What is Puerh: A beginner's guide
By Neldon H. of Teawithneldon
With special thanks to Cody “TheOolongDrunk” for editing and providing feedback.
So, you've decided to dip your toes into the wonderful world of puerh, eh? Great! You've tried other teas like oolongs, hongcha ("red tea", or commonly referred to as "black tea" in the west), and green teas, and are now curious about this funky aged tea people go nuts over: puerh. The world of puerh can be quite enjoyable once you figure things out, but can also be quite intimidating as a beginner. Fear not, friend, I created this guide with the intention of making puerh less scary for beginners and have filled it with things that I wish I had known when starting out. I hope you enjoy and find it useful.
What is "Puerh"?
Puerh, simply put, is a type of fermented tea. In this case, “fermented” means something more along the lines of “dry-aged”, rather than something like a kombucha. There’s no carbonation with puerh and it’s essentially left to sit in a dark place and age. The best comparison would be similar to how a cigar is stored in a humidity-controlled environment and left to age. It’s also not one that ages like a cheese (so you won’t get something with a stinky-sock smell like a camembert or the aptly named “Stinking Bishop”- if your puerh smells that funky, definitely avoid drinking it) and there’s no mold involved here, just the natural microbes within the leaves. We can cover fermentation in another guide, as it’s a fairly complex topic, so for now that’s the basics.
There are 2 categories of puerh: sheng ("shēng chá (生茶), meaning “raw”) and shou (“shu chá” (熟茶), or “ripe”, also called "cooked puerh"). The difference between the two has to do with processing.
Both sheng and shou puerh are made from maocha (毛 茶), or unoxidized, green tea leaves. The maocha undergoes sha qing (杀青 "kill green"), where the leaves are briefly roasted to stop the majority of (but not all of) the enzymatic oxidation (or in simple terms, think of it as a process to stop the tea leaves from oxidizing too soon, similar to spraying lemon juice onto apple slices to avoid browning). The maocha is then either sent to factories to be pressed into discs, called cakes (sheng can also be pressed into a variety of shapes, including a bird’s nest shape, called “tuocha”, or even bricks), creating a sheng puerh, or to undergo an additional step in processing to create shou puerh. Sheng puerh cakes can be drunk young, having more vegetal flavors, though aged shengs are quite desirable as well. Properly stored and aged sheng can have a wide variety of tastes and aromas, usually having a darker, more orange colored brew than young sheng. We’ll cover the complexities of aging in a moment, but for now, let’s move on to shou puerh.
To make shou puerh, the maocha undergoes a process called wodui (渥堆), or "wet piling". During this process, large amounts of maocha are gathered together into a pile. This pile is dampened and covered with a tarp to undergo a sort of accelerated fermentation, being turned multiple times to ensure even fermentation. This process is similar to composting and tilling a compost pile to ensure everything is evenly broken up, though in this case it's making sure the leaves are properly dampened to get a cleaner product. Processed shou puerh can be fishy and have a strong "wet pile" taste, or essentially a heavy fishy aroma with a flat, bitter tea, becoming something that would quickly turn beginners off from puerh. Now, it should be noted that some shou puerh require at least 3-5 years to properly dispel the majority of the “funk” accumulated during the wodui process, so from personal experience, some vendors will release a 2022 shou cake that was initially piled and pressed in, say, 2018, to ensure that the wodui taste is minimal. When done properly, shou puerh can be quite the complex, earthy and warming drink, perfect for colder weather.
Gushu: What is it?
(Author’s note: So, you’ve probably come across this word when you started diving into the world of puerh. I included this section for educational purposes here, though as a beginner, you likely won’t need to worry about gushu just yet. Gushu tends to be expensive and legitimate gushu is more difficult to find.)
Gushu is a buzzword you’ll see thrown around a lot in the tea community or by tea vendors. Essentially, gushu just means the tea the cake is pressed from comes from ancient trees. Literally translated, gushu means “ancient tree”; gu (古) means ancient, and shu (树) means tree. Part of the danger of seeing something labeled gushu is that there is no set consensus on what qualifies as an “ancient tree”. This means that your gushu tea could be made from a spring harvest off a tree that could be 80 years old or 500 years old, with some vendors and farmers claiming even older dates. Additionally, because gushu is so rare and expensive, cakes labeled as gushu aren’t usually real gushu material. This rampant market for fakes and a lack of set definition for what qualifies as gushu leads to many factories labeling cakes as gushu to make a profit on cheaper materials. According to Crimson Lotus Tea, a well-known puerh vendor in the US, “It’s also possible that factories do put a percentage of legitimate gushu material in a blend. It could be less than 1% and they would feel justified in using the term ‘gushu’” (Crimson Lotus Tea, 2014). Now, just because something is older does not necessarily mean it’s better. I’d steer clear of any gushu for now and once you build your puerh chops up, so to speak, you can definitely dive into that wonderful world of gushu.
Aging and Storing Puerh
One of the most fascinating characteristics of a good puerh cake is its ability to change with time, similar to a fine wine. Puerh tea is alive (in a non-scary way, please don’t worry about that! Your puerh cake will not grow into a sentient disc named Jerry and attack you while you sleep in revenge for not being drunk quickly enough)- aging can only occur due to microbial fermentation within the leaves. Proper storage of a puerh cake is essential to ensure both longevity and continued fermentation of the tea to produce a truly spectacular drink. As the cake ages, flavors and fragrances can change from flowery, fruity vegetal notes to complex, spicey, tobacco-y notes. However, this can be heavily influenced by storage. Depending on the storage conditions, you could end up with a tea that tastes and smells like a fishmonger’s basement or one that dries out and loses all complexity altogether. It is important to note that aged puerh does NOT necessarily taste better or worse than younger, fresher puerh and it all comes down to personal preference. I prefer older shengs and earthy shou puerh with the color and consistency of used motor oil (it’s dark, black, and tasty!).
Now, with storing and aging puerh, there are generally two categories we can use, both based on climate and humidity: dry-stored and wet-stored. To clarify, this term refers to the humidity of the environment the puerh is stored in, not the tea itself. Don’t try to store brewed puerh thinking it’ll age. That’s not what “wet” storage means. Wet storage simply means a higher relative humidity than dry storage.
Dry-stored tea is generally kept in a warmer, drier climate, where aging of the tea is generally slowed down. Think of somewhere with ‘wet’ storage like Hong Kong on the coast of China and the ‘dry’ storage of Kunming in central Yunnan. Wet-stored tea generally ferments quicker, as the higher humidity and temperatures means increased microbial activity. Dry-stored teas can be more crisp in flavor whereas wet-stored teas can be darker, richer, and peatier. It should also be noted that extremes in either condition can result in poorly stored teas. For example, too much humidity can cause mold growth on the cakes, whereas too dry of a climate can cause the cakes to dry out and kill all microbial activity altogether, creating a green, bitter tea that won’t age.
So, you might be asking yourself, “how do I store my puerh properly? I don’t want it to taste like a fishmonger’s basement!”. Well, there are a few things you can do, however I would caution that if you are a casual drinker, these steps might not apply to you (with the exception of the first tip mentioned below- that is universal):
Store the puerh in an area away from strong smells (so not in the kitchen, unless you want your delicious cake of Bulang to taste like ground cumin and black pepper)
Store the puerh in an area with slight airflow to aid fermentation. Think of it like a wine- when aging wine, the cork allows for the product to breathe. After all, we all need a little air.
If you plan on drinking the entire cake within a year or so of opening and airing it out, it’s perfectly fine to keep it in a sealed bag or drawer. If you plan on aging it long-term, give it a slight bit of air and put it in humidity-controlled storage. These humidity-controlled storages are affectionately referred to as “pumidors” in the tea community as they function similarly to a humidor meant for cigars, just in this case, it’s tea being aged and stored inside. “Pumidors” can be unplugged mini-fridges full of tea with a hygrometer (fancy-talk for humidity reader, similar to a thermometer but for telling you the humidity of an area) or wooden cabinets, drawers, etc. The sky's the limit when it comes to your pumidor.
If at all possible, DON’T STORE SHENG AND SHOU TOGETHER. Shou puerh has a stronger aroma than shengs and can heavily influence the taste over time. (Don’t believe me? Just give a good cake of shou a smell and you’ll see what I mean. Like the finest of French cheeses, they’re potent.) However, in the short-term, if you plan on drinking through the cakes quickly, this shouldn’t be as big of a concern. If it’s one that you want to hold onto and age (like, say a Xiaguan iron cake) I’d definitely avoid storing them together just to ensure proper aging and to avoid any funky mixings of flavors over time.
Wait it out. If your young sheng is too bitter, give it 6 months of aging and come back to it. If your shou puerh is too funky for you to drink right away (funky as in strong aromas, not much flavors), give it 6 months. My rule of thumb is this: if your puerh doesn’t taste good now, give it time. Don’t write off all puerh from a single bad experience or from impatience. One of my first experiences with puerh was so terrible I almost dismissed all of them, and I’m so glad I didn’t. Puerh doesn’t like to travel and usually has come all the way from the mountainous regions of China to your doorstep, so the least you can do is be hospitable and give it the benefit of the doubt. If it’s still not good after that, it might just not be for you.
Brewing Puerh Tea: Breaking the Cake
So, now that you’ve bought yourself some puerh samples or even a cake or two, it’s time to get to drinking that liquid gold you have on your hands. I hear you asking: “how do I brew this thing? It’s a giant disc! Do I brew the entire cake in one session?” and reader, the answer to that last question is a HARD NO. You could be like Cody of TheOolongDrunk and brew an entire cake of sheng in a session, though that is quite frankly insane. Your stomach will be mad at you if you do.
The solution is to break chunks of the cake off as you want to. Some people buy specific tools for this, like a puerh pick/knife, though if you’re just starting out and don’t want to overwhelm yourself with teaware, a regular kitchen butter-knife is just fine. To break the cake apart, simply find a spot where the leaves of the cake aren’t as compressed. Take the knife and gently slide it into that area and rock it back and forth to loosen the leaves up. Depending on the compression of the tea, you might be able to get entire leaves broken up (to the point where your cake looks like maocha) or more commonly, you’ll get a sizable chunk that you can brew to your heart’s content. Don’t necessarily force it, as breaking the leaves up too much can cause a bitter brew and turn you off from puerh entirely.
Left: Two types of puerh picks, a more-common “cigar” style pick with a screw cap and a black, wooden pick shaped one.
Right: Picking a tea cake apart by inserting the pick into the center, or “beenghole”.
If a cake is being stubborn, apply a bit more force or try again from another angle. I like to go from the center (also called the “beenghole” by some) of the cake and work my way outwards until a sizeable chunk is broken off, like so:
If the cake is a tuocha (you can tell this as it’ll be sold as a tuocha or look like a mushroom/bird’s nest), it might be a bit more difficult to break up. Again, go from the center of the tuo and work your way around, wiggling the knife to break off a chunk, like so:
If you’re still confused (which is totally understandable), there are some great videos on YouTube about breaking up a puerh cake. Simply search “how to break a puerh cake” and you’ll get hundreds of results that will show you the process. Honestly, modify your technique until it works best for you. Find what you like and what yields great results and you’re golden!
Brewing the Tea: The Golden Ratio of Gongfu
As far as brewing the tea itself goes, there are a variety of ways to do so. Many champion the use of a porcelain gaiwan for its neutral taste and ability to showcase the flavors of the tea without staining or taking on your last tea’s flavor profile. There are many cheap gaiwans available and any of them will work. Practice makes perfect and it may take a bit to get used to using, but I do love using my gaiwan with puerh. One advantage of a gaiwan is that you can both steep and strain the tea using the same tool, and the unique shape of the gaiwan allows the tea to open up well. You can also smell the leaves when they’ve been placed in a pre-warmed gaiwan and get some amazing aromas off the tea. Smelling the gaiwan lid also showcases the aroma of tea very nicely.
However, if you’d like to remain minimalistic and not become a teaware goblin, you can brew the puerh in a bowl, or “grandpa style” in a mug. Simply toss your leaves into the bowl, pour your water in, and drink. French presses can also be used, though make sure your French press hasn’t been used previously for coffee, as you don’t want your fruity, honeyed Jingmai sheng to taste like a strong, dark Columbian roast.
You can even brew it western style, in a teapot, though just watch the timing of your steepings. Young sheng can be quite aggressive and end up tasting like bitter battery acid if brewed too long, or end up tasting like hot leaf juice if under-brewed. Again, find what works for you OR follow the (fairly) normal “golden ratio of gongfu” guidelines, with 1g leaf per 15mL capacity of the gaiwan/brewing vessel (which would work out to around 6g tea for a 100mL gaiwan) with steeps kept to around 10 seconds. You can also follow the guidelines given by the vendor. Do what works best for you overall and you’ll have a delicious tea in no time. (I personally tend to leaf a bit heavier, with a ratio of closer to 1g/10mL, or about 10g shou puerh for a 100mL gaiwan- it makes a motor oil thick, dark brew.)
TL;DR of Puerh:
There are 2 types of puerh: Sheng (green/raw) and Shou (ripe/shu). The only differences are in processing and how it affects the taste and color of the tea.
“Gushu” just means “ancient tree” and is quite the buzzword in the tea world, so make sure you know what you’re buying or getting into before buying something just because it says it’s a gushu sheng or shou cake.
You get what you pay for- while quality is not always necessarily reflected in the price of a tea, there is definitely a relationship between the two. Cheaper cakes are likely to have more imperfections and inclusions as well as wash out early, whereas more expensive ones can be more flavorful or last longer. Really, it all depends. However, don’t use price as your only gauge of quality when buying.
If your shou cake/sample smells fishy, let it air out for a few weeks. My rule of thumb is to let it air for as long as it takes to travel to your house, so if it took 4 weeks to arrive, let it air out for 4 weeks before issuing an initial verdict on the cake. If it still tastes slightly fishy, keep airing it out or if the smell is overwhelming, try a different shou.
Puerh, much like an elderly grandparent in Miami, does not do well in the cold or excessive heat. Keep the temperature and humidity consistent for steady aging, if that’s your plan.
Store your puerh away from your spice cupboard or kitchen unless you want that fancy Jingmai gushu cake to taste like cumin and cooking grease.
Break the puerh cake up with a blunt, flat or pointed object, like a kitchen butter knife, or buy a puerh pick. WIGGLE the knife around and gently loosen the leaves to avoid breakages.
You can brew puerh western style (in a teapot), with a French press, with a gaiwan (gongfu style usually), or “grandpa style” in a mug or a bowl that you just keep adding water to as you drink. Do what works for you and your schedule. Drinking tea should be fun and not a chore.
When brewing, find what works best for you and your preferred flavor profile. Adjust your measurements and brew times accordingly.