders premium Xiaguan productions for their Taiwanese consumers. Another is Bao Yan, which is sold to the Tibetan market. While Xiaguan also makes decent ripe pu’erh, Xiaguan is more famous for their raw pu’erh.

Note #1: Like Menghai, some of the most famous examples of aged raw pu’erh come from Xiaguan!

Xiaguan Tea Factory. Source: Traveling Teapot.

Xiaguan Tea Factory. Source: Traveling Teapot.

Single Origin Teas

In recent years, the focus of the pu’erh community has moved away from the large factories and onto specific growing regions within Yunnan. Fueled by the growing upper class in China and a limited supply of old trees, hot regions like Lao Banzhang and Guafengzhai are fetching rapidly increasing prices. This has created a highly speculative and unstable market with bold personalities and foraged tea. Nevertheless, some of the best tea does come from these famous and (what some would argue) overhyped regions.

Gushu and to some extent single origin pu’erh is a new trend. Many of these famous regions were not so long ago mixed into tea factory recipes. Gushu is now typically sold on its own perhaps creating a minor contributing factor in what some say is the declining quality of Menghai and Xiaguan productions.

Note #1: Due to this being a more recent trend, noone is totally sure how these regions will age as there’s not really any good examples of aged single origin gushu cakes.

Yiwu

Located near the border of Laos amongst the six famous tea mountains, Yiwu is one of the signature regions of Yunnan regions. Its name alone has been both a marketing hot-term and symbol for the fast rise of the pu’erh market. Historically, Yiwu also has a special place in pu’erh lore having acted as the center of distribution for tribute tea (from the nearby six famous tea mountains) for the emperor. Some of the most famous aged teas made during the first half of the 20th century come from this region! From the 1950s to the 1990s tea production in Yiwu was minimal and most mao cha was shipped to big factories. However, as the hype of gushu has increased, so has the demand for Yiwu tea. Yiwu tea is known for a softer, subtle, sweeter taste with a long-lasting aftertaste. It is also rarely used in ripe pu’erh. The Taiwanese in particular are known for their affinity with Yiwu-area tea.

Famous Areas in Greater Yiwu: Gua Feng Zhai, Gaoshan Zhai, Yi Bang, Yishan Mo, Six Famous Tea Mountains.

Bulang

Located in Menghai county, Bulang stands in stark contrast to the light and subtle aftertaste characteristic of Yiwu. One of the principle tea regions for Menghai tea factory, Bulang raw pu’erh is usually bold, bitter, and strong flavored. Due to its proximity with Menghai Tea Factory it commonly finds its way into ripe pu’erh. It is less likely to find Bulang marketed as Bulang than Yiwu, even though it produces alot of tea. Perhaps most notably, Bulang is also home to some of the hottest, pu’erh areas including: Lao Banzhang and Lao Mane.

Famous Regions: Lao Banzhang, Xin Banzhang, Lao Mane.

Other Mountains

There are a number of other famous mountains . While there is no consensus list of special tea mountains (it changes depending on who you ask!), here’s some more notable areas.

Other Famous Areas: Bing Dao, Meng Song, Hekai, Naka, Pasha.

Blending

No this isn’t flavored pu’erh. Nor does it refer to the disreputable tactic of blending gushu + terrace tea and selling it as gushu. Blending teas into recipes is something big factories started to do, in order to mix leaves of varying grades to maximize taste and profits. Why big factories? Big factories have the muscle and reach to attain large amounts of mao cha. Blending plantation mao cha into a company recipe, can be an efficient way to make tasty tea!

Recipes will usually be signified by four numbers, i.e. 7542. The first two, 75, stand for the year the recipe was developed, 1975 in this case. The third number, 4, stands for the average leaf grade (0-9) for pu’erh. The 2 stands for the factory, 2 stands for Menghai Tea Factory, 3 for Xiaguan. Recipes will also be given a batch number. For instance 901 stands for the first batch of 2009. The first batch of a recipe are usually the most highly sought after as it uses the first flush of tea.

Here’s a few famous recipes:

Famous Raw Recipes: 7532, 7542, 8582, 8653.
Famous Ripe Recipes: 7262, 7581, 8592.

Menghai Recipes, 7532, 7542

Menghai Recipes. 1996 7532, 2000 7542. Source: Sample Tea.

Harvests

There are typically two major harvests for non-plantation pu’erh, spring and autumn. Spring tea is the most sought after and is thought to be better suited for aging. Autumn tea is more fragrant but also weaker. Although autumnal pu’erh is thought to be less good, it is also much cheaper, making it a reasonable choice for some.

Note #1: As is the case for age and storage, pay attention to the harvest. It usually has a significant impact on the quality and price of the tea!
Note #2: Autumn teas tend to have larger leaves. They are also more often the subject of pesticides (common during the summer season).

Varietal

The most common varietal found in pu’erh processing is Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica, the large leaf varietal. While there are notable exceptions, it is believed that the larger leaf varietal makes Yunnan-grown tea is more bitter hence suitable for aging. The other varietal, Camellia Sinesis var. Sinensis (small leaf tea) is better suited for green tea or oolong production and quicker consumption.

Tea Grading

Tea is separated into a number of different grades. Note that this doesn’t imply leaf quality, but leaf size. There are 11 different categories (from smallest): Gong Ting, Te Ji, Grades 1-9.

Note #1: This is important for blends, especially ripe pu’erh (the average leaf grade is the 3rd number in the recipe). Different grades of leaf will yield different results.

Pressing & Shapes

Tea can be pressed into a number of different shapes, including the brick (zhuan), mushroom (tuo), cake (beeng), and melon. These teas will then usually be packed into bamboo tongs (~seven cakes). The pressing process and the shape that a pu’erh is pressed into does not have a very obvious impact, but can have an effect in the aging of the tea.

Generally speaking, mechanically or hydraulically pressed tea (common in larger factories) will be more compressed. Tea that is compressed in this manner will be slower to age and benefit more from wetter storage. Loosely pressed tea will have an easier time aging naturally in cooler and drier climates. This makes highly compressed tea well suited towards the hot and humid southeast Asia and looser compressed tea more ideal for the west.

Note #1: Tongs can be useful when aging, helping to act as a soft barrier for the tea and retain the tea’s aroma.
Note #2: Different parts of the compressed tea can also age differently! The center of a cake will usually age differently than the outer edges of the same cake.

Pu'erh Shapes

Different Pu’erh shapes. Beeng, Zhuan, Tuo. Source: Yunnan Sourcing.

Vendor Cheat Sheet & Where to Buy

This list is ordered by level of experience and gives specific vendor and tea recommendations. For detailed vendor by vendor information check out our Pu’erh vendor guide. Similar to Taiwanese oolongs there are a lot of pu’erh vendors based in China. These vendors will often dabble in a few other mainland Chinese teas, i.e. Yunnan Black teas or Wuyi Oolongs but pu’erh will be make up the largest amount of inventory. When shopping for pu’erh it is very important to have a reliable vendor. Teas can be foraged or ruined with bad storage and having a trustworthy vendor as a protective barrier between yourself and fake or improperly stored tea is extremely valuable for beginners.

Beginners

The main goal for beginners should be to sample widely. Purchase a few examples of the major tea types: raw pu’erh, ripe pu’erh, aged pu’erh. This can be accomplished with one order to a pu’erh focused vendor.

Avoid buying tongs and large quantities of cakes! It is an inevitable mistake for some of us and buying pu’erh in bulk is especially tempting due to the aging component. However, it should be avoided until one has a better idea about their own preferences as well as a stronger knowledge grasp on pu’erh. Taste preferences will change, especially early on. Never assume you know exactly what you want!

Note #1: Unlike Wuyi Oolongs, avoid buying pu’erh at the grocery store. While there are occasional exceptions, it will likely be very mediocre ripe pu’erh.

Recommended Vendors:

  • Yunnan Sourcing – Based in Kunming, Yunnan Sourcing is the granddaddy of western pu’erh vendors. Originally an ebay vendor, the selection on Yunnan Sourcing is vast and expansive. Should have no issue finding a wide selection of samples of raw and ripe pu’erh for reasonable prices. Covers all the major factories. It gets a bit trickier when it comes to aged pu’erh or wetter stored pu’erh, although there is a large selection of semi-aged stuff. Tea is cleanly stored, usually in Kunming unless otherwise specificed. Yunnan Sourcing is also a great place to buy teaware, they have an American site based in Portland. Yunnan Sourcing also presses their own raw pu’erh cakes, which are reasonably priced and a very good way to sample from the major pu’erh regions. Beware of slow shipping times from their Chinese site (typical of many Chinese-based Pu’erh purveyors).
    • Estimated Cost: $50-100, 8-15 teas.
  • White2Tea – Based in Beijing, White2Tea is ran by blogger turned vendor TwoDog and is another example of a vendor type. White2Tea markets itself as a purveyor of Curated Pu’erh and doesn’t have the massive warehouse selection that Yunnan Sourcing has. Because the selection on sites like Yunnan Sourcing is so large there are inevitably good teas and bad teas. TwoDog’s goal is to sort through the massive amount of pu’erh so you don’t have to. The selection features some raw, ripe, and semi-aged teas. TwoDog has also started to press some of his own cakes. Shipping takes a couple weeks.
    • Estimated Cost: $60-100, 8-15 teas.
  • Cha Wang Shop – A very similar vendor to Yunnan Sourcing (also based in Kunming). A huge selection at competitive prices. Cha Wang Shop came a bit later into the pu’erh game and as a result doesn’t stock any Menghai Factory teas (understandably so, as Menghai Tea Factory prices have skyrocketed). Similar to Yunnan Sourcing, Cha Wang Shop also presses their own cakes. This is another slow-shipment vendor.
    • Estimated Cost: $60-100, 8-15 teas.
  • Dragon Tea House, Berylleb – Ebay vendors based in China with huge selections to Yunnan Sourcing and Cha Wang Shop. Similar to these vendors they have large inventories of pu’erh. There is an even stronger emphasis on big factory pu’erh, primarily Menghai and Xiaguan. Buying here is simple but will not be as cost effective as a well-planned order from Yunnan Sourcing, Cha Wang Shop, or White2Tea. Based in China.
    • Estimated Cost: $30-100, 3-10 teas.

Recommended Teas and Selecting Teas:

It is important to get as much diversity as possible within the tea categories without sacrificing too much in quality.

  • Ripe Pu’erh – When browsing through vendors with larger selections, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of selection. Menghai Tea Factory is the safest bet. Haiwan is also a good one. Get something with larger leaves (8592, 7581) and something with small/tippy leaves (mini-cake/tuo special productions) to compare. Be sure to buy ripe pu’erh with at least a year or two of age for the wo dui smells to wear off.
  • Raw Pu’erh – Get samples of big factory signature products (Menghai 7532, 7542, 8582, Xiaguan FT). Be sure to get a few teas with a couple years of age. Depending on your stomach, young pu’erh (<3-5 years) can be a bit rough. It’s best to find this out early before buying in bulk! Average grade Pu’erh between 5-10 years should retain much of its youth and can be a bit easier to take in than hotly pressed stuff. Try both. It may also be worth tossing in a single-origin tea from a less-bitter region, i.e. Yiwu. This will act as a contrast from the young, powerful factory tea from Menghai and Xiaguan.
  • Aged Raw Pu’erh – This is the trickiest to find, especially with Kunming and Beijing based vendors (both relatively dry places). Pay close attention to both the age and storage. Look for things from the very early 2000s and 1990s. The older, the better. Most vendors will at least have one or two examples of older-tasting tea. Look for vendors selling older loose pu’erhs from the 1990s or 1980s as these will be the most cost-effective options.

Intermediate

It is recommended that intermediate pu’erh drinkers begin to move away from big factory pu’erh and start to learn specific regions and their associated taste profiles. Regions to explore: Yiwu, Nannuo, Bulang, Lincang, Simao, Jing Mai. This is usually where real taste preference begins to develop.

Recommended Vendors:

  • Yunnan Sourcing, White2Tea, Cha Wang Shop.
  • Tea Urchin – A merchant with a stellar reputation that specializes in younger pu’erh. Their own pressed cakes tend to be the highlights, featuring many of the usual pu’erh hotspots. The tea is on the high-end of things but prices are in line with the market. They’ve only been pressing cakes since 2011, so there’s not many examples of aged pu’erh (they also don’t sell ripe pu’erh). For those interested in learning about specific regions and especially what makes gushu special, this is a good place to go. Based in Shanghai.
  • Sample Tea – This is a cool little merchant, who allows you to buy small (10 gram) samples of tea. Sample Tea is probably the best place to find aged examples of the popular recipes (7532, 7542, etc.). This sets it apart from many of the other vendors with more limited access to aged tea. The selection is reasonably large, with a strong focus on Menghai and Xiaguan. Sample Tea also sells legitimate older Yixing. Based in Malaysia.
  • Hou de Asian – A classic vendor based in Texas with close ties to Taiwan. Hou de Asian’s popularity has waned in recent years, as their stock has dwindled and competition has popped up. Their teas tend to be reasonably priced cakes from some of the popular Taiwanese pu’erh brands.

Recommended Teas and Selecting Teas:

Sample the major regions and areas. Be sure to include various teas from Yiwu, Bulang, Lincang, Mengsong, etc. Once you begin to develop your taste for the region, it will be easier to identify superior teas. Don’t buy too many in quantity as buying cakes is a quick way to get overwhelmed with tea! The odds are still stacked against you finding deals.

Experts

At this point, you’re probably either looking at young high-quality gushu or to explore some of the better aged teas. Many of the vendors above are also great for that.

  • Yunnan Sourcing, White2Tea, Cha Wang Shop, Tea Urchin, Sample Tea.
  • Essence of Tea – UK-based vendor dealing largely with their own pressed cakes and aged tea. Along with Sample Tea, this represents one of the few options for westerners to experience true aged pu’erh. Their selection veers towards the premium and are priced accordingly.
  • Bana Tea – Based in the Los Angeles area in California, Bana Tea is ran by Linda Louie, a disciple of HK-based dry-storage maestro Vesper Chan. Louie’s connections are very good and Bana has good examples of gushu, ripe pu’erh, and aged pu’erh. Priced accordingly!
  • Taobao – Should almost never be used for premium tea. Taobao is good for stocking up in quantity, especially on tongs. Take your time to get familiarized with Taobao and only buy from reputable sellers! Arm yourself with Google Translate and Babelcarp.

Recommended Teas and Selecting Teas:

Now that you have a basic regional understanding, follow your individual tastes and sample from some of the more famous tea areas, i.e. Lao Banzhang, Lao Mane, Bing Dao, Gua Feng Zhai, etc. This is when you will be capable of making the wisest purchasing decisions of teas to age.

Others

There are a number of other vendors out there that will be included in the vendor guide. Some worth checking out: Pu’erh Shop, Jas-etea, Mandala Tea, Tuocha Tea, JKTeashop.

Brewing

One of the teas least drank in the west, Pu’erh does well with short steep times and is extremely well-suited towards gong-fu style brewing. Pu’erh is also not as sensitive to brewing parameters as Yancha and can be forgiving with small discrepancies in brewing.

Gong-fu

gaiwancupsCha Hai

Brewed gong-fu style, pu’erh (and especially good pu’erh has good longevity and can often be brewed 8-10 times.

Recommended Teaware:

  • Gaiwan/Yixing Teapot (60-120 ml for 1-2 people)  – A robust, inexpensive, flavor-neutral gaiwan can be used for brewing essentially all teas. Usually made with porcelain, a gaiwan is a great device for brewing pu’erh. An yixing teapot is often preferred by veterans. Clay generally work well here due to the increased heat retention. Hitting the tea with high heat helps to break apart tightly compressed pu’erh and get the most out of the tea.
  • Serving Device – An inexpensive glass pitcher is typically used. If you want to avoid cost, you can use any pitcher-like device or even pour straight into your teacup! This is useful not only to serve, but helps cool the tea.
  • Teacups – One must drink! Small teacups work best for gong-fu style brewing.

Where to Buy:

I recommend purchasing non-yixing teaware from Yunnan Sourcing. Their prices are consistently excellent. For the cost-conscious using a gaiwan is much cheaper option than yixing. Classic gong-fu style brewing can easily be done for <$30. NOTE: Shipping is high from Yunnan Sourcing’s Chinese site, so it’s best when you buy a ton of tea with your purchase. This is easy if you are interested in pu’erh! Dragon Tea House is another reasonably priced alternative with free shipping (better if you are buying an individual item). Yunnan Sourcing also has a US site with a more limited selection. Their Chinese site has even better prices and more selection, but slower, more expensive shipping.

How To:

There are various thoughts on the optimal gong-fu method. In general, shoot for about 7 grams of leaf per 100 ml, rinse twice (three if its young ripe pu’erh), and use quick infusions (0-15 seconds). Ideally use larger chunks of the brick/cake/tuo mixed with a few smaller, broken off pieces. The smaller pieces will give off more flavor early while the larger pieces need more time to break up. A reasonable ratio is about 70-75% large chunks and 25-30% small bits of tea. Due to the compression, the tea will develop over the course of several steeps, somewhat similar to a rolled oolong. Depending on how compressed the tea is, the tea will often reach its strongest steeps sometime between the 3rd and 6th steep. The compressed nature of pu’erh makes it one of the most interesting teas to gong-fu style.

Advantages:

  • Highly flavorful tea.
  • Simple and stylish.
  • Teaches you to brew adaptively.

Disadvantages:

  • Expensive!
  • Tricky to do at first.

Western

Western Teapot

Large steeping vessels and big cups, western style. Western-style brewing is a very low-maintenance way of brewing. This is an acceptable way to brew pu’erh, especially inexpensive ripe pu’erh.

Recommended Teaware/Where to Buy:

  • Brewing Device/Teapot -Try out one of Adagio’s brewing devices. They are highly functional. There are a number of different variations on these devices.
  • Teacup – Go British Style or go with a good old fashioned mug!

How To:

Use a couple tablespoons of tea. Steep for a couple minutes.

Advantages:

  • Easy!
  • No burns.
  • Basic/easy-to-find teaware.
  • Inexpensive.

Disadvantages:

  • Less flavor/complexity.

Grandpa

Mug

Drink tea like a Chinese grandpa! Grandpa style is an extremely simple method of drinking tea. For many longtime tea drinkers this is the preferred casual method of tea drinking (over Western style). Dump tea leaves into a large mug and pour boiling water on them. This works great for ripe pu’erh (as well as aged tea). It’s also a fantastic way to finish off a session and get the last bits of flavor out of your tea.

Recommended Teaware:

  • A big ol’ mug!

How To:

Put leaves into cup. Don’t use too many. Pour boiling water onto leaves. Refill cup with boiling water when you are about halfway through. Try to always keep water in the cup. Use a lidded cup if possible. Check out Marshaln’s highly-informative posts (1,2) on grandpa-style brewing.

Advantages:

  • Low maintenance.
  • Different flavor profile than gong-fu (they are polar opposites!).
  • Great for office.
  • Casual.
  • Inexpensive.

Disadvantages:

  • Doesn’t have the same flavor/complexity as gong-fu.

Resources

If you haven’t figured out already, pu’erh is a hot topic and there are a lot of informational resources out there. Here’s some good ones.

Blogs (of people not selling things):

  • Half Dipper – Pu’erh and haiku. Hobbes (the writer) has been blogging for ages and drinks loads of young pu’erh. A good place to read tasting notes and get recommendations. Very consistent and prolific blogger.
  • T – Another pu’erh blog. Ran by Jakub Tomek, this is similar to Hobbes in structure and offers another opinion on teas available to the western world.
  • Marshaln – As usual, a fantastic resource! Much closer ties to the eastern tea scene. Is currently based in Hong Kong and prefers less young pu’erh (this is in contrast to most vendors who sell young pu’erh).
  • Bearsblog – An older, not-frequently updated blog. Lots of great information to be found in the archives, i.e. new to pu’erh post or pu’er appearance.
  • Tea Closet – An interesting blog written by Hster. She started blogging in one of the first waves of internet pu’erh bloggers. However, Hster was eventually forced to stop drinking young pu’erh, due to health reasons. This gives her an interesting and different perspective on pu’erh (especially the young stuff). She’s also responsible for helping to promote vendor honesty/exposing some of the fraudulent dealings by vendors.

Vendor Blogs:

  • Two Dog, White2Tea Blog- This is Two Dog’s (White2Tea) tea blog. Originally a review site (before he was a vendor) it has become a great source for information by someone based in China. Two Dog also runs another blog even more closely affiliated with his brand.
  • Tea Urchin – Another vendor blog. Lots of gorgeous photos, especially pu’erh mountains and locations.
  • Essence of Tea – Similar to the previous two. Alot of Yunnan-based information on sourcing tea and specific mountains and locations.
  • Bannacha – A French vendor’s article data bank. Some nicely organized information on tea locations, including maps!
  • Crimson Lotus Tea – A new state-side vendor with a tea blog. Lots of posts on Yunnan and sourcing tea in Yunnan.
  • Yunnan Sourcing Blog – Updated sporadically. For those interested in information in individual mountains and villages, there’s a series of blog posts from 2011.

Others:

  • Wikipedia – A well-developed and great resource for basic information on pu’erh.
  • Babelcarp – Chinese tea lexicon, a pretty awesome resource. A necessity for navigating sites like Taobao for non-English speakers.
  • Nicolas Tang – Some basic, non-vendor biased information by someone closer to the eastern tea scene.
  • Teachat Pu-erh forum – The most active English-speaking pu’erh forums.
  • Pu-erh.net – Old-looking site with some valuable information.
88 Qing Bing

88 Qing Bing. Famous Dry-stored 7542. Source: Essence of Tea.

This entry was posted in Article, Long-form Article, Raw Pu'erh, Ripe Pu'erh, Tea Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Pu’erh Compendium

  1. Cwyn says:

    Wowww! Excellent, huge article! I really enjoyed reading this.

  2. Cwyn says:

    Just another quick note, Origin Tea is closing their online tea sales on June 30. This is the third vendor I have seen go offline just in the past few weeks. So many vendors get into tea and don’t last long. One almost needs a “vendor of the month” ongoing list these days.

    • James says:

      Yes, indeed. Origin Tea was one of my favorite vendors and would’ve made it onto the recommended list, due to the diversity of selection/storage.

      Also, Tony (Origin Tea) closing up shop doesn’t have anything to do with failing as a business rather some unfortunate circumstances.

  3. Cwyn says:

    I definitely did not start out buying tongs or lots of cakes, though I would love to. Also, I only have a few 100 gr cakes of sheng and only 1 shu at a time. The reality is my age: any sheng I buy today will put me in my mid 60s when the aging is done, and I may never drink it. Marshaln’s tea blog shows a collection of cakes from a man who had passed and he never got to drink most of them. That could easily be me. I appreciate these articles and discussion, I need pointers and recommendations so I am not wasting time and money.

    • James says:

      Aging and storage are very tricky topics, that are particularly difficult in North America. Something that I’m looking to explore in more depth in the next few months.

      Cheers!
      -James

    • MengChiu Lim says:

      I kind of enjoy pretty new “sheng” puer and do not think i need to wait for it to age. One of the reasons to drink new sheng puer intermittently is to learn how sheng change over time and appreciate the changes. Some of the “sheng” puer like Bing Dao could be quite smooth for “sheng”. More importantly i think is to buy good quality “sheng”. One thing that i am not sure is that newer sheng puer could quite strong, and not friendly to stomach.

      • James says:

        Yes, indeed. Many pu’erh fans like new school sheng and will drink stuff that is very young! Certainly some regions will have much more bite than others. For me, I personally find for the very young pu’erh that regions like Yiwu are a bit easier on my body when compared with Bulang for instance.

        While there are many educated guesses on how new school (single origin, gushu) might age, there’s not much of a proven track record!

  4. tealover says:

    hello james, i want to ask..what is the health effect of drinking young puerh? and also what is the effect of drinking puerh?
    i read the tea closet stop drinking it for health reason

    • James says:

      Hi Tealover, thanks for the comment!

      Health benefits in tea are a fairly loaded question and one that I try to keep separate from TeaDB. Giving out advice on tea is one thing, but I’m fairly uncomfortable giving out health advice as I am neither a chemist or an doctor, simply a tea enthusiast!

      My response to you would be to pay attention to your own body when you drink it. There are alot of people (in the west and east) that have no issues with drinking young pu’erh. There are plenty that also have a hard time with young pu’erh with very little fermentation. Pay attention to the time of day, how much food is in your stomach, and how it makes you feel. Sample alot and you will learn about tea and how it affects you individually!

      Hope this ambiguous answer helps some!
      -James

      On a completely tangential note, a book that encapsulates the confusing, ambiguous world of Pu’erh well is Zhang Jinghong’s Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans & Urban Chics. To sum up: there is alot of conflicting opinions, largely driven by self-interest that will give you dramatically different opinions one “expert” to the next.

      http://www.amazon.com/Puer-Tea-Caravans-Anthropology-Environment/dp/0295993235/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1401117209&sr=8-1&keywords=ancient+caravans+urban+chic

  5. Peter says:

    At last – an article that pulls it all together for the newbie like myself! Excellent stuff gents!! I look for more informative articles in your 4-month examination of puer.

    Many thanks.

  6. Daniil says:

    Thank you for yet another well-written interesting article.
    I will definitely bookmark it for reference.

    I have a small question though. Is the quality of the tea in any way correlates with how tough it is to brake the cake?

    -Dan

    • James says:

      Hey Dan, thanks for the kind words!

      There shouldn’t be much of a correlation between the inherent quality and compression (how tough it is to break). That being said, compression will have a large impact on how the tea ages. There are significant concerns about the aging prospects for highly compressed teas like Menghai or especially Xiaguan. The high-degree of compression will make these teas age far more slowly.

      This is a lose-lose if you live in a cold and dry climate. These highly-compressed teas will benefit from “wetter” storage in a more humid climate.

      Hope this clarifies and cheers!
      -James

  7. Twodog says:

    Excellent job collecting a lot of information from a variety of sources!

  8. Larry says:

    You gentlemen always write great articles.
    I love the flash brewing method but, I tried this with small leaf ripe/black/shu puerh and, it kicked my a**.

    • James says:

      Thanks Larry!

      I hope you mean kicked your a** in a good way! If not, dial back the amount of tea leaves. I’ve even gone as far as pulling leaves out of the pot on rare occasions.

      Cheers!
      -James

      • Larry says:

        It felt like rocket fuel and was way to rich. After three infusions, I tapped out . After that experience, I prefer a large leaf puerh.

  9. Connor says:

    Well done! I can attest to being intimidated by pu-erh. This should help. Thanks for your hard work!

    • James says:

      Thanks Connor and I totally understand your pain! I remember being overwhelmed by pu’erh not too long ago. We’ll be doing a ton of pu’erh related article content beginning with alot of basic knowledge, vendor/factory information. Hope you’ll find some of it helpful!

      Cheers,
      -James

  10. Zachery Wolf says:

    Hi, I wanted to say that you listed Bana Tea’s in expert, but they have four excellent and well priced, even for a beginner, sample packs. I don’t know if you possibly want to make not of that?

    • James says:

      Hey Zachery,

      Welcome, and thanks for the comment! Allow me to quickly defend my decision.

      Everything is somewhat relative and unfortunately the comparisons are not perfect. It’d be possible to even add Essence of Tea at a lower level (they sell tea by the gram!). A couple reasons I didn’t list Bana at a lower level:

      Bana’s sample packs just have 8 grams of each tea. One session really isn’t enough to get too many repetitions in, something I believe is necessary for learning about tea as a beginner.
      They don’t offer smaller sizes for most of their teas.
      Their teas tend to be a bit more expensive than other vendors (even if they are higher quality).

      Bana Tea has a great reputation and very good tea. But I do think its important to have a nice, well-curated list. A vendor like White2Tea is comparatively easier to shop from for someone new to tea in my opinion.

      Hope this clarifies and cheers!
      -James

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