Sheng (raw) puer tea

I’ve been drinking a lot of sheng (raw) puer tea lately. It all started in September, when Roman visited Maribor. I did some browsing around the tea cabinet and took out one of my most precious tea possessions – a glass jar of maocha that I’d been aging at home since 2010. An experimental batch of Slovenian-stored raw puer material – seems like a rather appropriate choice of tea for the occasion. Having consumed about a third of the supply, I decided to branch out into fresh purple shengs and, last but absolutely not least, get a taste, and then a whole cake, of real 18 year-old dry-stored sheng puer straight from Kunming, China.

lao sheng cha

Photo: laoshengcha, vintage 1996

Maocha

I bought that maocha (毛茶) in Kunming about four years ago, mainly because I wanted to have a sample of pre-sheng cake material at home, so I could show it to my Slovenian tea buddies and anyone interested in what puer tea is made from.

Essentially, maocha is a pile of non-processed tea leaves sun-dried soon after plucking. The maocha leaves take up a lot of space, so only a fraction of this tea reaches the retail markets. Most of it is sold directly to tea masters and factories, where maocha is pressed into cakes, bricks, nuggets of various shapes and sizes.

Naturally, I wasn’t going to press that maocha. Rather, I decided to age it under controlled conditions. I put the tea into a glass jar to keep away all odors. I’d stored some other tea in tightly sealed containers before, and the quality of tea always deteriorated. So I decided that I would seal the jar tightly but open it once a week to let the tea get some air.

What was the result, you might wonder? Divine! Not only did the tea preserve its pristine quality, but it also developed a few pleasantly mellow notes. My only regret was that I just had enough maocha for ten tea parties.

Zi Juan Cha

I got my first ever cake of purple beauty (紫娟茶) this spring. Roman sent it to me, so I could shoot it and put it up on TeaSpotting. I generally feel quite skeptical about traditional healing methods, so when Roman mentioned that the Chinese praise purple sheng for its anti-inflammatory and other medicinal properties, I didn’t take it seriously.

However, on two occasions already, purple sheng took care of my flu by significantly reducing cold symptoms and helping me quickly restore my strength. So I’ve become a believer.

It’s quite easy to mistake purple puer for shu. Especially at first glance, viewing it from a distance. At a closer look, however, one is bound to notice the fine pattern of interwoven dark blue/green/purple wholesome leaves and buds – a sight that no shu cake can offer. The strange dark color of the leaves comes not from oxidation or any other type of processing. Dark purple is simply the natural color of the fresh leaves of the specific type of Camellia sinensis that zijuan cha is harvested from.

Steep the tea a few times though, and the purple will start receding into dark blue and deep emerald tones. Purple puer gives visually rich, savory infusions full of antioxidants and vitamins that are believed to provided great prophylactic properties with regular consumption. The taste of purple puer is rather on the sheng side, far from the earthy and walnutty flavors that artificially fermented shu puers normally feature.

Lao Sheng Cha

Raw Vintage Tea (老生茶) came to me in its original timeworn, nondescript wrapping, giving off a complex variety of earthy, slightly moldy aroma. Once I unwrapped the cake it became quite clear that I finally laid my hands on a real aged sheng, deep in its teens.

No kidding that tea was plucked and pressed back in 1996! Some sheng lovers I know were still in kindergarten when that cake came to be :).

A truly old sheng is the kind of tea that many tea lovers around the world would brew with their very best gear and a healthy share of reverence. Old shengs yield rather dark infusions from the very start. The taste of the first couple of brews is somewhere between that of sweet, freshly harvested sheng and higher-grade sylvan shu. The flavor changes considerably over consecutive steepings, depending on the tea’s origin, age, grade, and other factors.

It should be noted that, in this part of the world, teas like this are hard to come by, but just because they are rare and exotic, but also rather expensive. Do some browsing and you’ll see that 20-30 yo shengs auction for thousands of dollars per cake.

For centuries in China, old shengs have been used for expensive gifts, dowry, and luxury objects. One of the things that make aged puer so valuable is that two identical cakes can develop fairly different properties if aged under different conditions (temperature, humidity, etc). A few decades ago, the demand for such tea far exceeded the supply, and fermentation techniques were developed to age puer quickly, turning it dark and earthy, in an attempt to imitate and speed up the natural aging process by dozens of times.

Any mildly experienced tea drinker will easily tell aged sheng and shu puer apart. Ask them which puer they’d rather have on their shelves, and most puer lovers will invariably opt for the old sheng, saying that it’s the real deal and a true must-have for any serious tea drinker.

I don’t believe that old sheng puer is good choice for everyday drinking though. It yields well over 10 steepings, which means that it’s perfect material for tea ceremonies and/or extensive individual and small group sessions. Old sheng is perfect for those tea lovers who want to deepen their understanding of puer tea and generally expand their knowledge of the Chinese tea drinking traditions.

Would you like some tea?

You can try all three teas mentioned above during Daoli Tea Parties – tea drinking events that Miha host in Slovenia several times a year. With the exception of maocha, all the above-mentioned puers can be ordered through TeaSpotting. Roman will personally acquire the cakes from a trusted source at the Kunming tea market and will ship to any address worldwide.

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