What kind of pu'er do you have?
All About Pu'er Tea
Pu'er (普洱 pǔ'ěr) is a fascinating tea, both because of how unique it is, but also because it is rather new on the Chinese and international marketplace. So, there is information, but it's not reliable. There are standards, but adherence is not enforced. China's marketplace is not very regulated, and consumer's rights are not protected, so, although a vendor may claim some pu'er is from 1978 or that it is worth $5,000, please know that you have to be extra careful in the Chinese market.
If anything is unclear or you have any questions, please contact us!
Pu'er is classified or separated by the following factors:
■ sheng v. shu (green/raw/uncooked v. black/aged/cooked)
■ year of manufacture (generally the older the better, but only if the pu'er was made well in the first place and given that it is stored properly)
■ gushu v. taidi (old/ancient trees v. young commercially-planted bushes)
■ what mountain the leaves are from
■ Chahao (tea number, or recipe) (4 or 5 digit number on the package)
Sheng v. Shu
Before the 1970s all pu'er was sheng pu'er. Shēng (生) is translated as green, raw, or uncooked. I would say raw is the best translation. The tea is not green and is not really similar to green tea, so green is misleading. As for uncooked, it suggests that shu pu'er is cooked, which it is not. The process that is being called "cooked" is not very much like cooking. What this "sheng" means is that the leaves were plucked and minimally processed before being pressed into cakes and sold. People used to buy a cake and drink it slowly, letting it age (essentially oxidizing) and develop flavor over time. Young sheng pu'ers can have a very "lively" flavor, almost too excited and jumpy. They also cannot be steeped as long as sheng pu'ers that have been properly aged for 5 or 10 years.
In the 1970's, a process was invented that gave newly made pu'er an "aged" flavor. This process (called wōduī 涡堆 in Chinese) involves putting the partially-processed pu'er leaves in wet piles, cover them, and let them reach high temperatures. This pu'er is called shú, or shóu (熟） in Chinese, which means "mature, ripe," but is translated as black, cooked, ripe, or aged. These teas can be aged, but are usually not aged for as long as sheng pu'ers. Shu pu'er tastes quite different from sheng pu'er. Decent shu pu'er is smooth, woody, or earthy tasting, sometimes with hints of mushroom-like aromas. However, very cheap shu pu'er can be unpleasant, tasting overwhelmingly musty or too much like a barnyard. Pu'er is just like anything you drink- if you don't enjoy it, move on, keep trying until you find one that fits your palate.
Year of manufacture
This one is pretty straight-forward. A good vendor will tell you which year the pu'er was manufactured, for good reason. The older the pu'er, the more it is worth (given that it has been stored correctly). Since pu'er has gone through a bubble in the past ten years (see graph below), there is a lot of pu'er on the market from 2002-present. Finding pu'er from the 1990s is possible, but we recommend being highly cautious when buying pu'er allegedly older than that. Chinese vendors do not face the same consequences for misleading consumers. In Chinese society, consumers have to look out for themselves and if you spend a lot of money buying a fake product, it is not easy to get a refund.
Gǔshù (古树) v. Táidì (台地)
This distinction is not talked about much in the U.S., it is mostly invisible on packaging, and it is something most vendors won't bring up until you do. Gushu literally means "old tree" and refers to the pu'er trees (most tea comes from bushes) that are hundreds of years old, growing wild on mountains in Yunnan. However, most pu'er is from commercially-grown tea bushes that are less than 100 years old. The difference to the customer lies in two places: the flavor of the tea and the affect of the tea on your body. Taidi pu'er tastes more harsh, taidi sheng pu'er is more bitter than gushu pu'er. Gushu pu'er is smoother and gentler on your palate. According to Chinese tea drinkers, gushu pu'er is also better for your health.
Mountain the tea was grown on
Just like wine, with growing regions in France, pu'er tea is sometimes referred to by the mountain on which it was grown. There are many mountains where pu'er is grown, but here we will just mention "the big six:" Yìwǔ (易武), Yōulè (攸乐), Yǐbāng (倚邦), Mànsā (曼撒), Mànzhuān (曼砖), and Gédēng (革登) (aka Xiàngmíng 象明.) The name of the mountain is often mentioned on the packaging.
On the package of most pu'er cakes or bricks, you will find a four or five digit number. For example, "7581," "8582, " "7572," etc. This number has three parts:
The first two digits are the year that company started making that pu'er, or you could say they made that tea according to that year's "recipe." So, if you have a 2010 cake labelled "7581," they used a blend developed in 1975 to make that cake.
The third digit refers to the grade of leaf used (1 is the highest grade, but since there is not much standardization among leaf grades between manufacturers, I wouldn't put a lot of weight on this number to judge the quality of the tea).
And the fourth refers to the company that made it: 1 is for Kunming Tea Factory, 2 is for Menghai Tea Factory, 3 is for Xiaguan Tea Factory, and 4 is for Pu'er Tea Factory. These numbers were set in the 1970s, when only those four factories were big enough to warrant numbers. Any numbers after four are now used by smaller companies that have split off from the larger companies, but since they are not regulated, multiple companies may use the same number.
What's with the spelling? Is it Puer, Pu'er, Puerh, or...?
There are several ways to write Mandarin words using the Roman alphabet. For the past several decades by far the most common of these systems has been China's own official system, Hanyu Pinyin, which renders the name of the tea as "pǔ'ěr"-- or just "pu'er" if tone marks are omitted. The apostrophe, however, should not be omitted, because it's used whenever internal syllables begin with an a, e, or o. (For more on the rules, see www.pinyin.info.)
So what's with the h spelling that's often seen? Wade-Giles, the most common romanization system before Hanyu Pinyin, spells the second syllable erh. Wade-Giles, however, uses apostrophes in different ways than Hanyu Pinyin. So while the correct way to write this in Pinyin is "pu'er", the correct way in Wade-Giles is "pu-erh". So puer, pu er, pu-er, puerh, and pu erh are all incorrect.
Regardless of how one writes the word, the pronunciation should remain the same: with pu rhyming with the English word who, and er pronounced not like the -er in "singer" but more like the name of the letter R.
The tea takes its name from the town of Pu'er, which acted as a trading center for this kind of tea. So if you are referring to the city, use a capital P. But, just as one does not capitalize "black tea," "pu'er tea" does not need to be capitalized.
Thanks to Mark Swofford of pinyin.info for invaluable editorial assistance, Hanyu Pinyin expertise, and maintaining an informative website. For more on currents issues in Hanyu Pinyin, check out the news section.