Pu-erh tea, aged or young? Is there a right age for its consumption?

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Many questions bout Pu-erh teas

Many questions have been asked about this special category of Chinese tea: new or aged? raw or ripened? Is there a limit of its aging? Is there a prime time for its consumption?

The Pu-erh teapants and leaves

Very different from other categories of Chinese teas, Pu-erh teas are made of tea leaves harvested from tea trees (while all others are from tea bushes). Within the botanical family of Camellia sinensis (plant of making all teas), they belong to the ‘Da Ye (big leave)’ class – the leaves are substantially bigger than the other tea leaves.

Pu-erh tea trade

Pu-erh tea has had a long history in China. Its trade was recorded as early as Tang Dynasty in the Pu-erh area of the Yunnan province, south-west of China. It quickly became a sought after commodity and traded far beyond its birthplace. It’s high demand from the west and north-west regions of China turned it into a trade jewel used by the emperors of the time to reinforce their reign over the remote regions of China.

Chinese Pu-erh teaAs we understand, the transportation at the time was mainly by animals and human. To facilitate the trade, the loose leaves were compressed into disc shape cakes, wrapped in bamboo leaves in stacks and transported out of the mountain areas by human porters before being loaded to horses for far and beyond journeys. These ancient tea trade routes were well mapped and recorded as ' the Ancient Horse Tea Trade Routes' in the Chinese history. 

Why are pu-erh teas in cake form

Generally speaking, the texture of a tea brew is correlated with the tenderness of the tea leaves when fresh, the younger the tea leaves are, the smoother the texture is. Being a tea made of big leaves from tea trees, Pu-erh tea is relatively ‘rough’ when first harvested and not suitable for immediate consumption. They are therefore 'softern' through:

  1. Stored for a couples of years as dry leaves before being compressed into cakes or sold loose
  2. Put through a speed fermenting process before being compressed into cakes (ripened Pu-erh), Tuocha or brick
  3. Being compressed into cakes, Tuocha or bricks to ferment naturally (raw pu-erh)

The results of this fermenting process is a tea that is largely softened in its texture and development of a unique Pu-erh aroma and fragrance, described as earthy, woody yet extremely refreshing and mellowing.

The cake form of Pu-erh teas not only facilitated their transportation and storage during their ancient trade when efficiency was crucial, but also the essential fermentation process for the teas to excel in their quality.

The prime time for aged pu-erh consumption

With this in mind, I would attempt to answer the question that has been asked by many: is there a limit of pu-erh tea’s aging process? Or if there is a prime time for a pu-erh tea to be consumed?

Pu-erh tea is made of tea leaves. I personally would not want to consume any plant product that is over 30 years old. I tend to agree with a common consensus among the pu-erh tea drinkers: anywhere between 10 to 20 years is a good time for a pu-erh to age and be consumed.

Practical hints

Following are some hints for the pu-erh tea consumers when considering purchase or collection:

  1. Like all other Chinese teas, the quality range of Pu-erh tea is wide
  2. Only the premium Pu-erh teas have high collection value. There is little difference one can make to a low quality Pu-erh regardless what you do with it (similar to wine in this regard).
  3. A raw Pu-erh will have more collection and ageing value than a ripened Pu-erh, as the later has already been speed fermented therefore less room for further improvement.
  4. The fermentation process of Pu-erh teas is quite complex. It is generally believed that a good combination of young and mature leaves, even a small proportion of stalk will harmonise the fermentation process. (This is in relation to loose pu-erh teas which tend to use predominantly young tip leaves.)

My last reminder under this topic is that the ultimate judge of a pu-erh tea should be you or your taste buds. There are murky suppliers on the current market selling so call ‘vintage pu-erh teas’ for higher than deserved prices. A premium aged pu-erh should have following: 

  • A clean, pure, woody/earthy aroma. Due to Pu-erh teas' long storage and high absorbent nature, many 'unwanted' odours can be 'acquired': 
    • unclean storage and environment
    • to achieve a state of 'speed ageing', certain vendors put the Pu-erh teas trough 'wet storage' resulting in Pu-erh teas of mouldy, mushroom, damp, musty odour.
  • A smooth texture. Suo-Hou (锁喉) is a sensation used in Chinese to describe a rough and tight sensation in the throat, often caused by either inadequate processing or storage of Pu-erh teas. 
  • Fragrant yet mature flavours, described mellow, forest floor, fruity or woody depending on the varieties. 
  • Internal energy. A high class aged Pu-erh's internal energy can be sensed starting from the mouth and gredually difused through the whole body. 
  • Powerful & long lasting aftertaste.