Puer Tea Basics

Today’s guest post was written by Seattle-area tea lover Brett Boynton. Brett has been selling and serving fine tea in Seattle since 2001. He is an active tea educator and the author of Black Dragon Tea Bar blog. You can visit Brett and his friend Cinnabar’s teashop, Phoenix Tea, at 902 SW 152nd St in Burien, WA, or visit their online store.

Puer tea (普洱茶), from Yunnan (雲南) province in southern China, comes in two forms, raw puer (sometimes called green puer or sheng cha) (生茶) and ripe puer (sometimes called black puer or shu cha) (熟茶). The complex flavors found in a cup of puer tea are the result of many variables, such as where the tea was grown, the quality of the leaf, the manufacturing conditions, and the vintage. The form of the tea (loose leaf or compressed into shapes) does not necessarily indicate quality.

Raw puer is prepared from sun dried green tea leaves and is primarily handmade. The leaves are sometimes sourced from organic or wild tea bushes. Old tea trees, which can be well over 100 years old, are also sometimes used to make very fine teas. After the leaves are processed and sorted, they will be compressed into cakes, bricks or other shapes by heavy molds. Raw puer gets darker, richer and smoother if aged slowly in dry conditions. When a raw puer is approximately 1 to 5 years old it will probably still taste like a fresh herbaceous green tea with varying degrees of sweetness, smokiness, and complexity.

Ripe puer can be purchased loose leaf, or compressed into cakes and bricks. Ripe puer differs from raw tea because it has a pile fermentation step included in its manufacture. This is a carefully controlled process that results in a dark and earthy brew. Young ripe puer (1 to 5 years old) is often not very smooth and may still have a harsh odor left over from fermentation. Loose leaf ripe puer tends to taste fuller and smoother sooner, because it has more leaf surface exposed to air. Compressed teas, on the other hand, will mellow slower, depending on how tightly they were compressed and how thick they are.

Both styles of puer tea will get better with age if they are stored properly (ie. dry, dark and away from any odors). Ripe puers are made to be enjoyed sooner, and thus the vintage does not play as important of a role as it does with raw puer. In fact, some puer experts have written that ripe puers do not improve after reaching a certain point. This is in contrast to raw puer, which seems to get better indefinitely as long as storage conditions remain ideal.

Collecting and aging raw puer cakes is a rewarding hobby for many tea lovers. I, for one, enjoy experiencing the tastes of a tea as it changes over time. I also like to keep a scrapbook of the beautiful wrapping papers used to store the cakes. Puer tea has the wonderful ability to bring people together and help them to relax. It is the ideal brew for many unforgettable tea tastings.

Brewing Tips:
Puer can be prepared as if it were a black tea using Western-style tea brewing parameters to very good effect, but for the best possible flavor it should be brewed gongfu style in a small Chinese vessel, such as a gaiwan (a covered cup) or a yixing clay teapot.

To begin, rinse your teaware with boiling water to clean and preheat it.
If you’re using loose-leaf puer, measure out between one and two teaspoons of dry leaf, if you have a brick or a cake of puer, carefully break off a small chunk roughly the size of a quarter, or if you’re using a mini tuocha, simply remove the paper wrapper because it is already the right amount of tea.
Next, pour water over the tea leaves inside the brewing vessel. I like to use freshly boiled water (about 210º F) for puer tea. Slightly cooler water is fine too and will yield a mellower cup.
Wait a couple seconds, then discard this infusion (this water can be used to rinse your teacups again). This optional rinsing step is called “awakening the leaves.”
After your leaves have been rinsed, take a moment to smell them before pouring hot water over them again. This begins the first steep. It is recommended, when steeping a puer tea for the first time, to start by infusing the leaves for 15 to 60 seconds. Four factors to consider in the length of steep time are: amount of leaf, temperature of water, size of brewing vessel, and personal taste. Ask your tea merchant for their advice when you buy a new puer, and with practice it will become easier to determine.
When time is up, decant all of the tea liquor into a small pitcher to stop the infusion. Now, pour the tea into small cups and relish the unique and wonderful flavor of your creation. You should re-infuse the same leaves many times. Generally speaking, each infusion should be slightly longer than the previous one, but I have found very good results from steeping the second infusion about 10% shorter than the first and the third infusion approximately the same length of time as the first. Then, I will begin to increase the steeping time. As with all things, experimentation and practice is the key.