- Understanding Shu Puerh
- Brewing Shu Puerh
- Finding differences
- Ageing Shu Puer
- Taste of Shu Puer
- Blending Shu Puer
- Pricing of Shu Puer
- Quality and Value of Shu Puer
- How to buy good Shu Puer ?
1.Understanding Shu Puerh
As the green leaves of young sheng puer might be too aggressive for stomach as their increase acidity there . No wonder it is such a good digestive drink after heavy meal. That’s why it is not recommended to drink it on empty stomach.
Therefore sheng puerh is recommended to be drunk when aged and that overwhelming astringency is diminished, making tea much smoother , sweeter and pleasant to drink.
Such an ageing takes time and time takes money , as it takes some space to store. Puer ages different way and speed depending on environmental conditions , we talk about it more in our article Tea Storage. To achieve “drinkable” puer tea in less than few years of storing, therefore making product on relatively cheaper expenses ( shu can be sold right away to wholesalers or retail customers , therefore no need to keep the big premises to store for long term ) , the “accelerated aging” – fermentation was introduced to the “green leaf” of the sheng puer and changed to the product called Shu or Shou Puerh / Cooked / Ripe Puer , or whatever translation you prefer.
Of course there is a history behind the initial processing but we are not a history class here , plenty other smart articles on internet available , we focus on practical side.
From explanation above you can easily conclude that shu puer is the tea product designed for consumption now and not for the further storing. In fact , it is opposite to sheng from certain point and I’ll explain it later in Ageing Shu Puer paragraph. The common myth that the older shu is better than younger is believed not only among the foreign tea drinkers but also Chinese tea drinkers as it’s promoted by producers with labels like : ” Yue Chang Yue Xiang ” – freely translated as : ” Longer Time More Tasty ” , which is very individual and depending on many factors such one of them is a personal preference.
2.Brewing Shu Puerh
Another common myth among the tea drinkers is that the your shou cha must be like soy sauce or coffee black like liquid full of earthy and soil notes. As some Russians say : ” If you can see the bottom of the cup, this is not good Shu ” . The fact is, that some old shu puerh you can not get into the pitch black color , and we talk about it later in Finding differences paragraph.
The simple rule I follow with tasting / comparing shu puerh – just try to keep the liquid in red ( light-medium-dark ) color. If you happen to over-brew it by mistake, don’t worry and use the hot water to dilute it down to the red.
In fact , the most Kunming tea shops present their shu in red color , talking about the crystal clear liquid and comparing it to the luxury red wine ( just part of the marketing ) .
Your brewing style will be adjusted according to the tea characteristics and your preference, therefore there is no any standard or 0 point to start from. There is also brewing location factor , particularly the elevation ( like in Kunming we are around 1800m alt. , and water boils at 94C here ) , but there is not much you can do about. The best way to brew shu puerh is with boiling hot water 100C. The personal preference is simple, you either like light sweet shu with some noticeable notes or you prefer heavy rich earthy tones coffee like shu puerh.
Of course also depends on your current experience and taste buds sensitivity, but should you need another justifying of “red color brew” style – from previous paragraphs you can understand that the Shu Puerh a is sort of imitation of Old Sheng Puerh ( aged sheng puerh ) so unless you try to imitate 20 years HK wet stored sheng , there is no reason to drink only tarmac black tea.
Speak of the characteristics of tea leaf which are related to brewing style , are following : Grade – Processing ( Origin ) – Shape – Storage.
But from beginning I recommend to use Get to know each other brewing technique ( starting with small amount and fast steeping times ) . Details explained in Smart tea drinker article 4. Amount of tea for each session
For visual demonstration you can also follow our videos – Shu Puerh Master Class on our IGTV ( Instagram TV ) .
There is a brewing difference between Gong Ting ( small tips and tiny leaves ) and some 3.rd grade with medium big leaves and some tips , let alone Huang Pian – yellow leaves.
Kunming dry stored loose shu puerh:
Gong Ting consist of small tips and sometimes with combination of tiny top leaves. The brewing is fast and almost immediately you will get the rich dark tea with small amount , but doesn’t last that long as lower grades. In general I’d start with around 3-4g / 100ml / 5s and with following steps extending brewing time based on color and taste. See video Brewing Gongting.
1st grade is usually not far from Gong ting and in many cases even more expensive as the better initial material might be selected for fermentation. The brewing technique would be also similar though.
2nd,3rd grades have bigger leaves and some stems so 5g in 100ml is also ok and can go with longer brewing times than Gong ting. Tea usually can make more steepings than Gong Ting.
4th and lower grades , also called Basic Grade or Non Sorted Grade – big leaves , big stems , some yellow leaves ” huang pian ” can brew around the same as 3rd grade for convenience but probably bigger amount might be required to achieve richer taste. See video Grade Comparing
Huang Pain – yellow leaves are quite big so for 100ml gaiwan you would struggle to pack in some 7g or more grams , so 5-6g as starting point should be enough. The Shu puer huang pian don’t like long steeping times. Usually turn into sour taste as some Lincang light fermented shus, so do focus more on steeping time. See video Brewing Huang Pian
Just a rough color example of different grades of shu puerh tea liquor. Gongting – 3rd grade – Huang Pian
Processing ( Origin )
Light fermented Shu Puer tea doesn’t like long steeping times but with right amount and time you will get mostly caramel and walnut like notes in aroma of hot leaves and so in tea taste it self. Staring would be around 4g / 100ml / 10s extended to 20 or 30s after 5+ infusions. It is light fermented tea so do not attempt to get some soy black tea. You can expect some sour touch which is normal ( especially Lincang shu puerh ) and pushing up steeping times will more than likely increase the sourness.
Medium fermented Shu Puer tea is ok with longer steeping times and can achieve nice dark red liquid , rich and full of sweetness. Staring would be around 4g / 100ml / 10s extended to 20 or 30s after 2+ infusion depending on preference. Typical dark chocolate notes appear especially in older shu with touch of walnut notes. Medium fermentation is common in Shu puerh from Pu’er area.
Dark fermented Shu Puer tea is the Russian daily drinker and if you are fan of such a tea you have a wide range of experimenting with amounts and steeping times. Staring would be around 3 – 4g / 100ml / 5s extended to 10 or 30s after 5+ infusions depending on preference. With the different “density” of shu you get very different notes , starting from wood , through the walnut ending up with dark chocolate or bitter shu. Dark fermentation is hard ( yet not impossible ) to achieve in every location , so it is a more likely typical for Shu puerh from Menghai .
Although paragraphs above suggesting that each processing concept ( level of fermentation ) is bounded with Origin ( location ) , it is not meant that way. You can also make light fermentation in Menghai or medium one in Lincang ( dark is very difficult but not impossible ) . Meghai has the best conditions for wide range of processing as the other areas might lack of humidity or temperature to achieve some levels of fermentation easily.
We created a tagged interactive Tea map of locations.
Just a rough color example of different fermentation levels of shu puerh tea liquor.
Loose Shu puerh as mentioned above already and it is the most convenient way / estate of tea as it is easy to control amounts without wastage ( broken dust from chipped cakes / bricks ). It has no any marketing , branding , wrapping around so price is for the actual tea ( unless boxed and branded ) . Also you can clearly see what you are brewing , which in pressed tea you just explore later.
In Pressed Shu puerh you need to pay attention on grade and pressing style. For example if Gong Ting hard pressed , the starting point can be even 2 – 3g for 100ml , 10s and later extended. The point is that from very beginning hard pressed tea doesn’t release much but after 2nd or 3rd infusion leaves go loose and suddenly you get black coffee. This is very typical for Shu puerh minituo cha ( even is not Gong ting material ). Some hard pressed shu puerh as ” Sui Yin Zi ” – Silver Nuggets , can be steeped very long time. See video Brewing Sui Yin Zi.
Shu puerh in fruit , also called as Xia Qing Gan. There are few tricks how to brew it , and one of them is actually open the fruit. Also depends what material is inside, but as I mention on video, in most of the time there is some low grade or low quality shu in there as the labor costs for stuffing the mandarin are already high. See video Brewing Shu Puer in Mandarin.
Shu Puerh Paste ” Cha Gao “ is the basically extraction from boiled shu puerh processed tea leaves. Comes in various shapes, mostly small 1g mini bricks and it is suitable for the grandpa style brewing rather than steeping. See video Brewing Cha Gao.
Shu puerh also can be brewed as , so called , Grandpa Style which is basically using much smaller amounts of tea for larger volume of water ( like 1g of Gong Ting for 400ml water ) and leaving the tea leaves in bottle / pot all the time.
The difference between dry and wet storage from Kunming tea vendor point of view we describe on Tea Storage page.
More moisture in tea leaves makes brews much richer , darker , so it will be very big difference between old shu from Guangzhou and same age stored in Kunming in matter of the color , taste and so the brewing approach. The weather in Kunming is quite dry and old shu will be more likely light red / dark orange color rather than dark red , with dominating woody notes accompanied sometimes with dusty ones. Guangzhou old shu would likely be close to black color brews quickly even with light infusions , some old wet basement notes accompanied by other notes absorbed from surrounding environment in storage along with fungal ones. Will explain in Taste of Shu Puer paragraph later.
Another technique is boiling tea leaves ( lower grades are more suitable for that ) . The result in taste is very similar to ” Cha Gao ” – Puerh Paste , as it is made by similar technique.
As already described above , you can find taste differences between the levels of fermentation or sometimes grades / type of tea leaf , like Huang Pian for example. Along with that some places / areas have their typical taste profile not only because origin of tea leaves but also the processing as mentioned before:
- Yongde area has noticeable nutty and woody notes.
- Lincang area has caramel with sour touch.
- Pu’er area chocolate and walnut.
- Menghai is specifically known for it’s dark chocolate notes.
- Yiwu where fruity touch can be experienced.
- Myanmar ( Guogan ) has typical smoky notes.
Smoky notes can be found in shu from any area as that happens during the processing ( mostly because of drying tea leaves when rainy season or just to humid so they don’t dry well after kill green ) , but very common would be in , some Lincang Shu Puerh or famous Xia Guan Tea Company. More in Taste of Shu Puer paragraph.
4.Ageing Shu Puer
For aging puer tea you need enzyme activity which is caused naturally from the “alive” tea leaves or with the presence of microorganisms , particularly some fungi. By fermentation the natural enzyme activity is quite eliminated as the leaf is not “green ” anymore. That’s just simply explained a complex process of actual ageing. So from that you can understand , that you mostly rely on fungi activity as the ageing drive. Those need some wet and hot environment which is hard to naturally achieve in places like Kunming and probably in apartment where you use heater during the winter. With fungal activity you are getting also risks of negative side effects in terms of bad odor , molds and nasty taste.
So is shu puer ageing? Depends on environment , yet the speed and “quality” of aging is very far from the sheng.
You can imagine it that way : Bite a green apple , see that bitten part starting to oxidize and turning to brown ( it is aging – turning to shu 😉 ) . You bite that brown and clearly can taste the difference from previous sour taste and now “sweet – ish” taste.
Take an already “aged / oxidized” ( brown ) apple , bite it and then bite it later again. There will be not much difference between those two bites ( already shu is turning to “more” shu ) .
To someone this might be a bold statement: ” Sheng puer you want to age now and drink later but Shu puer you want to drink now and preserve for later”
From certain time after production ( how long , that depends on processing ) , you are looking for preserving the original flavor rather than hoping it would change to something better , as it’s common for shengs.
We keep all our loose leaf in airtight containers to avoid them dried out. Big wholesale vendors on tea markets can not do so with the amount they have , after few years the dry wood starting to emerge. Pressed tea holds longer moist inside , and if well stored , some interesting notes might emerge ( like natural ” nuo mi ” notes for example ) .
It is common for most of the shu puer tea made in big batches , that it is not much drinkable for few months or year after the production. But there are some well made batches ( mostly in small quantity ) which are ready after few weeks , with very mild pile scent ” dui wei” without any other unpleasant notes being in presence.
In Kunming storage in my personal point of view , taste preference and experience with going through locally stored shu puer , the best period of time for pressed Shu is between 2 – 10 years ( 15 – 20 years if stored near river / lake area or combined with higher humidity place , or somehow very well preserved from outer dry conditions ) . For loose is 1 – 5 years ( 10 years if you keep it airtight well ). Most of 15 or 20 years loose shu puer fully stored in Kunming I had so far, were just dry wood with scratchy sand / dust in throat.
Guangzhou ( or other hot-humid place ) has an advantage of continual partial / additional “ageing” , as the environment is close to what is happening during the actual pile fermentation process and fungal activity still can take a place. Guangzhou dealers often order light fermented shu exactly because of that. It will give an extra “space” for that additional sort of “fermentation” and after few years storage that shu turns very nice.
The disadvantage of wet & humid storage conditions is that tea is very vulnerable to catch some mold due to the mentioned fungi activity which is not controlled this time ( as during the actual fermentation ) . That can dramatically influence taste negatively ( as some people take it as the taste of ageing ) and most importantly the health safety issues should be concerned ( like mycotoxins ..etc. )
5.Taste of Shu Puer
The biggest mistake of beginning puer tea drinker is focusing and expecting to taste the notes described with tea as the actual “full” taste. These are only notes of the actual taste , some might be light some might be very intensive, but chocolate is not actual sweet chocolate taste but rather bitter touch of dark chocolate.
Another beginners misguided path is to follow some other beginner who writes taste notes full of flavors of exotic tastes , sometimes going into very extreme level of fantasy. This is very individual and hard to distinguish the reality from fantasy in many cases.
We keep it simple narrowing it down to some basic taste notes which are already above the average of general Chinese tea vendor or tea drinker spectrum. But we are not going to talk about those. We focus on specific ones related to processing or storage.
Smoky – as already mentioned before , it is part of the traditional processing method being used by some big name tea factories and it was very popular for shengs back in 2010 – 2015 , or so. Smoky notes might emerge in tea which was made during the rainy season ( like summer , so summer harvest ) so there were no good conditions for drying the tea leaves after kill green ( when making the sheng ) . Some big factories would use drying drum , but less developed producers would use traditional methods which involve actual fire and therefore smoke.
Some Guangzhou shu dealers choose this concept as the smoky notes in their storage turns to pleasant sweet and camphor – ish notes. Also the fact , that many of them buy summer tea as the price is very cheap.
Dry wood – as mentioned already, these can occur in dry stored place in some longer time and the line between comfort and discomfort of this taste is very individual. Woody taste could be an intentional processing technique like ” cheng wei / cheng xiang ” – aged taste , mostly applied by bigger or semi-big tea factories. The point is to imitate what the name actually says.
Cardboard box / leather– ( also tasted by some tea drinkers as toasted cornflakes notes ) could be caused by storing tea in sealed cardboard boxes for long time. If with touch of medicine notes , that more than likely would be the taste of huang pian – yellow leaves. Also fermentation is some places like Baoshan area , might have emerge such a notes even if no huang pian involved and tea is relatively new ( not stored ).
Wet wood – this will happen to shu which was either dry stored long time and moved to humid place for ” awakening ” or made as mentioned cheng wei concept and wet stored. Some low grades shu ( not necessarily low quality ) in wet stored places might have those notes as well.
Wet basement – as the name suggests , it has lot’s of common with the storage as well as with the previously mentioned fungal activity. It is very welcomed in teas like Liu Bao but some fans of wet stored shu love that also in their cake.
Musty Mushrooms – as you can imagine from the name, it is what it is. Mushroom notes are also common in wet stored sheng and it could be in comfortable or acceptable zone. Yet some might be musty overwhelming fungi. The zone of preference and line of tolerance in this is very individual.
Acid / Alcohol – ( also called fancy name ” Bourbon notes ” ) is something what might happen during the processing when fermentation goes wrong and batch has to be thrown away ( master probably fired 😉 ) As it is related with the excess of humidity, it can very well happen during the storage as well. Also in this case there is a barrier line between comfort light Bourbon notes and acid gone off milk like notes. In any case, you hardly get that in fully dry stored shu puerh.
Fish – very common and probably most known aroma / taste between shu puer drinkers. It is normal for very young / fresh shu puerh as it is part of the microbial activity during the fermentation. It fades away in time which depends on some factors.
- How long loose shu was resting before got pressed. Some tea factories or private producers don’t wait long enough to get the dui wei air out and press cakes / bricks. The fishy taste is preserved much longer in pressed tea .
- Where is the tea stored after processing or pressing. If shu has no time to air out of the pile taste and moved to wet humid storage after , the fishy odor will fade away much slower.
Sometimes the fish is not in smell of dry leaves , not even in wet / brewed leaves , but if you cool the tea down to the room temperature, drink it and breath out through your nose , you still might catch some salmon there 😉
Dirty wet socks – as it sounds horrible and it is rightfully associated with bad storage, be aware of the fact that same kind of aroma and taste you may get from traditional Nuo Mi Xiang ( shu or sheng ) . So before you throw away that kinda shu, please check if it’s not labeled as Sticky Rice ” Nuo Mi Xiang “
Barn, compost, mouse or donkey excrement and other you may read on various forums as a part of the shu puerh description. Please note that involves many factors and some of them can be processing issue , previous storage or tea drinker’s perception of particular odor .
6.Blending Shu Puer
Three main reasons for blending shu : price , quality and taste. Producers might do blends for those reasons individually or combined.
- price – to lower the costs of final product it is very common to use cheaper tea material as base and something better to blend in. It is something like making the chocolate with certain % amount of cocoa. Mostly big tea factories would use some cheap summer harvest of tai di cha ( tableland / bush tea ) from areas like Lincang or Pu’er as the main ” dough for baking their product ” and blend it with some smaller % of another , better quality & taste, tea. Tea factories economy we pointing out in article Choosing tea.
- quality – another very common practice and very reasonable in matter of quality and economy is the blending different grades. Producer can use some lower grade as 3rd or 4th grade as a “dough” which guarantees consistency in multiple steepings and Gong Ting as additional “spices” for giving the thick bit in taste. Pressing only Gong Ting would be too expensive and doesn’t last many steepings ( typical for this grade ) .
- taste – is the concept in which many tea drinkers believe that producers go for without taking in concern previous two factors. That can be expected from small producers or hobby vendors , not from big or semi big tea factory. Of course those two factors influence the taste also. Also blending grades concept might consist two or more teas from different sources / locations / taste profile.
7.Pricing of Shu Puer
Expenses : Price for the fresh tea leaves, tea pickers , processing to the sheng puerh , fermentation processing , pressing , wrapping , marketing ( marketing workers , advertisements , tea expo ..etc. ) , storage , shop/s ( rent , staffs ) profit of the owner and shareholders.
Some of the mentioned parts you ,as a buyer , can skip by being Smart tea buyer in order to get you fair price for tea.
Probably the most balanced ratio of quality : price is the Loose Shu puerh tea from not famous area. The advantage is that not much dust and broken bits as comes from chipping the cakes , no hassle with preparation / breaking the brick , no marketing “wrapped” around it – so consuming efficiency is pretty high. The only disadvantage is the preservation of flavor , as mentioned earlier. But simple solution is small jar with airtight lid.
Probably the most “unfair” price you get from the pressed products of big famous tea factories , branded, nicely wrapped / sometimes expensive looking box , with additional “aged” or “investment ” price tag with high chances to get a fake. More about can read in article Puerh Tea Business.
As the price of pressed tea comes from various factors explained before in paragraph Blending Shu Puer , lets have look at Loose Shu Puer pricing.
- harvest – most of the shu puerh on market is made of summer harvest ( the cheapest ) , autumn or the late spring harvest ( the most expensive ). The actual material used for making the pressed product could be the mixture of all of those.
- tea tree type – most of the mao cha used for fermentation is the bush tea harvest since the amount available and low price. More expensive is stuff from arbors and most expensive of course from Gushu ( hardly find genuine even on local tea market and usually would be used autumn harvest for that due to the high price of the fresh leaves )
- processing – in my opinion and experience , the most important part of the shu puerh equation Price = Quality. Small produced batches are more controllable / adjustable to the present ( period of processing ) environment and therefore much better results can be achieved. There are some top notch shu puer loose leaf products which don’t reach internet world just because don’t have that marketing attached. It sells easily offline because taste in cup does more than beautiful wrapper.
- grade – after selection of general grade the output of higher grades is much smaller and so the price is higher. That’s from the technical / processing point of view. From the quality side , as already mentioned in previous paragraph and in article Quality of Tea , it is variable based on some other factors.
- storage – clean , relatively dry and well ventilated premises also cost money and with increasing rent prices, this factor also adds a lot to the final price of the product.
- origin – very marketed factor and can make the tea in very unbalanced ratio of Quality : Price . The positive factor could be that high price material is treated carefully so mao cha from some very know places would be fermented in small batches / baskets / over ground fermentation.
- age – comes hand in hand with storage but this paragraph points on very old shu puerh. The fact that shu puer is made for drinking rather long storage , there is not much legit old stuff on market , if it is , it is very expensive and usually sold offline between trusted sources with tracked back history of purchase, storage etc. Loose leaf is even more rare and so the price also much higher , yet it is the most vulnerable for faking / false age claims. More about that in article Fake Tea.
- packaging – This is the not only marketing part but also the quantity related factor. If you buy 50g packaging, it will more than likely come in some nice pouch / box with some label and brand ( except us 😉 ) . If you buy half kg or 1kg in simple pouch , all marketing is “stripped” off and you getting better deal on amount discount. More about in Tea Marketing article. Same applies to the pressed tea , where pressing smaller amounts is actually more expensive than bigger cakes / bricks. For detailed information see video Mini Tuo Cha.
At the end of the day it depends on why do you drink the shu puerh.
Buying the loose leaf doesn’t give you that authentic experience of the puerh tea ceremony as there is no knife to be penetrated into pressed leaves , there is no old aroma from wrapping paper to be smelled and for sure not too interesting pictures for your FB or IG sharing with other puerh enthusiasts. Should you choose buy pressed tea from not famous producers you have very few people engage with your posts / pictures on soc media and if simple white wrapper , probably even 0 likes 😉 You will miss that long discussions about TF – A versus TF – B of which recipe is better – 12345 or 54321 where, in many cases, the early mentioned 1st. blending concept is used anyway .
8.Quality and Value of Shu Puer
As you can notice I distinguish between price and value and more about is written in article Choosing Tea ( 4. Understanding Value and Price of Pu-erh Tea ) . If we skip the collection or ” fame name ” value of shu puerh , we get to the point that the value of actual tea is related to it’s quality.
The quality of shu puerh is predetermined by four factors : harvest , tea tree type , processing and quality of storage / pressing.
trees + harvest + grade + processing + storage = quality
To all that you need to add ones personal preference , because it is very common that tea drinker can prefer taste of lower quality shu ( mostly without knowing that ) due to it’s unique taste.
quality + preference = value
Example : High quality Gong Ting , rich taste , smooth and sweet …but for me is just too rich and straight in taste. I can more prefer blend with some lower grade which gives tea some other notes , lets say even touch of huang pian ( those are very vivid ) for better imagination.
Tea might have been badly stored and developed some nasty notes previously discussed in Taste of Shu Puerh paragraph. The taste crossed my personal borderline of tolerance but that could be the line where for somebody’s else just starting the 5 star aged shu puer and that person is willing to pay 100$ for this , where I wouldn’t drink it if somebody gives me 100$ 😉
It may sound too exaggerated , but I can assure I have came across in such a differences.
9. How to buy good Shu Puer ?
There is no any ultimate advice for that. As you can see from whole article, lot’s of variables involved. How to Choose a Tea Vendor is one thing and how to find good Shou Puer is another chapter.
I believe that from this article you should get an idea already.
I always advise sample , sample and sample. But sample systematically not chaotically trying this and that , asking of various forums for advice based on some preferences you describe without realizing that what for you is chocolate notes , for somebody else there in group might be just bitter taste. Let alone the fact that you have no idea who is posting recommendations ( the person’s shu puer drinking experience ) .
Don’t ask for safe boat but ask for : “how to swim”.
I always encourage beginning tea drinkers to learn how to find their stuff rather copy – paste some links to particular products. And if you are not one of those tea vendors applying an aggressive marketing ( spamming ) , I’d suggest you to do the same. When you want to help someone , share on forum the way how you find the stuff , not where .
Please also note that this is not a static article but dynamic one , we do update it time of the time with new information!