Tag Archives: puer

Teance Tea Time

After the fashion of my last post on Song Tea I wanted to highlight another exceptional tearoom that I encountered in San Francisco, Teance. This shop is a little different than Song Tea, for while they also sell their leaves for home consumption, they also have a bar (and tables) at which everyone can sit and drink tea. Teance has a very modern, carefully-designed atmosphere and construction. I was told that one of the two founders has a great skill in internal design and it was under his guidance that the tearoom’s physical appearance was shaped. The skill and attention to detail certainly shows.

Paradoxically just behind a Pete’s Coffee, Teance sits elegantly in a pedestrian shopping district near the bay in Berkeley. While small, the shop feels roomy and cozy at the same time, from its stone Koi pond at the entrance to an upstairs seating area with beautiful wooden tables. But the most striking part of the tearoom is a round circular tea bar made of solid artisanal concrete inlaid with glimmering stones, glass, and shells (“artisanal concrete” may be the wrong term for this, but I didn’t know what else to call it). Atop this bar are two shining brass brew stations with a clever drainage system that carries the water away without a sound. The tea server stands in the center of the circle and graciously prepares a wide selection of Green, Oolong, Black, and Puer tea in yixing-ware, glass, and bright porcelain. As a tea drinker you may choose to have the tea master prepare your tea or reserve that honor for yourself with a thermos of hot water. You can probably guess which option I chose! In this way their service is similar to that of Camellia Sinensis in Montréal, but what surprised me was the effect of the circular tea bar. It somehow brings people together.

teance-talkingIn many ways, the tea bar has the same effect as the custom bamboo bar at Tea Drunk in NYC, making what could easily be a solitary or insular experience of sipping a fine Wuyi Yancha into a kind of social event. One is magically drawn to talk to the other patrons at the bar, as well as to the person serving tea. Particularly at Teance I found that the curved nature of the bar made it nearly impossible to avoid looking at other tea drinkers and so snatches of conversation naturally jump around. Also just like Tea Drunk, the tea servers are always hovering nearby to provide a bit of knowledge or suggest another tea profile to taste. The pouring of water, the sipping from cups, and the discussions that take place flow almost organically. I find it a real pleasure to share tea in this way.

I visited Teance twice and one thing I noticed quickly was that they have more teas available than what is on their menu. I suspect that many of their more rare teas are of such a small quantity that printing them on their menu would be a waste since they may change or disappear with short notice. So, just like when discussing tea with any knowledgable vendor, be sure to make inquiries about your preferred style before purchasing a pot-full! You may find something similar but more exotic to tempt your taste buds.

teance-puerOne of the first things I tried there was an exquisite 18-year-old Sheng Puer. The taste was deliciously heavy, textured like old leather, and with a musty aroma like an ancient book. At the same time it was mellow and comforting, without any of the sharp cedar characteristics that would be present in a younger Sheng. It was definitely Sheng, though. There’s something nearly unmistakable about the sweet-yet-musty flavor of a traditionally aged Puer. The only other tea I’ve had which has anything similar is a 1986 Yiwu which, sadly, has all been imbibed. To quote myself on that venerable tea, “Sipping this tea is like walking in to a comforting old library.” I think the same is true of Teance’s Sheng.

I have to say that (as happens time and again) I was surprised to discover a tea that I knew very little about, and another that I had never heard of before! I have tasted the oolong known as Golden Turtle on a few occasions, but I rarely hear of it being sold in the West. It is a beautiful and rich Yancha from the Wuyi mountains of Fujian province with aromas reminiscent of cinnamon and charcoal, and here it was in a jar before us. Our tea server, Keiko, then showed us yet another Wuyi oolong, this time one that I had never heard of and actually had to look up. Teance calls it “Halfway up Sky”, but I’m going to try to remember the Mandarin name, Bàn Tiān Yāo (半天腰). The aroma of the damp leaves was a little like roasting rice, charcoal, and toffee. Much to my regret I didn’t have time to taste all these luxurious teas, but be certain that I’m going to look around for some in the near future.

teance-all-wetMany thanks to Keiko and Teance for the experiences and the tea discussion. I clearly need to spend a week in Berkeley some time to get to know this tearoom (and Far Leaves!) a little better.

Getting Tea Drunk at Tea Drunk

Last weekend I was in New York City to see a show and one of the things I always do in New York City is visit all my favorite vegan restaurants and cafes. This trip had an additional draw, though, being able to visit Tea Drunk, a gongfu teahouse that brings me right back to Taiwan. In fact, it’s really on-par with my favorite teahouses the world over. Small and cozy with a real expertise in Chinese tea and quite a selection, it was a perfect place to sit, sip, and chat. I even got to meet a few of the other guests, because it’s hard to avoid making friends over tea.

Nicole at Tea DrunkOur host was the imitable Nicole Martin, aka: Tea For Me Please. The owner of Tea Drunk wasn’t in that day, but Nicole was there to guide us through what probably amounted to 12 infusions of a nicely woody 2011 Sheng Da Meng Song (大勐宋), followed by maybe 15 gaiwans of a 2010 Shou Tuo Cha (of uncertain origin) that was even better than I expected. I was very energized by the time I left. The shop certainly lived up to its name!

The Sheng was crisp and comforting. The Shou was not too sweet, and had a blackberry quality to it which I really enjoyed. There are some really great young Puer cakes being produced these days, but a few years can make a big difference.

Photo Jul 12, 4 25 42 PMThe shop is small, but beautiful. It looks from the outside like its space is in part of an old church. A host of teaware adorns one wall, while the other is devoted mostly to a seven person bamboo gong-fu bar that I’ve always dreamed of having for myself. The rest of the space holds about six square tables, each with its own custom-made petrified bamboo tea table that are works of art in themselves. When we sat down, we were able to pick one of the cute tea pets from their collection to share our tea. You’ll notice our friendly tea-loving bulldog in the pictures.

One of the most exciting aspects of Tea Drunk for me is their events. They have started a weekly “Tuesday Tea-Off” where each participant (including the teahouse) brings a tea of the same category for a blind tasting to compare and contrast. If only I lived closer! Nevertheless, it’s inspiring and a great way to involve the tea community.

Normally I would have been sipping with one hand and taking notes with the other, but I was really enjoying the conversation with Nicole and I never got around to writing down my thoughts about these teas. At this point all my memory can tell me is that they were both delightful and that I will definitely be returning to Tea Drunk next time I’m in New York. Their tea is definitely priced for small groups to share, but is undeniably worth the expense. If you are alone, perhaps you can find a friend in the city who’s willing to share a cup or two.


Springtime is Tea Stove Time

The seasons have changed, and with green grass and warm sunshine comes a perfect time to make tea outside. To celebrate the occasion I’ve pulled out my ceramic tea stove and some rather delicious sheng Puer that’s this month’s offering from Jalam Teas.


Of course, in the two seasons since I’ve used the stove, I’ve forgotten somewhat how best to get it going. It’s not the most complex device, but as my previous entries on the subject suggest, if I want to brew tea before too many hours have passed there are some tricks I need to know. Caveat lector: I’m equally unskilled at building campfires, so it’s not just this particular firebending with which I have trouble; I think I was born into the water tribe. I may need to get some practice lighting charcoal this summer.

Thankfully, with some patience and the meticulous skills of my wife, boiling water was not far off. There’s something really magical about heating water on a stove like this. I think because the water comes just to a boil without sending the lid flying across the room. When I’m using a gas range or electric kettle the water tends to get a little out of control. There’s often a sense of, “Oh no! The water is boiling; I need to shut it off before it’s too late!”, especially if there’s a shrieking whistle going off. The gentleness of boiling water on the tea stove seems to me a perfect complement to the essence of a tea ceremony: in the constant sound of the boil and the occasional hiss as a drop of water escapes only to instantly evaporate on the side of the stove, I find a feeling of tranquility and the natural order of things.


I don’t have a lot to say about the tea itself, other than that it’s really very delicious for being so young. The liquor is a beautiful amber, and the aroma is woody, but not overly so. It actually seems more oak-like than the cedar scent I expected, and is quite smooth (at least brewed gong-fu style; I haven’t tried any other way). I think that with some age it may produce more bold flavors, but I like the subtle taste and potent energy that it carries. It’s a young, but very dignified Puer and I feel very fortunate to have such a cake.

Jalam’s site names this tea an Autumn 2013 harvest of Meng Hun, from southwest of Menghai county in Yunnan, harvested by the native Lahu people. From the description, I really was expecting a tea that should be stored away for a few years before even sampling, and maybe my taste is unique, but I really am enjoying this cake right now!

menghun-dry-leavesTea is a reminder that we are all interdependent. From the native people growing and harvesting these leaves to all the fine people at Jalam teas for getting the final product to my door, to the amazing pottery of Petr Novak without whom I would not have this lovely kettle and stove, they are all equally important. Even my water, kindling, and charcoal are derived from the hard work of many humans. Without any one of those people, the tea in my cup would not exist. Drinking tea with mindfulness is paying tribute to all those who provided this day for me. I hope to have many more days like this, and I hope that you do too!

Nan Nuo Shan

Another one of my samples from Jalam Teas was a lovely packet of Nan Nuo Shan (南糯山) Sheng puer. (Caveat lector: normally Jalam sends their tea in 100g cakes, but as I signed up late I received this sample.) I’ve been excited to try this one because I already have a fondness for teas from the Nan Nuo Shan range.

Photo Mar 29, 2 03 58 PM

I’ve tasted several teas from this mountain area in the deep south of Yunnan province and, although I don’t believe that there’s any real consistency for tea from a place, I’ve loved every one. There’s something very inviting about the flavors they exhibit. Some kind of “welcome home” sort of energy. And to be honest I haven’t even been that far south in China, so I guess it’s just the tea.

One of my first encounters with Nan Nuo Shan tea was in the market streets of Lijiang, an adventure which I’ve written about before.

These particular leaves have the aroma of mango: fruity, but not sugar-sweet. It’s intoxicating. Even though the leaves are a little broken, they are definitely consistent in size and rather large (even after shipping in a small packet, which is impressive).

Following the instructions on Jalam’s site, I made my first few infusions at 20 seconds and increased the time by about 10 seconds for each subsequent infusion from there. The results were delightful. The taste is something like pine, or like the flavor of eating a raw mushroom: woody with a savory and sweet quality all at once. This held consistently for about fifteen infusions, so I was not disappointed.

Bada Mountain Fermented Puer

I recently subscribed to Jalam Tea’s monthly deliveries, and since the current month’s bing was already sold out, I received a hoard of samples of previous puer selections. Last week I had a go at the Meng Song. Today I tried the 2012 Bada Mountain Fermented (it seems that Jalam refers to their Shou puer as “fermented” and their Sheng as “unfermented” or with no classifier).

Photo Mar 19, 4 56 37 PMFirst I love that Jalam has a whole page and several videos dedicated to each tea. It really makes learning about the tea and its origin a fun experience. Location and skill of the producer are really what sets different tea apart, especially with Puer, but it’s so difficult to learn about those things from even respected vendors, East or West. The best thing is to visit the producer yourself or taste a whole lot of tea to get to know a factory. What Jalam offers is a good compromise: inexpensive, decent amounts of tea from unique regions and a full page of info about where it came from. Stéphane at Teamasters offers a similar experience with tea from Taiwan (mostly oolong), although somewhat less formally. His packages always give the precise location and date of harvest, which is a rare treat.

This Puer really surprised me, which is not easy for a Shou. I did a double sniff-take when I smelled the damp leaves. The aroma was so unusual: really rich in a dark plum sort of way that reminds me more of a black assam than a Shou Puer. Certainly there’s the character of moss and peat that I hope for in such a tea, but this has something more intriguing.

Photo Mar 19, 4 58 43 PMAfter slightly bungling my last attempt with these packages, I resolved to make a more careful infusion. I used a gaiwan to ensure control and I used only 4 grams of leaf since the packaging of the samples caused a little more breakage than would have occurred in a cake. If I were making this from a bing, I would probably use my usual 6 grams and maybe infuse a little longer.

Photo Mar 19, 4 59 52 PMThe taste has some of the bite I associate with Assamica leaf, which makes sense since the cultivar used for Puer is a large-leaf relative of the tea grown in Northern India. But saying it tastes like a black tea is a inaccurate description; it’s not really astringency that I taste — which is what I imagined when I read about the “nice smooth bite” on the package — it’s more of a brightness or zing in the mouth. Even using that term is complicated, though. Usually when I speak of a bright assam black tea, there’s a kick of potency close behind, but there is no kick here. Like the label says, it’s smooth all the way.

After 6 infusions the flavors were still going strong. I could probably drink this tea all day. In fact, I picked it up several hours later and made about 4 more infusions before the taste began to plateau.

I’m not sure that I would head for this tea all the times that I’m feeling in the mood for a Shou Puer. It has fewer of the stomach-soothing properties than my other bings. I would probably enjoy it more as the package suggests, as a morning tea to wake up the mind and body without the potency of an Assam or Darjeeling. Altogether it has been quite a fascinating experience to taste yet another quality that Puer is capable of exhibiting. The world of tea is truly never completely mapped.




Jalam Teas Meng Song Puer

I already have a delicious Meng Song (Bamboo) Puer from Stone Leaf Tea, so when I received this 2012 Sheng Meng Song from Jalam Teas it went right into my pot.

Photo Mar 09, 1 55 41 PMAs you shall see, my first impressions were less than stellar, but in this case it was my fault. I have a fairly small yixing pot I use for my Sheng tea, and it may be that 6g of loose leaf was a bit too much for the size, or possibly the leaves I used were just more broken than I expected (this came in a sample pack and not a cake). Either way, no matter how I tried, the pot poured like a sloth and the taste was chaotic.

The first infusion had the taste of pine sap and a bright yellow liquor. It had the feel of a lot of energy without much focus. The taste immediately dried out the tongue with the bite of ash and the dryness of a walnut.  Jeff Fuchs writes in the tea’s description,

It is a revitalizing tea that hits all points of the mouth and is a tea that isn’t a subtle tea but rather more of a tea that hits the palate with an impact.

“Well, that’s accurate”, I thought to myself, but I strongly suspected that this leaf could do better. Immediately I inspected the inside of the pot. A slow pour is never a good thing and can often be the sign of a poorly-made tea pot (yet another reason a Gaiwan is usually the best idea when tasting a new tea). I knew my pot was sound, so that meant that the leaves were just clogging the filter.

I tried removing a gram or two of leaves from the pot, particularly small sticks and very broken bits. I think this is a step that tasters often miss: if a tea is too strong, it’s easy to just take out some leaf.

It worked! The pour became much more fluid and fast. The fourth infusion began to exhibit flavors of cedar and packed much less of a punch. I pulled out a few more leaves.

At the sixth infusion there were definite fruit flavors appearing, which I had smelled in the wet leaves from the beginning: crisp (not sugary) peach or pears. The tea had gone from explosive to energizing and from brash to delicious!

As with many teas, the trick to finding the best flavor here was achieving a balance between steep time and leaf quantity such that the water has enough time to acquire the flavor of the tea without becoming too strong in the process. This is a tricky equation and often requires some experimentation. Too many leaves or too slow a pour can disrupt the balance. Once I found it, I easily got a tasty ten infusions from this tea before it lost its potency. I hope to drink this again soon, perhaps with a gaiwan to be more fair to the leaf.

What is Puer?

I’ve been drinking a lot of Puer tea lately. Possibly more than any other style. Back in the old days I wrote a post on Dobra Tea’s blog about Puer to help with demystifying this wonderful beverage. Since then there has been a lot more accurate information published on the Internet regarding Puer and Hei Cha in general, but I felt I may as well update and republish my version. So without further ado:


The six styles of tea would not be complete without the oft-misunderstood category called Puer (also Pu’er, Pu’erh, or Pu-er, but always 普洱). Just like White Tea, Green Tea, Black Tea, Oolong Tea, and Yellow Tea, there is also Puer Tea. Simply put, it is intentionally aged tea, but that description does it a disservice. The aging process has many nuances and cannot be used with just any leaf. It is a whole style of tea into itself and therefore, even though there are similarities, one can find quite a lot of variation between the tastes of one puer and another.

In China, Puer (普洱茶) is a regional appellation restricted (at least officially) to the region of southern Yunnan province near the border of Myanmar and Laos. If you get right down to it, It is actually a sub-category of the style of tea known as “dark tea” or Hei Cha (黑茶) which is any tea that has gone through a “post fermentation” process (a heavily misunderstood term on which I will elaborate below). Hei Cha is rarely discussed outside of China, however, as the popularity of Puer has far eclipsed the few other styles of Hei Cha that exist (Liu Bao, for example) just as the popularity of Champagne in the West has all but replaced discussion of “Sparkling Wine”, even though Champagne is only one region that produces that beverage.

“Post fermentation” is a difficult term to pin down. The real difference between Puer and its cousins is the aging process of the leaves. It is the only style of tea that gets better as it gets older (assuming ideal storage conditions). The processing of Puer is actually fairly simple compared to teas such as Taiwanese oolongs. First the leaves are sun-dried and withered, much like the beginning of a White tea. With the help of a short heating process, this “fixes” the leaf, stopping the oxidation process (note that the Chinese always translate tea oxidation as “fermentation”, even though this is an enzymatic reaction). The resulting silver-and-green leaves are called “Mao Cha” (毛茶) and are quite drinkable, infusing much like a Green tea.

Pressing Puer the old way.

Pressing Puer the old way.

Afterward, the Mao Cha is usually gently steamed, pressed into cakes or bricks, and then aged in dry or slightly humid conditions for a period of time determined by the tea master in that factory. During the aging process, microorganisms change the leaf and transform the cedar-like taste into the typical earthy flavors of a Puer tea, while reducing any sharpness that might be present. Over time (typically 10-30 years) the matured cake can produce a dark and comforting infusion with wonderful aromas. This kind of Puer is called Sheng Cha (生茶 — even if you don’t read Chinese you can see this on the label), meaning “raw tea”.

Before the 1970s, Sheng Cha was the only kind of Puer that existed. There was not much of an export market because of how long it took to produce a cake with an ideal flavor. Some young Shengs can be quite delicious, but it is generally thought that Puer should have a few years on it at least.

Both of these are actually Sheng! One is just much older.

Both of these are actually Sheng! One is just much older.

At some point, though, the tea masters of Kunming discovered a process being used in nearby Guangxi province that produced a rich and dark leaf within less than a year of aging. The secret was a damp pile-fermentation much like the process of composting, but very strictly controlled in temperature and humidity to prevent the tea leaves from rotting. The result was bricks of tea that were delicious nearly instantly after production. These teas were dubbed Shou Cha (or Shu Cha, 熟茶) meaning “ripe tea” and the process was quickly replicated in the factories of Yunnan province.

Shou Puer (sometimes mis-translated as “cooked tea”) still improves with age, but has different flavors that are more fresh soil-like than its Sheng counterparts. Theoretically, Shou Puer is just an accelerated aging version of the original Sheng style, so it’s possible to mistake an old Sheng for a new Shou. In my experience, however, there actually is a notable difference. Old Sheng (traditionally aged) Puer tends to be more smooth, more fragrant, and more gentle than its Shou counterparts. Of course, there’s plenty of poor tasting Sheng out there as well! The quality of the tea leaves originally used, the factory’s process, and perhaps especially the conditions of the Puer’s storage during its aging process all have significant effects on the final taste for either style.

Aside from the wonderful flavors of cedar and fruit that can pervade a well-aged tea cake (or 饼茶, bing cha), another advantage of the Puer leaf is that both types of this tea can be infused many more times than almost any other tea in existence. One chunk of good Shou Puer can make 15-20 infusions before losing its flavors.


If you haven’t ever tried a Puer, they’re much easier to find than they used to be, but be aware that the mass-market loose Shou Puer you may find in a coffee shop or a grocery store is going to be a far cry from what you can find online. The internet has brought out many reputable dealers of fine Puer tea, and many of them will allow you to buy a sample of a cake before committing the whole thing. And if you find a good Puer, don’t worry about ordering too much; remember, it only gets better.