Today we're talking (again) about Pu-erh – a tea like no other. Few (if any) among the six main tea types enjoy the popularity and special place that Pu-erh has in the hearts of tea lovers throughout the world! We'll explore the main production areas for Pu-erh tea and see how they affect the taste, aroma, and flavor of one of the most beloved tea types!
What is Pu-erh
Pu-erh tea is a special kind of fermented tea from China. Tea workers make it out of sun-dried tea leaves from the large-leaf variety, grown and processed in Yunnan. The Chinese State protects Pu-erh tea with a National Standard called "Geographical Indication Products Pu-erh Tea" (GB/T22111-2008). It includes 11 prefectures, 75 counties, and 639 townships, all within Yunnan. In English, the name of the tea is spelled in many ways: "pu'er", "pu er", pu-er", "pu-erh" or simply "pu" (the official pinyin transliteration is pu'er, though). According to its processing technology and quality characteristics, Pu-erh tea splits into two types: raw Pu-erh tea (sheng pu-erh – 生普) and ripe or cooked Pu-erh tea (shou pu-erh – 熟普).
Pu-erh is a product with protected geographical indications (PGI). The main requirement for protection is a link between the product's properties and its production in the region of origin. For PGI products – as is the case of Pu-erh – the link must be particularly close, i.e., all production steps must take place in the place (or region) in question.
The geographical scope of Pu-erh tea includes the production and processing of raw materials. It refers to "the area in Yunnan suitable for Yunnan big-leaf tea cultivation and Pu'er tea processing. That includes the area between 21°10'-21°22' north latitude and 97°31'-105°38' east longitude. The area includes Pu'er City, Xishuangbanna, Lincang, Kunming, Dali, Baoshan, Dehong, Chuxiong, Honghe, Yuxi, Wenshan and another 11 cities, 75 counties, and 639 townships.
Raw vs Ripe Pu-erh
We distinguish between Raw and Cooked Pu-erh tea according to the different production processes.
Raw Pu-erh tea is made from fresh leaves of the Yunnan big-leaf tea tree, growing within the designated Pu-erh tea production area. The traditional production process of raw Pu-erh tea includes roasting (sha qing, 杀青), rolling, sun-drying, and pressing. The Pu-erh tea cake then slowly ages in natural storage.
Raw Pu-erh (Sheng Pu) tea is dark green in color, with a pure and lasting aroma. The taste is strong and sweet, with varying levels of astringency and some bitterness. Its soup color is bright yellow, and the leaves are thick and yellow-green.
Cooked Pu-erh (Shu Pu) uses the same raw material as Sheng Pu. The production process of Pu-erh tea is: roasting (sha qing), rolling, fermentation and pressing. The finished product is then subject to drying and further aging. Its soup is red and bright, with a unique aroma, mellow and sweet taste. The leaves are red-brown.
Today, Yunnan is accepted as the birthplace of tea. Looking at the map up-close, though, reveals an interesting detail: all major tea-producing areas in Yunnan are situated along the river bed of the Lancang river. What makes this place so unique? How does its geography influence Pu-erh tea taste, aroma, and flavor?
The unique geography of the Lancang river region
The lands in the Lancang River Basin include the majority of ancient tea gardens in Yunnan. The total area is more than 270 000 mu (~180000 square meters) of tea trees, gathered in forests or scattered individually. Here, the Tropic of Cancer runs through the city of Pu'er (Simao), drawing an imaginary line that divides Northern and Southern Yunnan.
In the ancient Dai language, the Lancang River is also called Nanlanzhang, which means "the river where millions of elephants multiply". The river basin concentrates Yunnan's major Pu'er tea area, incl. Xishuangbanna tea area, Baoshan tea area, and Lincang tea area. The unique combination of the river waters, soil, and microclimate make for an astonishing biological diversity. Here's an example: at present, there are 4 lines, 37 species and 13 varieties of tea plants in the world. Of them, 4 lines, 31 varieties and 2 species are found in the Lancang River Basin alone. Such a concentrated distribution is unmatched anywhere in the world. That largely cements Lancang River Basin not only as the cradle of Pu'er tea but also as a birthplace of tea tree species.
The magic of the 100º parallel
Another noteworthy sign in the area is the 100º Eastern longitude parallel. After the Lancang river enters Dali prefecture, it makes a sharp turn, crossing the 100º eastern longitude parallel. Some of the most renowned Pu-erh tea-producing regions are on its axis. They are sometimes called "100º tea". These include Fengqing, Daxueshan, Mengku, Jingmai, Bada, and Bulang mountains.
Pu-erh tea production in history
Tea in Yunnan has a history of more than 2000 years.
Pu-erh tea first appeared during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644). However, tea was first grown in Yunnan as early as Eastern Han (202 BC – 220 AD). Later, in the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), the empire began trading tea with the minorities living along its boundaries. That led to the Ancient Horse and Tea Road emergence. "The Book of Man", written by Fan Chuo at that time, mentions "people from the Pu tribe who grow tea artificially along the Lancang river". The Pu people are the ancestors of today's Bulang minority – the first people to cultivate the tea tree. A stone stele and some book records in a Buddhist temple in Lao Man'E – a village in Xishuangbanna, famous for its "bitter" Pu-erh – mark that local people have been producing tea since 1368. Pu-erh emerged as one of the six tea types we know today in the Ming dynasty. In the Qing dynasty, it was in its heyday. At that time, the court introduced Pu-erh as tribute tea and established an official tea bureau in Pu-erh prefecture (former Simao). Cao Xueqin describes a Pu-erh tea-drinking scene in his monumental creation "Dream of the red mansion," and Lev Tolstoy does the same in "War and peace".
The abundance of tea-producing areas, each with its own distinctive terroir, led to their classification centuries ago. The most famous among them became known as the Six ancient tea mountains. Legend says that the first one to designate them was the legendary sage and warrior Zhuge Liang. A mythical figure from the Spring and Autumn period (770 - 476 BC), Zhuge Liang was the Prime minister of Shu Han – an outstanding statesman, military strategist, writer, calligrapher, and inventor. The story says that Zhuge Liang passed through the six tea mountains on his way south. He then taught the local people how to grow and produce tea. On each hill, he left one artifact, and that's how they all got their names.
Qing Daoguang's "Pu'er House Records" holds the legend of Zhuge Liang. It says: "The legendary Wuhou (posthumous name of Zhuge Liang) traversed the six tea mountains, left the gongs (tongluo) in Youle, put the gongs (mang) in Mangzhi, buried iron bricks (tiezhuan) in Manzhuan, left a wooden stick (bang) in Yibang, buried stirrups (madeng) in Geden, set the arrow bag (sadai) in Mansa."
The Six ancient tea mountains are thus called Youle, Mangzhi, Manzhuan, Yibang, Gedeng, and Mansa. All of them lie within the Lancang river system. However, the tea produced there varies greatly in terms of taste and aroma. Let's explore them and their terroirs:
The Ancient Six tea mountains:
1. Youle Mountain pu-erh tea taste
It lies in the Mengla area, opposite Gedeng, on the upper slopes of the LuoSuo river. Youle Mountain is said to contain ancient tea trees, some of which date back to the Three Kingdoms period (220 to 280 AD). The tea from there is a large-leaf tree species. The tea soup is intensely bitter, with a quick sweet aftertaste, faint aroma, and light orange-yellow color.
The heyday of Youle was during the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. At that time, the Qing government collected tea tax there. It shows that the tea production in the area was huge.
Youle Mountain (also called Jinuo mountain) is inhabited mostly by the minority of the same name. They have lots of regional tea-based dishes. One of them is Liang Ban Cha (Cold tea), consisting of raw tender tea buds seasoned with a mix of regional spicy and sour condiments.
2. Mansa Mountain Pu-erh tea taste
Mansa lies in the north-central part of Mengla County in Xishuangbanna. By the time of the Qianlong period (Qing Dynasty), Mansa Tea Mountain has entered its most glorious period. The annual output of tea here has reached over 10,000 catties ( 1 catty is ~60kg). In the following years, Mansa suffered two fires and a third one, accompanied by plague. They completely destroyed the once prosperous town, turning Mansa into a barren city. Since then, Yiwu, which is 20 kilometers away from Mansa, quickly replaced it and became an important tea mountain among the six major tea mountains. Today, many manufacturers and tea people attribute the tea produced in the two tea areas to Yiwu.
The tea from Mansa mountain is a large-leaf tree species, slightly bitter. It has a high, intensive aroma with faint notes of plum and honey. The bud tea picked before and after Gu Yu has a light fragrance and an intense sweetness.
3. Manzhuan Mountain Pu-erh tea taste
Manzhuan is located in Mengla County, Xishuangbanna. Manzhuan mountain lies between the four major tea mountains of Yibang, Geden, Mansa, and Yiwu. In the past, the annual output of Manzhuan tea reached more than ten thousand catties. Most of them were shipped to Yiwu for processing and sales. Although it belonged to the Six tea mountains, it remained shadowed by other, more prominent areas. That preserved the tea garden, which remain relatively untouched today.
Manzhuan tea leaves are darker in color than the other six tea mountains; the mouthfeel is thick and fragrant, leaving a slightly bitter sensation on the tongue. The taste and aroma are relatively heavy, with a more faint aroma than those of Mansa and Yiwu. In recent years, Manzhuan has been going through a revival, and interest in its tea is rising.
4. Mangzhi Mountain Pu-erh tea taste
Mangzhi is located in the north-central part of Mengla County, southwest of Gedeng Mountain and west of Manzhuan Mountain. It has many pristine ancient tree forests with large, medium, and small leaf species. Most of the tea produced is collected and shipped to other regions or purchased by large factories.
The medium and small leaf species are famous for their special fragrance, similar to Yibang and Gedeng. The mouthfeel is sweet and slightly honey-like, with a soft yet stimulating tea soup.
5. Gedeng Mountain Pu-erh tea taste
Geden lies northeast of the Six tea mountains, with Jinuo Mountain in the south across the river, Manzhuan Tea Mountain in the west, and Yibang Tea Mountain in the north. Today, there are less than 500 mu of old tea trees in Gedeng Tea Mountain. Thus, there is no mass production of tea in the region.
Gedeng's medium and small leaf species are famous for their aroma. The mouthfeel is an enchanting combination of sweet honey notes and delicate bitterness. The tea soup is slightly thin, with a deep orange-yellow soup color.
6. Yibang Mountain Pu-erh tea taste
Yibang is located in the north-central part of Mengla County. Yibang is called "Tangjing" in the Dai language, which means "tea well". Yibang Tea Mountain has the highest altitude among the Six tea mountains. Its area of 360 square kilometers is almost entirely covered with tea forests.
Compared with Yiwu, Yibang Chashan has a greater altitude difference. Its highest peak is at 1950 meters, while the lowest is only 565 meters. Large-leaf and medium-to-small-leaf tea trees are all found there. According to tea experts, the quality of the local medium and small-leaf species in Yibang is not only better than the local large-leaf species but also better than the medium and small-leaf species in other provinces.
During the Qing Dynasty, Yibang was the political, economic, and cultural center of the Six ancient tea mountains. It was also the main place for purchasing tribute tea. In the middle of the Qing Dynasty, Yiwu rose, and Yibang began to decline gradually.
In our next blog post we will see how the Six Ancient Mountains transformed over time. We'll also discuss pu-erh tea taste in modern days' production areas along with their terroirs. Stay tuned!