Depending on who you ask you will get dramatically different reactions to ripe pu’erh. Ripe pu’erh, also shu, shou, or cooked pu’erh, is preferred by many as an easy, smooth drink. It is also often shoved aside by tea people as an inferior or simply uninteresting tea. In Zhang Jinghong’s fantastic Puer Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic she draws the analogy between raw/ripe (cooked) pu’erh and raw/cooked food. In this analogy the wo dui process that ripe pu’erh undergoes is the cooking process and the aging of raw pu’erh can be likened to naturally slow cooking cooking the tea. Freshly pressed raw pu’erh is simply uncooked (and has even been classified by many as not pu’erh!). This article will explore some intermediate level concepts of ripe pu’erh and examine common variations in the “cooking” process of ripe pu’erh and how it might affect your cup.
Types of Ripe Pu’erh
While it is generally accepted that there is more diversity in raw pu’erh than ripe pu’erh, there are a couple distinctions in both the selection of leaf grades and the wo dui cooking process that can result in different sub-types of ripe pu’erh.
Note: For newcomers to ripe pu’erh it is a good idea to sample from all the different types to determine your preference!
Leaf selection and blending are extremely important for most ripe pu’erh. One common style used for premium pu’erh tea recipes is to use small, tender, young tips. These tea leaves will usually be Gong Ting, Te Ji, or other high grade-leaves leaves (pu’erh leaf grades). The resulting flavor is a rich, creamy, hopefully smooth tea. Tippy pu’erh can often be found in small 100-150 gram mini-cakes or tuos but also popular normal-sized cakes like the Golden Needle White Lotus. Small leaf pu’erh will often brew stronger, more quickly than larger leaf pu’erh.
Note: High-leaf grade does not necessarily imply high-quality!
Examples: Many special production mini-cakes (Hong Yun, Ziyun), Golden Needle White Lotus, 0532.
Another type of raw pu’erh using big, broad and coarse leaves. The most famous recipes of broad leaf ripe pu’erh are Kunming Tea Factory’s 7581 and Menghai’s 8592 and to a lesser extent Menghai’s 7572. Properly aged, these recipes will develop a bit differently than smaller leaf ripe pu’erh often with a nice, sweet aftertaste.
Note #1: The 7581 is a notoriously inconsistent recipe even occasionally (and weirdly) produced as raw pu’erh! This is partially due to the inconsistency produced under the CNNP label, a contrast to the relative consistency of most Dayi ripe pu’erh productions.
Note #2: The Purple Sky 8592 from the late 80s and early 90s is one of the most famous examples of ripe pu’erh.
Examples: 7592, 8592, 7581, 7572.
Similar to how food can be cooked in different manners and different temperatures, the wo dui process can be conducted differently to produce varying degress of fermentation. Lightly fermented pu’erh will benefit far more from aging than heavily fermented pu’erh. The aging process for lightly fermented pu’erh is similar to how raw pu’erh ages with a less dramatic transformation. An alternative practice to lightly fermented pu’erh is to blend raw and ripe pu’erh together.
Light fermentation is closer to the original wo dui practice in the 70s and 80s, which Scott (Yunnan Sourcing) categorizes as medium to medium light. The traditionally-processed and blended 7581 can be a great example of pu’erh that improves with age due to its lighter fermentation. Instead of a lighter ripening, sometimes the 7581 is composed of half ripe/half raw leaves.
Note: The original 7572 is a mix of 70% ripe, 30% raw.
Examples: 7581, 8592, v93 (Menghai).
The opposite of lighty fermented ripe pu’erh. Heavier fermented pu’erh is usually treated as drink-now pu’erh and benefits from a little bit of waiting time simply to allow the wo dui pond to wear off. It is a bit harder to find famous examples of overtly heavily fermented ripe pu’erh (many would see it as overcooking the tea). 7572 and 7262 are two benchmark teas for medium (not heavy) tea.
Note: Similar to heavy roasting this can be a way to mask poorer quality source material (Chinatown pu’erh!).
The reality is that most pu’erh blends fall somewhere in between these categories. Even big-leaf recipes like 7572 and 8592 blend in smaller leaves to balance the taste. Factories will frequently include leaves with varying degress of fermentation to create a more complex and layered taste.
Note: One additional type of ripe pu’erh not covered here are Cha Tou. Cha Tous are nuggets that forms during the ripe pu’erh fermentation process. They tend to have good longevity paired with a rich taste. Cha Tous are sold both in compressed and loose form.
Gushu Ripe Pu’erh
A new school raw pu’erh concept that you don’t really see in ripe pu’erh, where blending remains king! So why don’t we see old-tree (gushu) tea? Simply put, the marketplace. In the world of premium tea the most expensive sheng cakes are exponentially more expensive than the most premium shu cakes. It makes very little sense to use high-grade material on cooked pu’erh. It could also be argued that the ripening process masquerades the actual taste, similar to how lower-quality fish will be more heavily cooked (deep-fried) while high-quality fish can be consumed raw with minimal seasoning.
With the rising prices of high-quality old tree pu’erh for raw pu’erh it is increasingly unlikely to see these sorts of cakes. So even as new school pu’erh has taken its hold on raw pu’erh, in the land of ripe pu’erh Menghai blends remain the standard.
Note: Gushu Ripe Pu’erh could be compared with making fish and chips with fresh blue-fin tuna or perhaps expensive ramen. In other words, high-quality raw materials used for a traditionally lower-end food/beverage.
Big Factory Dominance
In the ripe pu’erh world it is a big factory’s game, dominated by the likes of Xiaguan, Haiwan, and especially Dayi. Why do these factories have such dominance? Big factories can be thought of as old, more experienced chefs drawing from years of experience to cook up tasty cups of ripe pu’erh.
- They know the recipes. This includes both the blend of raw materials and the wo dui process. Factories like Menghai have been cooking up these recipes for years. They know the ingredients and there’s a reason 7572 and 8592 have been produced frequently for 30-40 years.
- Their reach. Big factories like Menghai and Xiaguan have the reach to grab raw materials from all around Yunnan. Having access to more ingredients allows big factories to have more options and create a consistent taste!
- The material is often aged before it is sold. Big factories know when the food has been cooked and cooled down enough to be consumed. Menghai will usually age the ripened material before selling it. Semi-aged leaves will help to give the tea a smoother taste without the consumer waiting! This also helps to eliminate the wo dui for us impatient tea drinkers who purchase beengs hot off the presses.