There’s lots of tea that doesn’t strictly fit the definition of pu’erh. Border tea grown from the neighboring Laos or Burma does not technically fit the definition for pu’erh, likely excluding things like 1990s Tongqing Hao. Some definitions of pu’erh also restrict the plant to being the large leaf varietal which would make some of the traditional growing places technically not pu’erh (i.e. Yibang, Jingmai, etc.). However.. There’s no such exclusion for loose tea that’s grown in Yunnan and processed as pu’erh but left in its loose form. Pu’erh was originally compressed principally for ease of transport and not necessarily for shape. The issue of transport is a lot simpler in present day than the six famous mountains days and it’s a lot easier to ship loose leaf tea around the globe inexpensively and quickly. Still loose leaf pu’erh is not fashionable and often excluded from western vendor’s catalog as well as most meaningful discussion. Why is that?
In the western market, there’s a couple times we’ll see loose leaf pu’erh commonly sold. Perhaps the most obvious is as loose leaf ripe of varying ages. This is also the sort you’ll usually get served up in Dim Sum or find cheaply in Chinatown. It’s a notoriously common introduction to pu’erh drinkers and due to the dubious quality, frequently a poor one. The second type of loose pu’erh is usually fresh, loose leaf maocha that is normally consumed fresh. Sometimes the vendor didn’t buy enough to bother with compression, wants to do some sort of tasting, or maybe it’s just a more convenient way to be sold/consumed. This is a bit better than the pupu platter that’s Chinatown loose leaf ripe, but these teas seldom generate the excitement that caked tea does.
There’s also another type of loose pu’erh that’s underrepresented in the western tea market, loose aged raw. You’ll see this frequently in tea shops around Asia, especially those in HK or Taiwan with any sort of aged stock.. These are normally aged raw or ripe usually sold by the supposed decade, i.e. raw 1980s, ripe 1990s, Vietnamese (not quite pu’erh) 1980s, etc.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Aged Loose Pu’erh
Typically, higher-quality leaves will be used in compressed productions, making loose leaf tea rarely the best leaf. That being said it can sometimes represent a very reasonable value option for drinking.
- Ages quicker in humidity.
- The aged taste in pu’erh won’t come cheaper.
- Lower hoarding potential.
- Not a collectible (similar to white wrapper).
- Bulkier and harder to transport by horse.
- Usually not the best material.
- Not ideal for aging.
- Difficult to verify pedigree.
For those that like matured or mellow tea, loose raw generally ages more quickly than compressed tea. This of course depends on storage, but for seekers of red soup it can get the job done. However, there’s reasons beyond transportation and tradition. Compression is a way to control the way that tea ages and loose aged seldom results in the best end-product. As a result, most good pu’erh is still usually compressed. There’s also risk involved in the aging process as the increased airflow can hollow out the tea or dissipate the flavor of the tea.
Labels & Marketing
Much of the appeal of aged loose leaf pu’erh is in the price. The market for compressed tea in the 1980s starts with four digits and most labeled tea from a reputable factory from the 1990s tea would never be described as a bargain
The lack of market boils down to labels & marketing. With compressed teas there a wrapper, neifei, and neipiao that can form the basis of the price. Without these, tea essentially becomes a white label. This means that the price of the tea is not determined by the retail value listed in a pu’erh yearbook or the premium on a certain brand or production, but whatever the vendor thinks they can sell it for.
There’s also a tendency for newer drinkers to seek out patterns and attach themselves to a brand, region, or a story of these. Loose leaf tea is sparse in all of the above, usually lacking even a factory to its name. It’s also a challenge for online-based vendors to sell as sampling the quality of the tea is a slower process than a brick & mortar shop and involves at least two orders.
Considering the cheapest teas from the 1980s would be ~$3/g., it is possible to find supposed 1980s or 1990s loose pu’erh for far cheaper. Of course, the age and pedigree of loose leaf tea is also not really verifiable. After all, the 1980s or 1990s is a pretty big range.. Claims such as 1980s Yiwu should be taken with a serious grain of salt, but hey you’re buying the tea to drink not hoard… What loose leaf aged pu’erh does offer is a legitimately old tea for a fair $ and there’s something to be said for that.
A couple reference points on price:
- Origin Tea was perhaps the western-facing vendor that most closely resembled the Asian market in Taiwan and sold some loose leaf tea supposedly from the 1980s for ~$0.40/g and a 1999 loose leaf Yiwu for ~$0.25/g.
- When I was in HK, a specialist sold some pretty decent aged loose supposedly from the 1980s for ~$1/g and some 1980s “not pu’erh” from Vietnam for ~$0.45/g.