Monthly Archives: January 2014

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.

Gong-fu Cha

Gongfu tea (功夫茶) is not a well-known method of tea preparation in the West, but I think it should be. (A long time ago now I wrote something on Dobra Tea’s blog about Gongfu Cha. This is an updated version of that post.)

The words gōngfu, which is also sometimes pronounced “kung fu”, mean performing a task with skill and effort. In the case of martial arts where most Westerners have likely heard the term, it refers to wǔshù (武术), the skill of a martial technique. In reference to tea, gongfu means the mindful preparation of an infusion of tea in a manner designed to bring out the best flavor possible (and arguably the best experience as well). While this practice has evolved into several ceremonial forms, it is the simple gongfu cha which is most accessible to the student of the leaf and which I will discuss here.


The general idea is to prepare a relatively large amount of leaves in a small vessel (usually a gaiwan or yixing pot, but gongfu comes from the person, not the tools) with hot water for a very short amount of time. The hot water, small vessel, and quantity of leaves concentrates the flavors derived from the tea, while the short infusion prevents those flavors from becoming too strong. Small cups can help as well to focus the mind on the experience. It’s all too easy to gulp down tea from a mug without really tasting it, but slurping from a tiny cup requires concentration!

An additional advantage of this method is that the leaves will generally produce many subsequent infusions whose  flavors and aroma will shift and change. Although the infusion time may increase after three or four, it it said that a high quality oolong tea will give eight or more fully flavored cups. A good puer will often provide up to twenty!


Here are several guidelines to keep in mind as you try your own gongfu cha.

  • Firstly, the quality of the leaves matters. This can be difficult to ascertain without experimenting, but as a rule of thumb, mostly unbroken leaves without any dullness are a good sign. Any style of tea can be used. Green teas often make fantastic gongfu infusions with no bitterness, although the water temperature may need to be adjusted. I suggest that the beginner of gongfu preparation start with oolong or puer tea.
  • Second, make sure the vessel you are using (gaiwan or teapot) is warmed first with some hot water. Discard the water before adding the leaves. This is also true for your pitcher (if you’re using one) and cups. Water will cool very quickly if the pot is not warm and will usually change the infusion unfavorably.
  • Third, although a good amount of leaves should be used, be careful to leave space for the tea to unfurl and move about. Without movement, the tea may taste stagnant and the flavors will be inconsistent. This may take some trial and error, but remember that you can always add or remove a few leaves as you brew! I always have this problem with tightly rolled oolongs. They can grow to more than three times their size!
  • Fourth, take care to steep the leaves only for a very short time, at least for the first few infusions: perhaps five or ten seconds. Sometimes these are called “instant” infusions. Don’t be disappointed if your first infusion is quite light; this is often the case with puer or a rolled oolong. The tea needs to hydrate and release its oils. In this case, you may pour out your first infusion as a “rinse” or simply add more time. It is often said of oolongs that the third infusion is the best.
  • Lastly, gongfu of any kind is a matter of experience and mindfulness. Relax! There are no rules. When tasting, remember to use all your senses. What is the sound of the tea pouring? What is its texture on the tongue? What does the aroma bring to mind? In my experience, the results won’t ever be the same twice. Although you may not make gongfu cha for the ceremony, you may find that by practicing these steps that the tea ceremony finds you.


Premium Grade Dragon Well from Teavivre

I must thank Teavivre for sending me this sample to try. It reminded me how rarely I actually make green tea for myself lately. Partially that has to do with the season (it’s -19C outside right now) but it also has to do with my tea collection. Green teas last so much less time in storage than oolong and puer that most of my drinking at home is within those two venerable categories. The result? I forget how important the proper water temperature is for a classic green like Dragon Well (Long Jing, Lóngjǐng, 龙井, or 龍井 — I love the traditional character for Dragon).IMG_8401

I had to make this tea twice, because in my excitement for the first infusion I made a very poor cup with water that was probably 95C and something like 6g of leaves. It was strong and flat, with only the essence of a grassy green in the background. In fact, it came out much like a generic bagged green tea might taste. After scorching the leaves like that, there was very little I could do to restore the tea’s luster. Sometimes when I realize a mistake like that, I can save the tea and brew it more carefully the next few infusions, but not always. Delicate green teas especially can have all the flavor sucked out and replaced with a taste of scorched grass. Such is the price of experimentation and lack of mindfulness.

Photo Jan 03, 1 07 43 PMLuckily, I had more than one sample! This time I was prepared. Careful brewing with 4g of leaf and a thermometer to test my assumptions. I played around a bit with the temperature to see if I could find the right balance. First, 75C for 45 seconds. Ah! Much improved. The wet leaves have the aroma of dried figs and moss in the rain. The taste was of coriander and rosemary with a bit of osmanthus flower, quite pleasant. The texture is powdery a bit, drying the front of the tongue (I associate this with Lóngjǐng) and full bodied in the mouth. There’s a gentle sweetness in the aroma and the aftertaste.

For a second infusion I tried 60C water for 1 minute. The tea definitely had a lighter body from the decreased temp. I detected much more of the aroma in the taste this time: more grass and figs and less of the rosemary. My third try was 80C for 1 minute and I noticed that it was sweeter this time with some black cherry in the taste and less grass.

Photo Jan 03, 1 05 16 PM

The leaves were moderately broken but with a decent number of beautiful two-leaves-and-a-bud sets to be found. You can always tell a Dragon Well leaf: they are generally medium-to-large leafed full and partial leaf sets, and when they’re dry, they resemble flat blades with a cross-thatched pattern on both sides from a pressing step during processing. A bright green is desirable, which I certainly see here. Lóngjǐng that’s been exposed to too much air, light, or time will have lost its green glow and will appear dull and sometimes a bit brown (look in many grocery stores and you’ll see it).

To be fair, I’ve certainly had Lóngjǐng that I’d rate higher than this — teas with overwhelming sweetness and aroma overflowing with perfect leaf sets — but those are the exception to green tea and can fetch a very high price indeed. For a more accessible tea, this Dragon Well is a really good find. It’s nice to see that it’s from the Xīhú (西湖, West Lake) area of Zhèjiāng province as well, which is the traditional home of Lóngjǐng. Since Dragon Well is so popular, this style of tea is often made in other places, but in my opinion these versions tend to lack the same sweetness and energy of tea from Xīhú.

When I visited the gardens in the hills around the lake region, I was impressed most by the feeling of the place. It was calming and energizing at once. Probably because Lóngjǐng is arguably the most famous orthodox tea from China, there has definitely been some care taken to preserve and cultivate the region. A definite peace surrounded the forests, paths, and springs which was notable given that the populous city of Hángzhōu is very close by. While the historical veracity for such a beloved name is unclear, I did visit the fabled “Dragon Well” itself: a small circular stone pool which has some interesting rippling properties when it is stirred. If you are ever in the South-East of China, I definitely recommend a visit.

Thanks again to Teavivre, and Happy New Year all!