The “Raw” Appeal of Puer Tea

Puer cake and brewed leaves
Puer cake and brewed leaves

A few weeks back, Austin clunked a pint glass down on my desk. The glass was loaded to its rim with steeping leaves – thick, stemmy, Yunnan tea tree leaves. He told me it was young sheng puer and he demanded I have a sip. I had an empty stomach, but as an employee I was obliged.

Mind you, for a long time I regarded young sheng puer tea to be something like single malt whiskey. It’s a harrowing endeavor for a frail stomach, an expensive habit to keep up with, and despite these two facts (or more probably because of them) all the coolest kids on the block are already drinking it with a sense of self-importance and discernment.  For a long time I just didn’t get it, and I confess, I was rarely bold enough to brew up young puer more than a few times a month for my own enjoyment. Along the way, though, I’ve had some experiences that have illustrated what is so captivating about this type of tea for so many serious tea drinkers. Tasting the aforementioned pint glass was one such an event.

The tea was strong, to be sure, but tasted impossibly smooth. Austin asked me to guess what it was. I guessed it was some outrageously priced Meng Ku tea he brought out from his own collection. The tea turned out of be from Jing Mai and taken from a cake pressed in 2011. This was actually a tea I had drunk a fair amount of when it first arrived in our warehouse years ago. At that time, I thought it  was a chewy, bright, and astringent young tea that I felt I should be drinking to be familiar with, even if my stomach could barely take its strength. Now, there was not even a shadow of the astringency left in its leaves, while it retained the strength and complexity you might find in good wulong. Pretty impressive for a puer tea barely three years deep into some very dry aging. Why the dramatic change? The answer, I’ve been told, is that this quick reduction of astringency with age is one of the virtues of old tree puer.

If you’ve ever tried to buy a cake of puer tea, you know that this claim of leaves being from old trees or “gu shu”, is one that is frequently tossed around and isn’t always true. How do you know you are getting the real stuff? A telling detail, as Austin pointed out to me that day, is to look at the stems when they are dry and after they have gone through brewing. The picture above is a side-by-side snap shot I took of the dry cake with infused leaves. The dry stems are quite skinny, but when infused they swell considerably. This a unique characteristic of old tree puer stems. Interesting tip!

Discussions of puer tea seem to always invite this kind of minutia, but therein lies the appeal — all of the variables that contribute to the final character of a tea: plant age, micro climate differences between village areas, aging time, aging conditions, etc. are never so on display as they are in sheng puer. For what is conceived as a single category of tea, puer tea manages to be diverse — often surprisingly so. I think now I am finally seeing the light.