Shu Puer: The masterpieces of the tea mycologist.

Newsletter Archive Mar. 11, 2022

Three men standing together in front of the trunk of an enormous tea tree that is wider than the three of them standing abreast.
Austin with our puer producers Chen Keke (right) and Li Dong (left) visiting the enormous Xiangzhuqing tree in Fengqing County.

This weekend, brew a cup of darkness with two new-process shu puer from the factory of Chen Keke and Li Dong – Shu Longzhu (Sweet Dragon Ball) 2016 and the Cha Tao (Aged Old Tree) 2017 cake, now back in stock after selling out surprisingly quickly.

When we first started buying muddy black bricks of shu puer tea over 20 years ago, this tea was treated with an air of mystery. Shu puer’s signature ripening or “fermentation” process had been around since 1973, but written knowledge about this process was spotty. Western tea traders hyperbolically called it “a state secret.” Despite this, in our early trips to Yunnan, we were welcomed in by tea makers eager to show off the efficiency and cleanliness of their ripening process. They possessed both pride in what they were doing and an eagerness to keep getting better.

In the years since, there’s been persistent scientific and commercial interest in understanding this process better as puer tea has gone from an obscurity to a luxury investment vehicle and even a health food. Things have come a long way for shu puer ripening, in part, due to the efforts of scientists like Dr. Chen Keke.

A man lounging next to a stone monument surrounded by tea bushes.
Chen Keke in Baiyingshan.

Chen Keke knows his tea but also knows his mushrooms, molds, and microbes. He schooled at the University of Oregon, researching mycelium. One gets the impression that Professor Chen absorbed some of Oregon’s far-out counterculture while he was there, too. Watching him scramble up tea mountains in his leather jacket with a cigarette in his lips and his hair blowing every which way, he looks a bit like Mick Jagger. Austin spent a few weeks on the road through Yunnan with Professor Chen back in 2015, an experience he describes as “oh god.”

The rockstar comparison isn’t far-fetched. Professor Chen is well known as a researcher in Yunnan. His post at the Chinese Academy of Science in Kunming has him submerged in the understanding of the microorganisms at work in shu puer processing. His work devises ways to nurture those that give the best flavor and minimize waste in the ripening process, requiring less turning (and less breakage). These techniques make it much less risky to use rare, expensive, or single-origin tea material for making shu puer.

A woman in a lab coat and glasses handling test tubes and glassware at the bench in a brightly lit laboratory.
A researcher at the Youleshan factory studying the different microbes that ripen maocha into shu puer tea.

Professor Chen works on further developing his own methods in a custom-built factory located in Youleshan, a sort of experimental laboratory for shu puer ripening. Here maocha sourced from different parts of Yunnan is processed in small batches, using a patented starter of microbes. The careful ripening of forest-harvested leaves for Shu Longzhu and the unusual blending of Camellia taliensis with Camellia sinensis var. assamica leaves in the Cha Tao cake all happened in this facility.

This extremely sophisticated handling of the delicate puer ripening process puts years of experience to the task. Fortunately, we don’t have to be mycologists to appreciate the exquisitely clean and sweet flavor of the tea it produces.

A small shu puer ball set in front of a jar of others and a tall glass filled with water and another ball of tea unfurling in the bottom, with infused tea rising from it in a darker plume.
Shu Longzhu (Sweet Dragon Ball) Shu Puer.