The age of a Pu-erh when there is not a production date

As we all know, often the first thing we check on a compressed Pu-erh is the date on the back of its packaging – age equals the value and quality in many Pu-erh consumer’s mind. A date on the back Yunnan Pu-erh teawas however not required until 2007 as part of the local government's attempt to regular the Pu-erh production industry. So how do you decide the age of a Pu-erh produced before 2007 with a blank back like the one in the image?

A production date was regarded as not essential for Pu-erh teas until 2007, mainly due to there is not an expiry date for Pu-erh teas – the more they are aged the better, and the traditional way of how they were produced – in the villages and families. During the recent decades, various methods have been used to ‘fake’ Pu-erh’s age for the purpose of fetching a high price on the market. There are various aspects associated with an aged Pu-erh, such as tea colour and texture etc, each one can be manipulated up to certain point. The multiple aspects and dynamic nature of Pu-erh teas make judging their actual age hard, not only for the beginners buy also for many experienced Pu-erh consumers.

To establish some standards, the local governments in the Yunnan Province introduced the 12 points of information, such as the production date, the manufacturer and location etc, to be printed on the back of a Pu-erh product (apart from Maocha) in 2007 to offer consumers some references.

For the products produced before 2007 with a blank back, one can only go back to the very basics of aged Pu-erh teas drawn from experiences: colour, aroma, taste, texture and aftertaste.Buy Pu-erh tea

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How important is oxygen in Pu-erh's conversion?

We are all aware of the fact that the older a Pu-erh is, the better the quality. There are currently two options to acquire a well aged Pu-erh:

1. Buy it from a vendor, which is often expensive
2. Purchase young and store to age

The storage conditions are however crucial, they can make or break a tea. There are abundant theories out there speculating on the ideal conditions for a Pu-erh to age and convert: humidity, temperature and oxygen levels etc. There is however not so black and white when it comes to apply them in real life.

There has been an interesting article published recently about a an interesting experiment.

Method (www.puercn.com, Author: Yang Zhong Yue)

Four samples were created in 2013 using the same product, a fresh Jingmai (景迈) Gushu Pu-erh Maocha:

  • One vacuum sealed
  • One sealed, buy not vacuumed
  • One sealed, buy injected oxygen on a regular base
  • One natural open storage

All four samples were stored in a storage with a humidity machine for 4 years – the machine starts extracting extra humidity after it has exceeded 70%.

Results

  • The vacuum sealed Pu-erh sample: The colour has converted nicely into golden red, aroma strong in both dry leaf and tea brew. The downside is that it is very bitter, the most bitter one of the four samples.
  • The sealed but not vacuumed sample: good colour – golden red; Good aroma, but slightly less than the vacuum sealed sample; Significant reduction in bitterness and astringency.
  • Oxygen injected sample: Colour gold, less red than the previous two; Aroma OK, but not as strong as previous two. Bitterness and astringency reduced, more than the vacuumed one, but similar to the non-oxygen injected one.
  • Natural open stored sample: Colour gold, similar to the oxygen injected one; Very little aroma remained; There is some reduction in bitterness and astringency, but not as much as the sealed non-vacuumed one.

Summary

  1. Vacuuming is good to keep the Pu-erh teas in their original state, eg sample keeping, but not for consumption purpose ageing.
  2. Oxygen did not appear to have significant impact on the Pu-erh tea’s conversion, illustrated by the results of the oxygen injection and the natural open storage sample.
  3. There has been an active and ongoing internal conversions regulated by the internal enzymes of the tea leaves under the sealed conditions, result in rather satisfactory reduction of bitterness and astringency and colour conversion, without losing the aroma as the open stored sample. 
  4. The author acknowledged that this comparison was only conducted 4 years after the storage, longer term differences of the storage impacts on the Pu-erh teas are yet to be studied. 

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Top ripened Pu-erh tea a gamble than a prediction

Compared to most of the Chinese teas, green tea, white tea or black tea, ripened (Shou) Pu-erh tea is still in its infancy state – born in around 1975. ripened Pu-erh tea

Ripened Pu-erh’s ageing process is somewhat different from the traditional raw (Sheng) Pu-erh:

  • It is believed that ripened Pu-erh has less ageing potential, as the potential is overdrawn during their speed fermentation process called Ou-Dui.
  • On the other hand, the residual odours left from the Ou-Dui (acidic, fishy and mushroom smell) takes 2-3 years to evaporate

The combination the above results in a necessity of around 10 years to allow the ‘true colour’ of a ripened Pu-erh to reveal – the ‘bad stuff to disappear’ and the ‘good quality to come out’.

While being relatively new and lack of traditional wisdom to refer to, the Pu-erh masters are trying to draw some ‘road maps’ from the current available experiences while producing ‘new’ ripened Pu-erh tea for the future use.

Like all other teas, producing a premium quality ripened Pu-erh requires: 

  • The right original material – tea leaves
  • The right processing skills
  • The right storage conditions after their production

As the knowledge of processing ripened Pu-erh is being explored and accumulated and skills being fine-tuned, there is a consensus in the community that getting hold of a top end ripened (Shou) Pu-erh tea is more of a gamble than a prediction (可遇不可求).

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