What is Puer Tea?

by Tony Gebely 3

Green Elephant Puer

More than just an exoticism, Puer tea has seen a dramatic rise in the Western market. Despite the hype and fluctuating prices, Puer still remains some of the most expensive tea in China.

So, what exactly is Puer tea?

Puer, or 普洱 (pǔ ěr), is a type of fermented tea from China’s Southwestern Yunnan Province. It comes in two styles: Sheng (or raw) Puer, which is allowed to naturally ferment over time by aging, and Shu (or cooked) Puer, which utilizes a wet-piling process to speed up fermentation.

To be considered a Puer, the tea leaves must be grown in Yunnan and must be from descendants of Camellia sinensis var. assamica, known colloquially as Da Ye Zhong (大叶种) or large leaf type. Both Sheng Puer and Shu Puer begin life as Mao Cha (毛茶), literally ‘coarse tea’ or ‘unfinished tea’. Mao Cha, the raw material for Puer, is made by pan-firing fresh leaves, rolling them, and finally drying them in the sun. At this point, the Mao Cha can be made into Shu Puer or Sheng Puer; the only difference is how the leaves are fermented.

Fermentation in tea production refers to the breakdown of substances by bacteria, yeasts or other microorganisms and has traditionally been a source of confusion in Western tea culture. For too long, it was propagated that black tea was fermented, but this process is actually enzymatic oxidation. Puer is, in fact, fermented.

Even though the name Puer is sometimes used categorically in the West to mean “all fermented tea”, Puer is only one style of many fermented teas in China, which are generally known as hei cha (黑茶), or dark tea. I typically see tea books and classification charts claiming Puer as the “6th Tea Category”, but this leaves out many other styles, such as hei cha and several Japanese teas. Puer is firmly nestled in a broader “Fermented tea” category.

Here’s more on tea classification.

puer tuocha sticky rice teaBoth Sheng and Shu Puer begin with the same processing steps, then undergo a hou fajiao (后发酵), or fermentation process. Sheng Puer doesn’t fall neatly under the ‘hei cha’ moniker, mostly due to the lack of a wo dui (渥堆) step, or wet piling, that Shu Puer undergoes to quickly ferment it. Sheng’s fermentation happens during aging, which can last a few months to many decades. At what point during aging it technically becomes “fermented” is really a scientific question without a clear answer. How much microbial fermentation has to occur versus enzymatic oxidation in order for it to be a “fermented” tea? It comes down to the intent to make an aged tea, and the assumption that aging for any amount of time will involve some fermentation.

After wet-piling, in the case of Shu Puer, or before aging, in the case of Sheng, Puer is compressed into a variety of different shapes for aging, presentation, and dosing. These shapes can range from a flat cake (Bing Cha – 饼茶), to a flat square (Fang Cha – 方茶), to a small bowl (Tuo Cha -沱茶). It can even be packed into oranges.

Tony Gebely

Tony has been studying tea for over ten years and has traveled to many tea producing regions throughout Asia. His book, "Tea: A User's Guide" is available now.

Comments (3)

  1. Hi Tony, thanks for this article. I do have a few questions though. They have been running through my mind for a while now.

    1) You have mentioned in your article “kill green in tea production” that approximately 150 degrees Fahrenheit is needed to deactivate the enzymes in the leafs. But I constantly read or hear from others different temperatures referred to this process. And a lot of times people do not make it clear if they are talking about Fahrenheit or Celsius, it’s quite confusing. Do you know if in the tea industry leafs are heated at different temperatures? I’m asking this question here because in one video I’ve watched about Puer they said the leafs are heated in a wok at around 130 degrees Celsius. (150 degrees Fahrenheit is around 65 degrees Celsius.)

    2) What is actually the purpose of rolling the leafs after they’ve been heated? This question is actually twofold because the process of Puer is often compared to that of green, but why does Puer, after the drying process, turn dark and green does not? Is it a combination of rolling and drying under the sun?

    Looking forward to your response. Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Rone,
      Thanks for your comment and apologies for my delay. 1. PPO can be denatured at 65C / 150F, but oftentimes, the temperature used to perform a kill-green is higher. As long as it is at least 65C, we’re good. 2. I believe rolling here has to do with flavor, the juices from the leaves are exposed and spread to coat the leaves. Regarding the darkness – it is because puer is typically kill-greened at a lower temperature or a shorter amount of time to allow for slow oxidation over time. Hope this helps! Cheers!

      1. Hi Tony, thank you very much for your reply. It definitely helps and it does make sense. However, I still wonder if this is the whole story considering two things: 1) a lot of green tea in China are also pan fired with charcoal (similarly to fixing Puer tea) and 2) I’ve seen Puer tea turn dark right after drying under the sun.

        Another thing, I’ve recently tasted a Sheng (gushu) Puer from 2016 which is really young considering it’s an “aged” tea. After tasting this tea it really made me wonder why this tea, which goes through a process that is similar to that of green, tastes so different (and is much more forgiving in terms of brewing time and temperature). Is it because it’s sun dried? Is it the old tree? Or is it because they steam/moister the leaves before packing?

        Tea is an interesting subject ^_^

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