The Lab

Brief Guide to Puer

Puer is a town in Yunnan Province of China that was once a dominant trading center for farmers of the surrounding mountains. The villagers developed a pressing method to easily transport the tea by horseback. Before tea cakes were outlawed as tribute during the Ming, they were the dominant form of tea consumption, and loose leaf tea was far less common. The major tea-producing prefectures of Yunnan are Lincang, Dehong, Puer (Formerly Simao), Xishhuangbanna, and Wenshan. There are six famous mountains in Xishuangbanna for producing unique Puer; Bulang, Jingmai, Menghai, Nannuo, Yiwu (Mansa) Mountain, Youle (Jinuo). Pu’er is entirely made from the Assamica subspecies of Camelia sinensis or Da Ye (Big Leaf).

Processing

Puer can be made in several styles. Sheng is raw puer that will age naturally. Shou Puer is artificially aged and may be pressed into cakes or sold loose leaf.

Plucking

Puer is graded using numbers 1-9 depending on the size of the leaves used. Smaller or larger leaves and varying proportions of buds may be used depending on the puer that is being made.

Withering

Withering is the partial drying of the leaves to 50-60% moisture in about 2-4 hours. The loss of moisture softens the leaves which allows them to be rolled and shaped without breaking. The tea may be withered in the sun or in well ventilated factory rooms.

Fixing

Pan firing the leaves is similar to green tea Sha Qing to prevent enzymatic oxidation. The pans used are traditionally much larger and heated by wood flames.

Pan Firing Puer

Maceration

The leaves are rolled to break down the leaves and release aromatic oils that will contribute to the flavor especially as the tea ages.

Drying

The leaves are dried in the sun or using mechanical air driers. This step stabilizes the oils before the tea will be pressed into cakes or aged loose. After this step the tea is known as Maocha. Sheng and Shou Puer processing is different from this step on.

Puer drying in the Sun

Sorting

The Maocha is sorted by size into 9 different grades. This reenforces the plucking grade earlier and ensures the Puer grade is consistent.

Puer Being Sorted

Compression

The dried leaves are weighed and sprayed with steam to moisten them and make them maleable. The nei fei or trademark is inserted for traceability. They are placed in a cloth and pressed into the desired shape, either using stone tools or with hydraulic machines.

Cakes Being Pressed using Metal and Bodyweight

Packaging

Each cake is wrapped in paper with identifiying marks. 7 cakes are wrapped together in bamboo called a tong. Every 6 tongs is a jin.

Shou Puer

The processing steps for Shou Puer are the same as Sheng Puer until the sorting stage. Instead of being compressed to age naturally over an extended period of time, shou puer will be aged artificially. The tea will be piled and sprayed with moisture, being turned occasionally over 6-8 weeks. This process mimics the natural aging process over a much shorter period of time.

After aging, the tea will be sorted to remove any under- or over- fermented leaves. It will next be pressed into cakes or packaging loose-leaf.

Reading a Puer Cake

Puer cakes are labeled using a numerical coding system printed on the outside wrapper.

The first two digits represent the year the puer recipe was created, not the year the specific cake was pressed. Most cakes are a blend of tea from various farms or regions, and the blend creation year will be labeled on the cake. Factories will recreate the same blend year after year. The actual pressing year will be on the nei fei pressed into the cake.
The third digit represents the grade of the puer from 1-9.
The fourth digit represent the number corresponding the puer factory it came from.

For single crop/farm pressings, the markings will display the origin and year.

Brewing

Brewing Puer is most forgiving. Using standard western brewing methods like tea infusers, bags, and pots, it should be brewed at a higher temperature (205°F-212°F) for longer periods of time (4-6+ minutes) to achieve optimal extraction. This will vary based on age and grade.

Brewing Puer Gongfu style is the most appropriate way to reveal the complex and nuanced flavors. This style uses a stronger brew ratio and several shorter steeps to reveal what flavors are extracted at varying parts of the brew.

What you will need:
Gaiwan
Filtration device, optional
Small pitcher (Gong Dao Bei)
Tea tray (chachuan), optional
Scale
Kettle
Tea cups
1g/fl oz loose leaf tea
Water at 205°F-212°F

Step 1: Add tea to gaiwan
Step 2: Rinse tea with hot water and immediately
discard, this removes dust and preheats vessel
Step 3: Add water to gaiwan until full, and steep for 30 seconds
Step 4: Carefully shift the lid away from the gaiwan lip. Creating a small space for water to pass, pour the infusion through the filtration device into pitcher
Step 5: Decant first steep evenly into separate cups until pitcher is empty
Step 6: Repeat this process for 3-5 steeps, remarking on the change of flavor with each successive steep

Patrick McKeown

Patrick began his coffee journey on Long Island at a small coffee bar and roasting at home. Since then he has been a barista, manager, and craft roaster in NYC.