We hope with this initial brief introduction to help de-mystify Puerh. There are no secrets to what makes good Puerh tea. The world of Puerh tea is complex, but not unfathomable. Ideas about the importance of knowing a tea's provenance make the thing seem more complicated - what is important is to be able to assess if tea is any good irrespective of it's origins. It is knowledge that might take some time to acquire and some persistence in tea tasting, but it is accessible to all. We welcome comments on this, or any of our other information. Our intention is to provide information that will be useful for anyone wishing to learn more about Puerh and an aid to buying tea that one will be able to appreciate and enjoy.
The Fragrance of Tea
For the main, Puerh fragrances can be divided into two kinds; distinct and indistinct or explicit and implicit. The Distinct fragrance of Raw Puerh tea is immediately obvious as a delicate, bright fragrance; a fresh, crisp aroma that is uplifting.
Good quality old tea has a 'matured' fragrance (chen wei). This comes from tea that has been stored well and matured without any adverse effects. (xing wei - a 'fishy' smell that can be detected in old tea that has been stored poorly - should be clearly distinguished from chen wei which is quite different).
If, when smelling tea there is any strange or unpleasant smell, one may well consider not proceeding further to tasting the tea as it will likely not be satisfactory.
Indistinct fragrance is, by nature, restrained, hidden and it is only by steeping the tea and then smelling a cup that has just been emptied of tea can one appreciate this fragrance. Alternatively, one can also smell the steeped leaves.
Again, when tasting the tea, if there is any odd or un-natural smell one might well desist from drinking it.
The Appearance of Tea
The appearance of dry tea leaves is affected by the form, be it loose, cake, brick, bowl and so on, how much sunlight the leaves have absorbed, the production methods, etc.
If the leaves appear dried out, lifeless or impoverished in some way it is an indicator that there has been a problem with the production or storage of the tea.
Also, picking over the leaves, they should look plump, fertile, with an appearance of abundance. The tips should be delicate with distinct hairs on the leaves and a uniformity to the overall appearance.
Closer Examination of Puer
High quality broad leaf variety tea (camelia sinensis assamica) should not produce any uncomfortable effects such as prickling, tingling or numbing. Nor should there be any errant aromas or flavours such as smokiness, sourness, mouldiness, dry or drying sensations.
Some things to avoid;
Prickling, Tingling, Numbing
Ancient tea trees are all over 100 years old. Their ability to resist natural problems; diseases and infestations is high. This variety of tea tree has existed in this habitat for thousands of years. These trees are already extremely resilient and the environment in which they are growing has mostly been left in untouched. There is no need for tea farmers to use agro-chemicals. But where any such chemicals have been used it will likely take 7-10 years for the residues to abate sufficiently for the tea to be drinkable.
The best test is if, when drinking tea, there are any of the aforementioned sensations on or near the tip of the tongue. If this is so one can be reasonably certain that agro-chemicals are present.
The art of making tea from ancient tea trees is very old. Hand-roasting is not easily mastered. Any slight error will influence the taste of the tea. Smokiness or yan wei is one example but it should be distinguished from a burned flavour which is described as hu wei. The latter, typically arises when tea is not well roasted and is, unfortunately, not uncommon. Yan wei or smokiness is caused by oven drying.
Tea that is picked in the summer, often referred to as Yu Shui Cha, is not of high quality. In the rainy season, levels of sunshine are comparatively low so it is often not possible to sun dry tea so a wood stove is used to dry it. This can produce a smokey aroma and flavour. With time it will abate, but not considerably, so any smokey tea that one has not witnessed being made is probably best put to one side.
Sourness in Raw Puer is due mostly to inadequate airing after the rolling process or, after pressing tea into cakes, they have been immediately exposed to the sun. The tea soup will likely be turbid.
Fishy, Mouldy and Dry Flavours
All one's sense organs can be used in assessing tea, but above all it should be smelled and tasted. Most problems that arise are related to poor quality tea or poor storage.
The Inherent Qualities of Tea
High quality Raw Puer tea naturally has bitterness,astringency, fragrance and sweetness.
Broad leaf variety (Sinenesis Assamica) is high in natural constituents; polyphenols, caffeine,theine, etc. A particularly bitter flavour is a special characteristic of the Broad leaf variety, but it is important that it transforms quickly and does not linger. This is a mark of good quality Puer. NB there is a sub-variety in Yunnan - Var. ku cha which has different characteristics and does not transform in the same way.
Astringency invariably accompanies bitterness. In some Puer the astringency is more pronounced, the bitterness slightly weaker. A benefit of astringency is that it can help promote salivation. If this is felt on the underside of the the tongue it is a further mark of good tea.
Broad leaf variety old tree tea aromas can generally be divided into the following;
orchid flower fragrance
sticky rice fragrance
lotus flower fragrance
Some teas are highly fragrant, others have refined and prolonged fragrance. Although there are many different kinds of fragrance, they should all be natural, smooth and easy to get a feeling for. These fragrances appear when the tea is drunk and are not evident when smelling the tea.
The Sweetness of Tea
When one sips Raw Puerh tea it should very quickly turn sweet in the mouth. The stronger, more long lasting, more even the flavour, the better the tea.
Smoothness, Softness and Character of Puer Tea
Puerh tea is a type of post-fermented tea. When stored in the correct environment the tea, over time will change, hence - post-fermented. Due to this, the bitterness and astringency will slowly transform. The flavour will soften, become more mellow, rich, the character will become more rounded and mature.
Any good thing or experience in life can leave one with a profound memory that is hard to forget, particularly when it is sensory, of which smell and taste are perhaps the most evocative. Drinking pure Sinensis Assamica can be one such experience. There is nothing quite like the aroma, flavour, rhythm of this tea. Much said on Puerh tea and considerable misunderstanding about what makes good tea, inordinate weight often given to where a tea comes from or it's age without appreciating what that implies - Many places produce good Puer tea, each with it's own unique characteristics, but these are all in addition to the above qualities which, if one has not learned to distinguish, will confound one's appreciation of the more profound qualities of the tea.