Pu’erh is a very elusive term, that carries many definitions and radically different taste profiles depending on who you ask. While for the most part, pu’erh is produced with Camellia Sinensis v. Assamica, the big leaf varietal; the term itself is attached with the geography (Yunnan) and the processing, not necessarily the leaf varietal. As pu’erh has picked up steam and demand has spiked, there’s been a few interesting oddities that are cultivated and marketed. Many of these are naturally growing and some haven’t been produced as pu’erh until recently (causing heavy scrutiny into the aging potential).
Note: There are also non-traditional pu’erh growing regions, now producing pu’erh, tea who’s aging viability has also been heavily scrutinized.
Small Leaf Cultivar (Xiaoyeh)
Most pu’erh is grown with the large leaf cultivar (Dayezhong or Assamica). This includes most old arbor, wild arbor, and plantation tea. However, in many of the growing regions (including a few higher-profile ones) the small leaf cultivar is naturally occurring. Jingmai and Yibang are particularly famous for this, but the smaller cultivar can be found at different places throughout Yunnan. In many cases, the small leaf cultivar trees also qualifies as gushu and represent some of the oldest in the area (true for Yibang)!
Some believe that pu’erhs large leaf is important to the aging process and the small leaf cultivar won’t age as well.
Note #1: Nearly all other Chinese teas are grown with Camellia Sinensis v. Sinensis. Indian teas will be primarily v. Assamica, the exception being Darjeeling.
Note #2: There is also a category of cultivars, made up of medium-sized leaves, that don’t qualify (see babelcarp).
Purple tea is one of the more confusing terms, primarily because there are three different types. Generally speaking, purple tea is much darker (purple!) than it’s non-purple cousins.
Wild Purple (Yesheng)
The most common type of tea classified as purple tea is a mutated version of the large leaf varietal. The Yesheng term is confusing and can mean different things and the wild purple category doesn’t necessarily extend to all teas that are classified as Yesheng. While there are growing locations with wild leaf in Xishuangbanna, these usually aren’t purple. The purple yesheng gets progressively more common as you move northwards (Lincang, Dehong, Wuliang, Ailao).
Tastewise yesheng can be extremely bitter when young. It is also now used to produce Dianhong (Yunnan Black Tea).
Note #1: Buying purple Yesheng is usually less expensive than gushu and is a way to buy low in the pu’erh market.
Purple Bud (Zicha)
Less commonly there is also a naturally occurring purple bud tea where the leaves turn purple as a reaction to the hot and humid conditions in areas of high-elevation. A more in-depth, scientific explanation from YS:
During the hot, humid summer and fall seasons a portion of tea tree buds are purplish red colored. The source of the color is anthocyanin, which changes color along with cell sap acidity. High levels of acidity lead to red color, while medium acidity is more purple, and high alkalinity tends toward indigo. Anthocanin is a phenol material, and along with catechin is an important component in the medicinal effect of tea. Purplish red tea results from an inherited reaction to unfavorable hot and humid summer environmental conditions, providing the tea tree with a mechanism for fighting scorching ultraviolet rays.
Puerh.fr describes purple tea as being violet on trees, dark green/black once processed, and a lighter, richer green once brewed (source). The leaves that end up turning purple usually are only a part of the tree. Because the amount of the leaves that turn purple will frequently be too low for an actual production, they’ll simply be mixed in with the rest of the leaves. It should also be noted that purple bud tea includes a number of different strains and mutations, encompassing a ton of variety.
The tips are sometimes only picked out of the bushes, making it a more tender, buddy (and premium) tea. Purple bud isn’t necessarily as inherently bitter as Yesheng and has been described as Hobbes as sweet, drink-now pu’erh.
Purple Beauty & African Purple Tea (Zijuan)
Somewhat similar to purple bud, this is essentially human designed and engineered purple bud (and not naturally occurring). Zijuan was developed from clones of a specific purple cultivar (in the 1990s) and isn’t too widespread yet. Because Zijuan is a single cultivar, it is easier to peg it into a profile than purple bud tea and has been described by Puerh.fr as sweet and gentle.
In a similar but different vein, there is another modern purple cultivar (TRFK306/1) that was developed in Kenya and is grown frequently as white, green and black tea. This tends to be very high-production based.
Note #1: There really isn’t much purple bud or purple beauty, as the bushes aren’t nearly as old.
Note #2: There’s also supposedly a series of health benefits for these purple teas.