Tag Archives: sheng

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


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.

What I wish I knew about puer ten years ago

There are two kinds of puer tea: shu (ripe, cooked, heavily fermented) and sheng (raw, slightly fermented).

The main difference between the two types is that shu puers undergo an extensive (several months to a year) fermentation process, whereas sheng puers are fermented slightly, for a much shorter period of time.

Shu puer - chatou and cakes

Puer tea @ Kunming tea market: neatly pressed cakes, loose sheng, and lumpy chatou of shupu

Puer production process

Shu and sheng puers are both derived from maocha (毛茶), which essentially, refers to sun-dried tea leaves. The dried leaves can be stored as raw material or used immediately for production. To make sheng puer, maocha is steamed and pressed into cakes, bricks, nests, and other shapes. Some people sell it in loose form too. Maocha can also be soaked in water for about a week in order to kickstart the natural fermentation. Sheng puer buds and leaves keep their distinctive greenish color. This tea is ready for immediate consumption or aging.

The process of making shu puer is quite different. Large tea leaves and buds are heaped together in a large room or container. Once a certain amount of water is added to the pile, the room temperature is increased and changed accordingly to adjust the fermentation process. The thermophile (i.e. heat-loving) microorganisms then begin to work their magic on tea by changing its color, texture, and chemical composition.

Grades of puer

Once the fermentation process is over, tea is sent through special sieves that separate the freshly fermented mass into tea of various categories: gongting, extra, 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th grades. Traditionally, there are no 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades to make differentiation easier. What determines the class of tea? In the case of shu puer it is primarily the size and shape of tea buds and leaves. Gongting, for instance, is supposed to be buds only with each bud averaging 1-1.5 cm (half an inch) in length. Extra class is 50-60% buds and 40-50% leaves. First grade puer is approximately 30% buds and 70% leaves. Third grade has leaves that are larger in size and the bud content is accidental. Fifth and seventh grades are entirely made up of leaves, the main difference being in size, thickness, and texture of tea material used.

When I heard about the puer making process, my first question was why different grades of puer are not fermented separately. First of all, that would make the price of tea much higher, since leaves would have to be separated manually prior to fermentation, which is possible physically, but unviable economically. The second reason is that buds fermented separately from large leaves may not obtain the desired taste and aromatic qualities. In other words, the chemistry involved in the fermentation process requires the enzymes contained in both buds and leaves to produce good quality tea.

Why press puer tea

Both sheng and shu types of puer can be sold in loose form, but it has become common practice to press puer into cakes and nuggets of various shapes and sizes. Cakes are much easier to store and transport than crates or bags of dry leaves. Pressed teas also keep their taste and fragrance for much longer periods of time. However, during the pressing process, a lot of leaves get damaged. This is particularly true for smaller nuggets that have a relatively high proportion of fragmented and virtually no undamaged leaves. However, these changes are purely cosmetic in nature, i.e. having zero effect on the taste and quality of pressed puer.

Chinese law requires tea manufacturers to mark their cakes with the year in which the tea was pressed, rather than when it was processed. The tea inside a cake that was pressed, say, two years ago could actually be older than that. Tea traders may or may not want to share this information with you, but they usually do if you ask specifically. Whether or not their answer reflects the reality is a mixture of luck and guanxi (Chinese word for rapport).

To age or not to age

In fact, one of the most common questions asked about puers is how old they are. There is a common belief that the older puer is, the better its taste, aroma, and health benefits. To make the long story short, this assumption is generally true, but only if the tea is stored properly.

Sometimes puer is made with the focus on quality and not the taste. For instance, a tea manufacturer may wish to create an unblended, spring-harvest, buds-only cake of gongting shu puer. Sounds amazing, right? Not necessarily. If consumed within a year or two after production, this tea may not have some of the taste, aroma, and brewability qualities that a tea connoisseur might expect to observe. However, let it age properly for a few years, and you are very likely to get a cake of excellent-tasting puer that can be brewed up to ten times.

Conversely, the very same tea manufacturer may decide to create a blended, half leaves and half buds, moderately rough-looking cake of shupu (shu puer). Some people might say that the manufacturer is trying to save money. Others would complement his desire to make tea that tastes reasonably well the year it is pressed. Who is in the right here is a rhetorical question, so I’m going to leave it unanswered.

Some personal thoughts

Let’s not forget that tea is made for drinking, not for storage or aging. I like to think about it this way: would I buy a car that I need to work on at home for a while before I can drive it safely and comfortably? Probably not, unless it’s a bargain or something. The same rationale applies to tea. Why buy tea that I don’t like the moment I am sampling it at the shop or market? I just buy the tea that I like and feel happy that it has an insanely long shelf life.

While it is certainly true that properly aged puer tea is likely to reveal some hidden properties, it is important to remember that a great deal of the tea-aging paradigm is the result of the puer investment bubble that captivated China about a decade ago. That bubble burst in 2007, leaving scores of thousands of Yunnan farmers and tea brokers poor, but its ripple effects in form of multiple myths and legends regarding scientifically confirmed and imaginary properties of puer are still affecting the way people think about this tea in the whole world.

In fact, tea aficionados like myself are partly responsible for perpetuation of such myths. Whenever I go to a shop that sells puer tea, I often ask about the age of cakes that take my fancy. I know that it’s silly, but I simply can’t help it. It’s a great conversation starter, especially when dealing with people who speak a dialect of Chinese that I’m not familiar with. I’m fully aware that by asking this question, I reveal the level at which my choices can be manipulated. Fortunately, I’ve been exposed to tea culture long enough to rely on my palate, and not eyes or ears.

2012: First cup of tea

January 23rd, the first day of the year of the dragon. At 1 pm the streets were still empty. The janitors did a great job, and most of the mess caused by fireworks was already gone.

First sight of the market

I went to the northern tea market, which is only 20 minutes away by bike. I was hoping to talk to some traders about tea and what they do for the Chinese New Year.

Out of maybe 300-400 shops only half a dozen were open. The part of the market that I like the most was simply fenced off. I could see a few people sitting outside playing cards in the sunny weather, but I decided not to bother them.

Instead, I ventured to the western part of the market. The main gate was open, and I saw a few cars parked in the courtyard. I spotted one open shop, but then I looked at the car that was parked outside, and noticed that it was a drug police vehicle. It was so huge that it was blocking most of the shop’s front. Inside there were people sitting at a huge solid-wood tea table – probably relatives or friends catching up and celebrating.

Finally – the right place

I got back on my bike and soon found another place. It was a small tea shop with only a couple of people inside. I asked how come they were open, and the lady said that they live very close and would rather spend the day at the shop, drinking tea and enjoying the awesome weather. Inside, they had a nice selection of shu and sheng pu’er teas of different shapes and ages.

I asked what kind of sheng pu’er they liked themselves, and the man showed me a decent-looking cake. It looked and smelled just fine, so I asked them to brew some of it for me. I also noticed that they had a small collection of organic teas and asked to make some of that too, just to compare the taste and fragrance.

While the lady was preparing the water and the teaware, I found out that they were one of the six shops in Kunming that exclusively sell tea from a big tea factory in south of Yunnan. The tea was soon ready and I gave it a try. The leaves of the organic tea looked greener and nicer than the leaves of the regular pu’er, but they tasted more or less the same. I thought it was odd, considering the huge difference in price.

Organic vs. non-organic

I asked about the requirements for organic teas. It turns out that their organic pu’er grows on the slopes of a series of hills washed by a small river. It is true that they don’t use any nasty chemicals, but it is also true that non-organic teas could be growing in similar conditions. So what really raises the price for organic tea is its limited availability and higher production costs associated with its special treatment and mandatory certification.

When I asked why the organic tea looked greener and had a nicer texture, I was told that it has nothing to with being organic or not. The teas simply came from different trees and locations.

Both organic and non-organic teas shared the same flaw, though – their leaves were not wholesome. I wondered why they weren’t selling any tea in loose form. The lady replied that loose tea loses its taste and fragrance within 6-18 months. Pressed pu’er, however, is able to retain its taste for decades. She showed me pictures of their factory where people were filling large cylindrical bowls with tea and placing them over holes in metal tables that had water boiling underneath. The leaves were steamed much like Chinese dumplings (jiaozi). Because the cakes become so dense, they require a special pu’er knife or a thin sharp object to be broken. It causes some inconvenience in handling and makes the leaves look broken and edgy. But for Chinese, quality of tea is valued higher than its appearance.

I really liked talking to the owner and asked her a few more questions. There were some huge cakes of pu’er lined up on the shelves. That was collectable tea pressed into 1kg flat cakes. All that tea came from very old trees (some are hundreds of years old). Depending on the weather and water availability, a tree like that can yield 100-200 kilos of dried tea per year. Because it’s limited edition, this tea is expensive from the beginning, and in ten years its price can go up 10-20 times.

Smoked tea but not lapsang souchong

I have a cake of sheng pu’er at home. It was a gift from a Chinese friend. It tastes strong and slightly bitter, and it smells of smoked salmon. I asked my friend how old it was, and he said he had no idea. Had a bunch of them at home and just drank them. I noticed some tea at their shop that had the same markings on the wrapping. I opened it and recognized the smell right away. My clothes smell like that if I spend too much time by the campfire.

Not surprisingly, the owner also had an explanation for that. It is common for sheng pu’er to smell like that if it’s harvested in autumn. It has something to do with the lack of water, which changes the internal chemistry of the plant, yielding generally stronger tea with that characteristic smell of burnt wood.

Photos from today’s trip to the market

This post was written by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Prva skodelica čaja v kitajskem novem letu). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.