Generally speaking, the fresher a tea is, the better its quality and more expensive it is, with one notable exception: Puer.
Puer (also written Pu-erh, Pu-Er, Puerh) tea is named after the city of Puer in Yunnan Province, located in southwest China on the border of Laos and Burma. The reason Puer tea has the same name as the city of Puer is not because tea was traditionally grown there; rather, as the city of Puer was the main trading center for this type of tea, its name became associated with the distinctive type of tea sold there.
Puer is a type of dark tea (黑茶 hei cha, lit: 'black tea'). Here I should probably mention that the type of tea called 'black tea' in English is referred to as 'red tea' (红茶 hong cha) in Chinese. This means that Darjeeling, Assam and blends such as English Breakfast are all called 'red tea' in Chinese. The English name is a reference to leaf color, whereas the Chinese name refers to liquor color.
Puer is famous for improving with age. In fact, the longer Puer is stored, the more vitality it accumulates. It is like a relationship. We need time to build it and discover the beauty of each other. The more attention and care you invest, the more value you will receive.
What makes Pu-erh tea so unique?
1. The tea varietal used to make Puer:
Puer is made from a special "broad-leaf" varietal of C. sinensis var. sinensis that is different from the varietals used to produce green, oolong and other teas. Puer leaves are classified into one of four categories according to the type of tea tree from which they are harvested: 1. "new plantation tea" (from artificially propagated large-leaf tea bushes, not yet old enough really to qualify as "trees"), 2. "arbor-type tea" (from
mature trees from older - and sometimes formerly abandoned - plantations), 3. "old tree tea" (from wild tea trees that are 30 to 50 years old) and 4. "ancient tree tea" (from wild trees older than 50 years - some of which are even thousands of years old).
2. The categories of Puer:
Puer is the only major category of tea that is actually fermented. Although common parlance refers to oolong and black teas as "fermented," in fact, they are oxidized. No fermentation takes place. Like wine and beer, Puer changes with age due to the activity of micro-organisms that cause fermentation. There are two forms of this process used in the production of Puer:
1). Naturally Fermented Puer (aka "uncooked" or "raw" Puer 生普洱)
2). Artificially Fermented Puer (aka "cooked" or "ripe" Puer 熟普洱)
Raw Puer is produced using traditional methods. Initial processing - including compressing the tea into cakes - is done prior to fermentation so that a new cake of raw Puer has approximately the same degree of oxidation as a green tea. Many buyers purchase very young Puer - when its taste is still quite bitter and astringent, but its cost is quite reasonable - and then increase its value by storage. Stored in a proper environment, the tea naturally ferments, and the taste, color and flavor change as time goes by.
Ripe Puer was invented in 1973. This utilizes an artificial fermentation process (called wodui 渥堆 in Chinese) to remove the astringent taste of the tea and effectuate the same health benefits that obtain for mature aged raw Puer. That said, Ripe Puer can also be post-fermented through storage, to develop more refined and superior attributes - although many would assert that a Ripe Puer cake could never evolve to the heights that make aged Raw Puer cakes so expensive. Accordingly, the price of Ripe Puer is typically at least half that of a Raw Puer from the same production year. Economically speaking, Ripe Puer is more popular than Raw Puer.
3. Decades of shelf life:
In China, another nickname for Puer is "the drinkable antique" because its quality and value improve with age. It becomes more flavorful, more full-bodied, more subtle, more smooth, more sustained and more luxurious after a period of storage. Most of the aged raw Puer on the market is 10 to 50 years old, but there are also cakes which date from the late Qing dynasty and early Republican era. The price of a well-aged Puer cake can be up to thousands of dollars.
4. A wide variety of shapes:
Raw and Ripe Puer are sold in both loose-leaf form and as compressed cakes (jinya cha 紧压茶).
The most common shape of compressed tea is a disc (called bingcha 饼茶 in Chinese), followed by bowl or nest shape (tuocha 沱茶), brick tea (zhuancha 砖茶), square tea (fangcha 方茶), mushroom-shaped tea (jincha 紧茶), and melon or 'gold melon'-shaped tea (jingua 金瓜), in addition to a number of others.
From ancient until quite recent times, the transportation for exporting tea from Yunnan to Tibet (including parts of modern Sichuan) was very primitive. There were no cars or trains or other vehicles. So how could tea merchants export the Puerh tea? The answer is the Old Tea-Horse Road (茶马古道). Compression of Puer tea into dense cakes eased horseback transportation and helped make the tea more durable.
5. The distinctive warm silky taste:
If someone invites you to taste a well-stored Puer tea over 20 years old, you should never say no, even if you have never liked Puer, because you will have a remarkable experience. The amazingly smooth mouthfeel, impressively rich, thick, mellow, vivid and full body of taste will spread to every corner of your mouth, and the sweet aftertaste will linger on your tongue and in your throat. You will feel the warmness of the tea from your mouth all the way down to your stomach. It feels like a beautiful peaceful candle in a frozen dark winter evening. The smoothness of aged Puer tea is like a 100% silk scarf - comfortable, soft, gentle and soothing.
Of course, if Puer tea is not mature enough, especially a young Raw Puer, normally what you will taste is bitterness, astringency and harshness - yet you might still find the pleasant sweet aftertaste underneath.
Please don't be frightened by what I just wrote. One can still find decent Puer at a reasonable price here in the US.
6. The flavor of an ancient forest:
If this tea doesn't remind you of nature, then I don't know what could possibly send you a stronger signal. Do you know what the forest floor smells like? Earthy. There is a special earthy flavor to Puer. Its flavor and aroma reveal a wealth and complexity gained only with maturity, just like a fine wine.
7. Multiple infusions:
Puer is a languorous sleepy beauty: it needs extra heat, time and infusions to wake up. A good-quality, well aged, mature Puer brewed in a clay teapot or Gaiwan can withstand 20 or more infusions. An average Puer can be steeped about 7 or 8 times before starting to fade; the best flavor is in the 3rd or 4th infusion.
My parents grow and process a small amount of tea every year at home but that is green tea and the taste and character of Puer is certainly different. For many years I didn't like Puer at all and didn't understand how people enjoy it so much. It was too deep, mature, calm and complex for me, but today I am fascinated and attracted by Puer. I love its silky mouthfeel - the smoothness on my tongue, gums and throat lasting for a long time, relaxing my body and calming my mind. Image a leaf gently, slowly floating on a quiet stream with nothing to stop her, or a small pinch of soft cotton floating through a sunny day in a blue clear sky with white clouds and comfortable breeze. That leaf or pinch of cotton would be me; the floating free feeling would be the magic of Puer. Moreover, it warms me up both physically and emotionally and is a welcome respite from a busy, tiring, stressful and complicated life. I hope it can be for you too.