Pu'Erh Tea: What Actually Is It?

Pu'Er Tea: What Actually Is It?

There is so much noise out there when it comes to define Pu-Erh tea, we are citing some quotes that are often heard of or read on the Internet, just to wrap up some of that tea noise:


Pu-Erh tea is a post-fermented tea”


Raw Pu-Erh becomes Ripe Pu-Erh with aging”… big wow to this one!


Pu-Erh teas are fermented with the help of microbes, and can age, just like wine


And some even venture to categorise Pu-Erh into “three types”, accordingly: 


raw, cooked (also called ripe), or aged ”. 


Quite interesting but…


While some claims could not be further from reality, others are not necessarily untrue, however, they can be misleading, to say the least.


Defining Pu-Erh tea, is surprisingly much easier than all that. Pu’Er is a city - that’s why the tea is also often written as Pu’Er tea - in the Southern Chinese province of Yunnan; and I am confident that, regardless you knew it or not, you now have certain intuition on what’s coming next… 


Pu-Erh refers to tea made from leaves of the tea tree varietal Yunnan large-leaf (AKA: Yunnan Da Ye) sun-dried and processed using specific techniques within the geographic indication protection area.



If Champagne or Prosecco, for example, are popping up in your mind, then you got it! Pu’Er is pretty much a “Designation of Origin”, and so Pu’Er teas are the ones produced in the area using the native tea trees and processes.


Processing methods will determine a Pu-Erh tea to be either a raw Pu-Erh tea (AKA: “sheng Pu’Er”) or a ripe Pu-Erh tea (AKA: “shu Pu’Er”), that’s what we cover right below.

Raw and Ripe Pu-Erh Tea: the Production Methods


Two main production phases can be identified in Pu-Erh tea processing, with the first processing steps being common to all Pu-Erh teas, while later steps will determine a Pu-Erh tea to be a raw or a ripe Pu-Erh.


  1. Rough Processing”: the process of making “maocha” or unfinished tea. At this stage all Pu-Erh teas are just Pu-Erh tea, no distinction between raw or ripe, it is simply “maocha” or unfinished Pu-Erh tea, that underwent the exact production processes.


  1. Fine Processing”: the processing that turns “maocha” into ripe or raw Pu-Erh tea.


Raw Pu'Erh and Ripe Pu'Erh tea


Raw Pu-Erh Tea: What is It and How Is It Made?


Firstly, raw Pu-Erh tea is an especial type of green tea; meaning, Pu-Erh itself is not one of the six main types of tea (green, white, yellow, oolong, black and dark), and the raw variation of Pu-Erh tea is indeed a green tea, with unique features - like being ideal to be aged for example - but still a green tea.


Raw Pu-Erh tea uses sun-dried (“shaiqing”) Yunnan Large Leaf as its raw material (“maocha”), and it is naturally aged without undergoing any man-induced fermentation process or wet-piling (“wodui”), it undergoes shaping-appearance processes. These are the production processing methods that raw Pu-Erh tea undergoes:


Raw Pu'er Tea Production Processes

Picking Withering Kill the Green or Fixation Rolling Sun-drying Steam-pressing Drying Wrapping Storing


Now, a favourite tea friends’ topic is on the fermentation and aging process. Raw Pu-Erh, as shown above does not undergo any fermentation process or any other technique to accelerate its fermentation/oxidation and aging speed.


Instead, Raw Pu-Erh tea is ideal to be aged naturally over time, during which slow bacterial and enzymatic changes will occur; a process and changes that take years to gradually transform flavours and characteristics.


Because of the previous, raw Pu-Erh is able to retain the very fresh, punchy notes and with a sweet aftertaste.


Ripe Pu-Erh Tea: What is It and How Is It Made?


Ripe Pu-Erh, unlike its raw counterpart, is a dark tea or post-fermented tea. Side note: referring the quotations at the beginning of the article… Yes! Pu-Erh tea can be a post-fermented tea, but it can also be green tea, not all Pu-Erh is necessarily a fermented tea. 


Ripe Pu-Erh tea uses sun-dried Yunnan Large Leaf as its raw material or “maocha” (so far is exactly the same as a raw Pu-Erh), that undergoes a “wet piling” fermentation process and other shaping-appearance techniques.


These are, one by one, the methods used to produce a ripe Pu-Erh tea:


Ripe Pu'Er Production Processes

Picking Withering Kill the Green or Fixation Rolling Sun-drying Moisten Wet Piling Indoor Drying Sieving Steam-Pressing Sieving air-drying (compressed tea) Wrapping


As we can see from the production process steps, the very one differentiating factor of ripe Pu-Erh tea, when compared to its raw counterpart, is the dampening for wet piling, this additional procedure brings Pu-Erh tea into a whole different dimension.


For the wet piling process, the “maocha” is placed in a humid and warm environment, “maocha” is heaped into large piles of a height that is usually about 70 cm, then it is moistened with water and usually covered with a linen cloth.


This allows for a warm and humid “micro-habitat” that creates an accelerated fermentation process in a controlled environment, that generally last from 6 to 12 months.


Wet Piling. Dampening Tea Leaves. Wo Dui..

During this process and under the influence of moisture and heat, a wealth of bacteria and fungi thrive, which further intensifies the fermentation process, and which is also key in the resulting changes in flavours (becoming earthy, sweet and mellow ideally), aroma and darker colours of ripe Pu-Erh tea.


After the tea is fermented to a certain degree, the now ripe leaves get unpiled and ventilated, to finally be pressed (most of times) and wrapped.


Overall, the whole wet piling process allows for ripe Pu-Erh tea to achieve a level of maturity in a relatively short time; while raw Pu-Erh will only mature with the natural passage of time.


Side Note: Ripe Pu-Erh is often combined with fruits, species and/or herbs, that's not only because from a tasting and sensorial perspective they blend wonders with many ingredients; but also to achieve some extra health benefits.


One of the best examples of herbal-dark tea blends are the Ripe Pu-Erh Stuffed Aged Mandarins (AKA: "Xiao Qing Gan"), you can find everything you could possibly know about this unique tea in this article Xiao Qing Gan: the Ultimate Guide.


Aging Raw Pu-Erh and Ripe Pu-Erh: Is It Worth It?


When it comes to aging Pu-Erh tea, the question "is it worth it?" often arises.


In order to address the worthiness of aging a tea, the number one thing to take into consideration and regardless the type of tea - either Pu-Erh teas or other - is the quality of the tea in the first place.


Meaning: if one tea is originally of very low quality, then it will not be worth to be aged, a bad quality tea will not become into a great tea because it was stored for many years…


Once that has been clarified, and therefore assuming we are considering decent quality tea and above, let’s take a closer look on the worthiness of aging raw Pu-Erh and ripe Pu-Erh teas:


Aging Raw Pu’Er tea: the Worthy Investment


Raw Pu’Er teas, known for its bitter and very punchy notes when young is definitely the perfect candidate to be aged.


The production process raw Pu’Er undergoes, allows it for a huge room to transform during the long years, aging slowly and naturally, and resulting in a complex transformation of flavours and textures with each passing year, into a smoother, richer and more nuanced tea.


Aged Raw Pu'Er Tea Cake.

Why Aging Raw Pu’Er tea?


Flavour Development: the green and fresh notes in young raw Pu’Er evolve into deeper and nuanced ones with the passage of time. Hints of honey, ripe fruits, and subtle floral notes emerge after years of proper storage.


Health Benefits: the slow bacterial and enzymatic changes are able to increase this tea’s probiotics content and antioxidant leves, believed to enhance it overall health benefits.


Cultural-Historical Value: enthusiast and tea collectors alike value the historical and cultural significance of aged raw Pu’Er, considering it a prized possession.


Investment Potential: aged raw Pu’Er tea can become highly valuable over time. Quality well’aged raw Pu’Er tea is sought after by collectors, often fetching impressive prices in the market.



Aging Ripe Pu’Er tea: A Different Perspective


Having undergone a wet piling process that accelerates its fermentation under a man-controlled environment during its initial production stage, offers a very different aging potential.


In a nutshell, when the ripe Pu’Er production process is concluded is already a post-fermented tea that went through an accelerated aging process; however its room for transformation over the years is dramatically lower than for its raw counterpart.  


Ripe Pu'er Tea cake.  

Ripe Pu’er: Appealing Points Over Aging


Although ripe Pu’Er can also be aged, its aging potential is not so charming as raw Pu’Er, offering us other appealing benefits other than aging and even when compared to raw Pu’Er:


Immediate Drinkability: one of ripe Pu’Er tea main appeals is its readiness to drink relatively shortly after production, offering a smoother and mellower taste and textures right out of the gate. 


Consistency: ripe Pu’Er maintains a consistent flavour profile over time and across different production batches. Those who prefer a stable, rich, mellow and earthy profile find their best option here.


Storage Flexibility: ripe Pu’Er is more forgiving in terms of storing conditions; while still benefiting from good-aging, it is less demanding when compared to the more meticulous care needed by raw Pu’Er.


Affordable Aging: taking into account it is more readily available and less expensive than aged Pu’Er, ripe Pu’Er is a more accessible option for new-comers.


Ripe Pu'er Tea Soup


Raw Pu’Er or Ripe Pu’Er; What came first?


Historically, Pu’Er tea was produced by ethnic minorities in the Southern part of the Yunnan province - all the area around the Xishuangbanna region - centuries ago, when tea was produced for own consumption.


Pu’er tea production can be traced back to as early as the Eastern Han period (25-220 A.D.). 


Local Thai Ethnic Working Tea Leaves in Jingmai, Yunnan.

The tea from the area also started to become a valued commodity exported to Tibet and South East Asia through the Ancient Tea Horse Road (AKA: Chama Gudao), which started to take shape during the Tang Dynasty (618-917 A.D.). 


Xishuangbanna region borders with Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, and its name actually originates from the Thai language.


During a period of time, teas from the ethnic minorities in the region, was all gathered and stocked in a town called: Pu’Er, which eventually became a tea trading and logistics hub. And this is how that tea of the ethnic groups in the region ended up being named as “Pu’Er tea”.


Ancient Tea Horse Road. Source: Wikipedia


From those times and over the course of history, Pu’Er tea has been produced and consumed as a raw (sheng) Pu’Er. The concept of ripe Pu’Er is a relatively new one, created with the development of the wet piling (Wo Dui) process, pioneered by the Kunming Tea Factory and the Menghai Tea Factory in 1972.


This was initially developed to meet an increasing demand for Pu’Er teas, imitating the flavours and colours of aged raw Pu’Er teas, while drastically shortening the times. This technique has been used for many merchants to claim fake ages for their “ripe” Pu’Er teas.


Mass production of ripened Pu’Er teas started in 1975, Chinese authorities have also been cracking down on counterfeits during the last decades, and nowadays, the Pu’Er tea market openly and clearly differentiates between raw and ripe Pu’Er teas.


To learn more about tea in general and what are the 6 main categories of tea you can check the 6 Big Types of Teas.