Ever heard of pu’erh tea? Most people haven’t. I may at some point publish a 101-level blog post on tea, but for now, please settle for this brief primer.
Tea, the beverage, comes from brewing the leaves of plants in the Camellia genus. If it’s not brewed with tea leaves, it’s not technically tea.
Most people are at least familiar with green and black teas, and at some point I may hop up on a soapbox and tell you why brewing machine-harvested leaf scraps from plantations sold in bags that leak microplastics into your hot water is Not Good, but green and black are only two spots on a much larger spectrum.
Tea can be broadly classified into categories determined by leaf preservation method and (subsequent) oxidation level at time of fixing:
- White tea (~5-15% oxidation)
- Green tea (~15-40% oxidation)
- Oolong tea (~25~80% oxidation)
- Black tea (~70+% oxidation)
The numbers above are not exact, just rough generalizations. The oxidation level depends on a lot of factors, and the exact amount will change on a per-batch basis.
Oxidation levels are fixed by applying heat to kill the enzymes that oxidize the plant. How that heat is applied also varies, depending on the variety of tea being created. Even within a single category, oxidation strategies can vary wildly. Some green teas are fixed in giant iron woks, while others are fixed through steaming. Wikipedia has a cool graphic showing the processing steps for different teas:
A full resolution version can be found here.
The astute reader may have observed that pu’erh is conspicuously absent from the four broad categories I listed above. That’s because its oxidation level isn’t fixed! That, and it tends to be harvested from Camellia taliensis, a wild relative to the cultivated tea plant (Camellia sinensis) that grows into very tall trees (as opposed to sinensis cultivars, which tend to be shrubs or bushes).
Pu’erh is prepared mostly like a green tea, but rather than killing off every single enzyme through a thorough fixing process, the tea is pressed into cakes (or heaped into piles) and allowed to age. As it ages, the flavor and health benefits evolve along with the appearance of the resulting brew. If you’re interested in learning how, I can’t recommend a better teacher than Victoria Wu of Meimei Fine Teas.
Tea Class with Victoria
On Sunday, February 23rd, I attended my second Pu’erh Class with Victoria, which was the fourth class I’ve taken with her. Classes are small — Victoria caps them 8 members — and students came from as far away as Pennsylvania and Maryland to attend. Truly, if you live in the DC area and have any interest whatsoever in tea, you simply must attend.
Victoria sources all her tea herself. She spends months travelling all over China every year to the difference provinces to source the best teas. And, having been pursuing tea actively as a hobby for a couple years now, I can say with confidence that her teas are the best Chinese teas that I’ve been able to find (so far).
There’s also something really nice about knowing exactly where your teas come from. Victoria can tell you not only where your tea was harvested, but which village is the closest, who picked the leaves, who finished them, what flavors the terroir imparts to the them, and more. Knowing that my tea comes from wild forests in the mountains of China rather than plantations engaged in unethical or unhealthy practices is valuable enough, but the clean flavors are what really put Victoria’s teas into a league of their own.
In the 2020 Pu’erh Class, we tried 8 different teas, and only one of them was a repeat from the 2019 Pu’erh class. We tried the sheng (raw) pu’erhs first, from youngest to oldest, and then we had the shu (ripe) pu’erhs.
Sheng (Raw) Pu’erh
- 2019 - “Single Mill” (Yiwu): I found this tea to be very light and refreshing — not at all astringent like some young pu’ers can be. I was originally surprised to find out it came from Yiwu, which I tend to associated with a more “forest-y” flavor — it came across and fruit-forward to me, with the wooded notes coming through with the hui gan. Subsequent infusions yielded subdued fruity notes and a more typical Yiwu flavor.
- 2017 - Tea Horse Road (Mengku): This was part one of an interesting exercise where we were given two teas from the same year and region to compare. This Tea Horse Road sheng pu’erh had notes of licorice and a higher astringency than the other teas I tasted, and still had that “forest”-flavored hui gan.
- 2017 - Bing Dao Dragon Balls (Mengku): This one smells like a Lingcang pu’erh, but it has notes of honey! It is sweet, and has a “deeper” flavor compared with the Tea Horse Road — like I was drinking from a river instead of a creek. It was full bodied and complex. I bought 100g to take home with me.
- 2013 - “Early Spring” (???): This was another tea from Victoria’s private collection that surfaced shortly before class. She isn’t sure where it’s from, only that it was picked in the early spring of 2013. This tea was smoky! Smoky like a peat scotch. Victoria thinks that this is because some farmers will fire their tea in a wok over a wood fire, and sometimes the wood can impart this smoky flavor. Very different from all the other teas; almost couldn’t taste the tea for the smokiness. Definitely a pu’erh though and not a Lapsang Souchong.
- 2010 - “100 Year-Old Trademark” brand (Yiwu): This was a sheng pu’erh from Victoria’s private collection (not for sale). It’s a famous pu’erh brand in China, and… it was fine. A very average pu’erh. I got a forest front and hui gan like I would expect from a Yiwu pu’erh, and it was a bit… dry? It was fine!
- 1999 - Vintage Zhen Shan (Yiwu): This tea is one of my favorites. If you’ve never had 20+ y/o sheng pu’erh, it’s a rare treat. It has notes of ginseng, and tastes like a forest in autumn. It’s also really good for you. This tea was the one repeat from last year, and I’m glad it made another appearance! I’ve purchased a couple samples of this one because I couldn’t justify purchasing a whole cake, but the price keeps going up so I should probably do that sooner rather than later 😅. Though I suppose I could always go the route of purchasing a tong of young cakes and letting them age for 20 years…
Shu (Ripe) Pu’erh
- 2016 - “Classic 1973 Formula” (Fengqing): This ripe pu’erh has a clean taste, akin to fresh straw? It smells much more complex than it is, and where most shu pu’erhs tend towards “tree bark” or (on a bad day) “funky”, this one hints at sweetness. I think it has really great aging potential and I’d love to try it again in 10 years.
- 2004 - Vintage Menghai Bliss (Mengku): I can’t stop thinking about this one. It’s been a week since I’ve had it, and I regret not buying it. It’s the first shu (ripe) pu’erh that I’ve ever really craved. It’s got a very very clean taste, and the flavor is almost like maple syrup, but with none of the saccharine thickness you’d associate with syrup. Smells like a clean haystack, but the flavor is of sweet reeds. No funk or mushroom flavors in this one. Not bitter, either, just pure and sweet.
It’s worth stating again: go and take a class with Victoria. It’s highly educational (history of Pu’erh, geography of China, preparation methods, etc.) in addition to all the teas you get to try. Plus, if you have questions about tea you can’t find the answer to (or find too many answers to) online, you can always come armed with a list of questions to ask an expert. No kickbacks or anything for me, I just really really feel like it’s an experience worth sharing. 😊
Oh, and if you’re going to order tea from Victoria, I would use the website instead of Amazon. Meimei does some fulfillment through Amazon, and it’s good tea, but everything on the website is of the highest quality and is excellent.
Thanks for sticking with me on this one! Happy brewing 👋