Our fermented friend pu-erh… The tea world seems to split in half when talk is centered around this tea. Some pu-erh enthusiasts don't venture much into other tea varieties. Some have had it and don't particularly take to it. And, there are those, who have been treated to good pu-erh, liked it, but don't necessarily know how to take the next step in the journey. In today's post, we'll talk about doing a pu-erh tasting and choosing the right one.
When we take a single sip of tea, we are flooded with a variety of sensations — we taste it, smell the aroma, see the colors, feel the textures, and consequently are left with an emotion about the tea. Sometimes it's pure love, but not always.
The Look Of Pu-erh
This is usually the first impression we get of a tea before even smelling it — how does it look?
Although you can't judge a pu-erh by its wrapper, you can still assess certain qualities by how the tea leaves look.
Pu-erh comes not only in two different types – Sheng (Raw) and Shou, but also in different shapes — loose tea leaves, tea cakes and tuocha, tea bricks, stuffed in citrus peels, and a few rarer varieties.
You can pay attention to the following things:
- The size of the tea leaves — are they big (older) or small (younger)?
- Tea buds — does the tea have tea buds, and what is their proportion?
The color — are the tea leaves predominantly brown, or are there many yellow tea leaves? This shows a less uniform harvest. Furthermore, we can determine the tea age by looking at the color of the tea leaves, which is more apparent in Raw (Sheng) Pu-erh: as the tea ages, the leaves turn a darker brown. Younger teas are usually predominantly green.
Aside from the tea leaves, sometimes you may also notice small debris in the tea leaves — dust, hair, bugs, or sometimes even bigger particles. While a little of this debris is natural, a lot may show a cake that wasn't produced with much care.
Furthermore, when looking at tea cakes, there are two types of compression — mechanical and manual.
Manual cakes are compressed by hand. Traditionally, a heavy stone was used to compress the tea cakes. The tea cakes mature more quickly this way, and the end result would be a tea cake that is easy to break apart. Many tea enthusiasts appreciate a manually compressed cake. However, nowadays, most pu erh tea cakes are compressed mechanically — with the help of a special machine. Mechanically compressed cakes age longer, are more uniform, and are known to have a longer storage life.
The Color Of The Tea Brew
The best way to assess your pu-erh tea is by having a clear or white cha hai to assess the color of the liquid after the tea is brewed.
A young sheng pu-erh will usually be a pale yellowish-green color, while an aged older pu-erh that underwent longer fermentation will have a darker and deeper color. In an aged shou pu-erh a deep red hue is a sign of quality.
Try to assess the color of the tea brew as closely as possible, then use words like light, dark, deep, intense, bright, faded, or dull to describe it. Write it down in your tea notes.
The Aroma Of The Tea
The aroma of the pu-erh tea is one of the strongest indicators of its qualities. On the other hand, it can be pretty elusive and difficult to pinpoint.
A young raw pu-erh will often have a fresh, floral, sharp, and fruity smell, sometimes with almost spicy qualities to it.
A ripe pu-erh has aromas of wood, fire, nuts, and spices.
Bad storage conditions will be reflected in damp, moldy, and fishy smells. Pu-erh with these qualities should be avoided.
Aroma is indeed one of the most obscure tea qualities but can tell us so much about the tea, its origins, and its journey. Keeping a tea journal and writing down all the aromas of the tea will help you pinpoint them better with time.
We judge the aroma of the tea in three steps:
- The dry leaves (the most subtle)
- The dry leaves in a heated gaiwan or teapot (stronger)
- The wet tea leaves after the first infusion (strongest)
The Taste Of Pu-erh Tea
When sipping tea, make sure to let some air in with your sips or after the initial sip. After this, swirl the tea around in your mouth. This way, your palate will be able to catch all the subtle flavors of the tea.
The five flavors — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami- will intermingle, creating a unique taste in combination with the tea's aromatic qualities.
Raw Pu-erh possesses a certain amount of astringency and bitterness. While bitterness is a taste quality, astringency is a mouthfeel. They are essential elements of the final flavor of pu-erh. Many new tea drinkers believe that bitter and astringent qualities are bad, that tea should only be sweet. In fact, in moderation, these qualities can elevate a tea. They are also signs that this tea will give well to aging.
Notice the mouthfeel of the tea — is it smooth, soft, thick, astringent, or mouthwatering?
What Is Cha Qi?
Qi in Chinese is the life force behind all things. It is the energy—the breath. Qi is everyone and everything.
Cha Qi is an exceptional quality, often found in aged pu-erh. It can relax our muscles and warm our body. It gives our body an airy and light feeling. Gradually, the mind will become relaxed with an overall sense of well-being. Read more about Cha Qi