The Different Types of Puerh Tea (and Why They’re Different)
You might already know about puerh tea benefits, but did you know that some puerh teas can be delightfully sweet, fruity, and rich, while others might give off bold and earthy flavors? Confused much? Although the number of puerh devotees is increasing steadily worldwide, many of them don’t really know much about the types of puerh tea, their flavor profiles, liquor colors, and other differences among them.
Fret not, for we’ve come to the rescue! That is to say, we’ve explained the types of puerh tea to a T for you, in case you want to explore the world of puerh to the ends of the earth.
What are the types of puerh tea?
There are 2 major types of puerh tea:
- Raw puerh or Sheng puerh (sheng cha)
- Ripe puerh or Shu puerh (shu cha)
Among these, you can also find 2 types that differ from each other greatly: young puerh and aged puerh. With these two puerh variants, we can speak of 4 major kinds of pu-erh tea, and then the flavoured variations:
Flavoured puerh (usually just ripe)
Apart from shu cha and sheng cha, there’s another Chinese term you may have come across, “Mao cha”. Let’s dive deep into the seas containing the various types of puerh tea, and what makes them different from one another.
What is Maocha?
Maocha or Mao cha is a Chinese term referring to unfinished or rough tea (usually consisting of green puerh tea leaves) that’s already been processed, but isn’t quite ready for being sold yet.
In other words, this tea isn’t fully dried, and is partially roasted and wilted. It’s actually the raw material from which both sheng puerh and shu puerh are made.
Tea producers might taste this unfinished puerh tea to gauge the development in its flavor. Although it’s almost never sold to consumers due to its harsh and bitter taste, you might find people, both in China and abroad, buying Mao cha as loose-leaf raw puerh tea, to control the aging process on their own.
As Maocha ages over time, its bitter taste can mellow down into a smoother flavor.
If you’re a beginner or a casual puerh drinker, though, we don’t recommend aging Maocha by yourself. When storing puerh teas at home, both the climate factor and flavor contamination from storage conditions are major concerns.
What is Young Raw puerh?
Generally less than 5 years old, young raw puerh can be either sweet or bitter, but mostly smooth and well-balanced with a light roasted nut flavor and a lingering floral scent.
Some people hate the bitter taste of this type of puerh tea, but you might like it, you never know!
With that said, this tea is more like green tea than the other types of puerh tea are. So, whenever you brew a cup of young sheng puerh, you should drink it up fast, like green tea. And remember, it tastes best if you brew it in either the Gaiwan or the Western style.
No wonder so many tea buffs enjoy drinking fresh young raw puerh!
What is Aged Raw puerh?
One of the most desirable types of puerh tea, this tea’s history dates back to the Eastern Han or Later Han dynasty, when the people of that part of China ruled by this dynasty were looking for a tea that wouldn’t get spoiled during long trips between villages. Carrying puerh tea on their long travels, they found that this tea improved in flavor with age.
Raw puerh becomes smoother and more mellow as it ages, decreasing the bitterness over time. This leads to the development of dark fruit or camphor notes, and earthy, woodsy qualities of the tea.
When brewed, aged raw puerh can look deep red, and much darker than young raw puerh. However, the color depends not only on the tea’s age, but also on the storage conditions of the puerh tea.
Once sheng puerh tea (especially the ones made from premium raw materials) ages naturally, it gets an other-worldly flavor. You can even go so far as to say that it’s the best puerh tea in terms of taste.
That’s why puerh connoisseurs seek old or aged sheng puerh more than they seek any other types of puerh tea.
What is Ripe puerh?
Back in the 1970s, the high demand for aged sheng puerh left tea producers in a pickle - how could they produce aged raw puerh in such large quantities, and fast? That’s when they came up with an innovative idea - why not produce a type of puerh tea that mimics the color, aroma, and taste of aged raw puerh? Now you know how shu puerh came about!
For processing ripe puerh, a high-humidity wet-piling method is used to speed up the fermentation process.
At first, shu puerh tea producers heap the green maocha into a large pile. Once they introduce the required microbes into the pile by mixing in a little amount of the previous batch of tea, they let the tea leaves ferment.
The heat from this dense pile then encourages quick fermentation. To completely ferment the tea leaves, the tea producers keep turning the leaves regularly.
Finally, they press the fully fermented tea leaves into puerh cakes, ready to break and drink. However, not all shu puerh leaves are pressed into cakes - you can get loose leaf shu puerh, too.
The shu cha brew is typically deep red or dark chestnut, and almost black in color.
Aged ripe puerh
If you drink fresh young ripe puerh tea, you may feel that it tastes a lot like fish. This “fishy” puerh tea taste disappears with age, as the flavor profile becomes more complex.
For this reason, shu cha tastes a lot like aged raw puerh, but the ripe puerh doesn’t change as much as raw puerh does over time. In short, naturally aged sheng puerh has a more complex flavor profile than shu puerh tea.
How do the types of puerh tea differ from one another?
- Appearance of the tea leaves
The brewed leaves of shu cha or ripe puerh aren’t soft, but broken and black in color. In contrast, those of sheng cha or raw puerh, especially the fresh young ones, are soft, plump, and more intact than the leaves of ripe puerh are.
- Fermentation time
Raw puerh tea, especially aged raw puerh, takes anywhere between 20 and 30 years to get fully fermented. On the other hand, ripe puerh or shu cha can achieve full fermentation in just a few months.
- Color of the tea liquor
The color of raw puerh tea liquor varies from golden yellow to light orange, burnt orange or deep dark red, depending on the tea’s age. However, you can recognize shu cha by the dark chestnut color of its brew.
- The taste of the brew
Usually earthy and mellow, ripe puerh tastes smoother with age. The earthy flavor of this type of puerh tea also transforms into a sweet plum flavor. Young raw puerh tea, on the other hand, tastes a lot like green tea, while aged raw puerh tea is famous for its complex flavor profile and a long-lasting aftertaste.
Other types of puerh tea
There are flavored puerh tea classics beyond the raw and ripe variants, that you may or may not have heard of. The two are particularly popular:
Chrysanthemum puerh tea is a popular herbal blend of dried Chrysanthemum flowers and puerh tea in China, adding a fresh, light fragrance to the puerh tea liquor. Being the perfect digestive tea, it’s usually served in Chinese restaurants, particularly during Cantonese dim sum (a wide range of small dishes that Cantonese people enjoy for breakfast and lunch).
Combining the bright citrus notes of tangerine with the earthy and smooth flavor of ripe puerh, classic Tangerine puerh tea promises to be a delicious blend. When you pack shu puerh tea leaves inside a tangerine peel to brew this tea, they get infused with the orange flavor. This flavored puerh brew is bright amber in color, giving off a sweet, honey-like aroma with citrusy undertones.
The bottom line
If you’ve just started out with puerh, you might want to try each of the different types of puerh tea to see which one you like best.
Using the categories we’ve listed above for ripe puerh, young raw puerh, and aged raw puerh, you’ll be able to recognize and explore the types of puerh tea more easily than before. Happy Cha’ing!