An Answer to a Question About Puer

This was a question that was posted as a comment that I thought deserved to be elevated to a post. Puer is a hot topic and pretty controversial because of the wide variation in price and amounts of money some Chinese and Japanese collectors are willing to pay, mysterious even mystical qualities ascribed to puer for ones health, and the lack of good information there is about this tea. Mike is a great source of information about puer and a hope I can add something here.

Michael Petro Says:
November 20th, 2005 at 10:39 am

Hi Austin, could you give us your opinion on how to select a cake that will be good for aging. What should we look for in a young puerh? Nobody wants to sit on a tea for 30 years only to find out that it isn’t any good! For example puerhs with a very high bud content (ie Silver tip bings) tend to better to drink right away rather than aging them. What other points of of wisdom can you or Zhuping offer?
– Mike

Here goes, Mike, I want to give you an answer that comes from the more conservative collectors.There are certain qualities that are pretty standard and straight forward. Without a doubt we want to start with a raw cake. Of course the first aspect to look at is the quality of the mao cha that goes into the cake (bing). The grade of mao cha is not so much the issue in aging (the size of the leaf) some of the most prized cakes are of the big leaf, bigger then 10th grade, size leaf. Two leaves and a bud should be the standard configuration for most cakes. The older cakes usually used a number three grade mao cha because this leaf configuration is consistent with that grade, but is possible to find some very old cakes with a blend that includes 3rd to 5th grade mao cha. The best leaves will be the whole un-broken leaves. In choosing a raw cake, you want to find leaves that have not been oxidized, turning them brown. You will have to brew the tea to see if the leaves are green. In the sunlight the tea cake should appear bright, like it has life. The leaves should be consistent through out the cake. The mao cha should have been sun dried and should have come from trees, not bushes. You have to trust the producer on this one. Sometimes mao cha that comes from trees is said to come from ‘wild trees’. This is not what it sounds like. Leaves from truly wild trees can leave you with a very badly upset intestines. What they call wild trees are older cultivated trees. These produce the best tea. Of course there are other factors, like the side of the mountain where it is grown, east being best, and the area of origin, etc. There is one other trick that is popular for buyers of raw cakes. The tea is brewed in a gaiwan used as the brewing device, and after multiple infusions, when the taste starts to become thin, the leaves are dumped, the gaiwan allowed to cool, and then the buyer will check to see it the gaiwan still retains the smell of the tea.
You ask about the silver bud cakes, and it is a hard question to answer, because these cakes are very new to the market and have not been around long enough to say, but I think that most puer people feel that these cakes will not have the robustness of cakes with more leaf. I suppose it is a matter of taste if one is saving it for themselves, rather than commercially. There is a priceless Golden Melon cake that was given to the Qing Emperor that is made from nothing but first grade buds. I’d love to taste some.

The compression of the cake is also a factor. Now, with modern machinery the compression of cakes can be very dense. This causes the natural fermentation to be much slower and not even throughout the cake. I have not seen this type of compression used much with raw cakes, but it is something to thing about. Some thing to remember also is that you can have a great beginning and the aging of the cake can decrease the quality and value. It is ironic that a puer bank has opened in Yunnan that advertises that the humidity is kept constant at 70%, which will facilitate faster natural fermentation, but will could decrease the value. 50 % would be much better, but slower. There should be good air flow, and the storage area should be free of smells other then the tea, and light should be kept a a minimum. The temperature should not be too hot or too cold, 70 degrees to 75 degrees would be fine.

I think that good puer is always good to drink now. We try to buy one one to save and one to drink but Zhuping hides puer all over the house so that I won’t drink it and our tea will age. Saving puer as an investment will probably be a struggle at our house.