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Friday, January 28, 2011

How to identify the differences between raw puerh and cooked puerh

It makes me very glad to meet more and more people in the USA who enjoy drinking ripe/cooked (shu 熟) puerh. However, it seems to me that many people still fail to appreciate the depth and value of raw/uncooked (sheng 生) puerh. Moreover, many people are unable to distinguish cooked and raw puer. This confusion has prompted me to write about the differences between these two teas.

Raw puerh is also called "naturally fermented" (天然发酵) puerh and utilizes entirely traditional production techniques dating back at least to the Tang Dynasty. Cooked puerh involves induced fermentation - also called "artificial fermentation" (人工发酵) - a new technology invented in 1973 by scientists at the Kunming Tea Factory (昆明茶厂). This means that if someone tries to sell you a cooked puerh tea cake purported to be more than 38 years old, you might consider finding an excuse to remove yourself from this person as soon as possible, because it is a pure lie. There was absolutely no cooked puerh tea produced before 1973.

But what if the sales staff in a teashop serve you a cup of puerh? Will you recognize what kind it is? If you can display some understanding, it might inspire the sales staff to bring out superior teas they don't bother to offer to the general public. Really, it's true. In general, if you want a high-quality product in a Chinese shop, you have to show your knowledge - or at least taste - before the staff will give you anything special. Although it's not polite to show off, it's important to have at least a basic knowledge of what you'd like to buy, because it demonstrates respect. Without that, the staff won't waste their time (or tea, in this instance). With it, they'll generally be happy not only to help you, but to participate in your education. In the case of tea, this often involves sharing something rare, made in only a certain place, for only a limited time, perhaps only by a certain person. This indicates how important it is to show basic respect - not just for people, but knowledge itself. Now, back to the question that began this paragraph:

To determine whether you are drinking a raw or cooked puerh, you can use a number of methods to recognize the differences between them:
                                      the top row shows raw puerh, the bottom cooked puerh

1. Differences in Processing:
Raw puerh: Fresh tea leaves (in many cases from special varieties of tea grown only in Yunnan) are plucked, spread on mesh screens and air-dried, tumbled, kneaded, sifted and then sun-dried, to become loose raw puerh tea (普洱散生茶), which is then steamed at a high temperature and compressed into different shapes. After compressing, the tea is allowed to naturally ferment. It takes at least 15 to 20 years for a raw tea cake to age into a vintage raw puerh.

Cooked puerh: The loose raw puerh tea leaves are spread on the floor of an enclosure with strictly controlled temperature and humidity, where water and micro-organisms are added to induce fermentation (wodui 渥堆). Both the speed and ultimate result of this process (in terms of its effect of the character of the tea) depend on the maturity of the initial tea leaves. Overall, this process reduces astringency and mellows the taste of the tea, which is then steamed and compressed. 

2. The Color of the Made Tea (Final Product): 
Raw puerh:
The overall color should be a dark or blackish green, while the color of the buds is white.

Cooked puerh:
The major hue should be black or a reddish brown, while the buds are a dark golden color

3. The Color of the Tea Liquor
Raw puerh: For tea from a young raw teacake, the liquor should be clear and bright, with a yellowish green color. If the tea has been aged over 5 years, the color should be more golden or orange like a half-oxidized oolong tea. As the tea ages, the color of the infusion will become increasingly reddish or reddish brown.

Cooked puerh: The infusion will generally range from a reddish brown matte to a dark red. Some are dark like black coffee.

4. The Aroma of the Tea Liquor
Raw puer: Younger ones have fresh, floral, fruity notes in their aromas, much like a green tea. As the tea ages, its fragrance takes on suggestions of lotus, orchid, honey and other delicate scents, as well as a rich woody, earthy, rainforest character.

Cooked puerh: Typical aromatic suggestions are those of wood, mushroom, jujube (Chinese dates), earth, forest or even beets.

5. The Taste of the Tea Liquor
Raw puerh: This depends greatly on the age of the tea. Younger teas are generally intense with pronounced bitterness and astringency but a rather strong sweet aftertaste. As time goes by, the flavor becomes more and more mellow, smooth, crisp, substantial and highly structured. The mouthfeel of a genuine well-aged puerh gently caresses your whole mouth like drinking soft silk, with a mellow but vivid living quality and long sweet finish.

Cooked puerh: The flavor never gets bitter and is gentle, rich, mellow and complex (although less so than a mature raw puerh). This depends on the fermentation as well. Teas of below-average quality sometimes leave a little tingling and dryness on the velar (back) part of the tongue. If the tea is made of leaves from an ancient tea tree, the sweet aftertaste will be longer.

6. Appearance of the Infused Leaves
Raw puerh: The leaves should be yellowish green or dark green in color, soft, plump and flexible. In general, it should be easy to find well-formed whole leaves.

Cooked puerh: The color of the brewed leaves typically ranges from reddish brown to dark brown. Cakes contain few complete leaves. The leaf pieces they do contain are generally rough, irregular and easy to break.

7. Price
Because a raw puerh tea cake must be aged for 10-20 years to attain a basic level of maturity (when it begins to exhibit its celebrated vivid, rich, supple and complex taste), whereas the flavor of a cooked tea cake (its richness and lack of both bitterness and astringency) does not develop considerably even with further storage, a well-aged raw puerh tea cake is often twice as expensive as a cooked puer cake, even if they share the same production year.

This is due to the fact that induced fermentation affects the process of natural fermentation: while it accelerates many chemical changes,it also arrests other more subtle changes that occur during natural fermentation, such that a cooked tea cake never develops the highly structured complexity of a properly aged raw tea cake. That's why it is not worthwhile to age cooked puerh teas over 2 or 3 decades, whereas people in China even invest in raw puerh for their children's future. The best raw puerh brick teas can be valued by connoisseurs for prices as high as thousands of dollars.

After all that, I should probably mention that the single factor that perhaps most profoundly effects the taste of puerh tea is whether or not it is stored properly. Some teas aged over 2 decades nevertheless taste terribly moldy, muddy and dull. Anyone willing to invest hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars in puerh tea might be well advised to learn how to provide an environment appropriate for storage. Those of you holding your precious tea cakes in your hand as you read this will just have to wait for next post for more information. :D


  1. Thank you for a clear, concise explaination. Thinking about it more will help my understanding and appreciation. I look forward to the next chapter.

  2. What a wonderful blog! I've read most of the posts now. It's more informative and better-written than anything I've ever read about tea, and I've been trying to find good information about tea for years.

  3. Great stuff! Thank you!

  4. wow thanks thought i hatee cooked puerh...come to find out that's all ive been drinking these yrs

  5. thanks for the info. i was reminded by a visit to a tea factory in S. China in 1999..........wonderful clear info.

  6. Thanks Its good to know what I'm drinking, very interesting and also explains the starnge tingling feeling on my lips after drinking the tea. I now know how to look for and choose a higher qulaity tea.

  7. Do you know if any chemicals are used to speed up the process of "cooked" puerh? Would these chemicals be considered unhealthy or are they just micro organisms added to speed fermentation? Do you know which organisms? Worm castings or probiotic like?

  8. great post! very useful
    can you explain the best way to store puer tea, please?

  9. love your blog, spiritual approach to tea, yet so informative and written with love that one can easily feel in your style of writing. What would be your favourite tea, to enhance mind shift to other subtle dimensions? Personally I like the Japanese Tencha and Chinese An Ji Bai....

  10. Best comparison article I've found. Thanks.


About Me

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Seattle, WA, United States
I grew up with tea, and it continues to fill my life with so much beauty and discovery, pleasure, peace and friends. It is always leading me toward a greater understanding of culture, nature, myself and others. It is my hope to use this space to share the joy of tea and tea culture with you.