Pu Er is a rising tea in the past 20 year. In fact, many connoisseurs mark year 2003 as the "year zero" of Pu Er, so yeah, 20 years exactly.
However, it's also one of the most debated teas from China - a subject of fame and money, misinformation and scams. From the Pu Er Bubble in the 2007/2008 to the recent episode of $70 million pu er fraud at the largest tea market in Guang Dong making headlines of even financial news, the topic of ethical practice around pu er concerns many.
So a candid question is asked, is pu er scandalous or legit? And if the latter, how does one start to understand pu er.
I recently gave my thoughts on this helpful question to Eighty Degrees Magazine, the high quality publication on many topics of tea. A concise version of my answer can be found in the latest issue, and I want to share the full, lengthy version in this blog post.
How does one start to understand pu er?
The best way to learn tea is to first understand what makes up a tea’s quality. And that are three groups of factors.
- Terroir – everything related to the place and environment of where the tea comes from. This can be an extensive list of above-the-ground factors and below-the-ground factors.
- Cultivar – everything about the plant itself, from its varietal to its cultivation style to its age.
- Processing – terroir and cultivar gave us the potential of fresh tea leaves, and we need to “make” the tea to unleash and fulfill this potential. This is a human execution, and it starts from timing of the harvesting to basic steps that defines a style of tea to nuanced techniques that distinguish an excellent tea from a mediocre one.
One can start the journey of learning tea by investigating into any of these three groups of factors. But I usually recommend one starts with terroir as this is the leading factor of a tea’s price, and the other two factors have a high correlation with terroir.
Terroir is extra important for one to know pu er, because pu er is actually named after terroir, just like some French wine is named after the location it is produced.
As with getting to know any terroir, I’d start with broad geography and then keep diving deeper into more specific locations. So for pu er, one should start with region (there are only three main ones), then narrow down to mountains, then to villages, and then lots. Note that each location has a different value and assumed quality associated with it, just like the appellation control of wine. The price of a pu er from Wu Liang Shan is categorically different from a pu er from Ban Po Lao Zhai. So part of knowing terroir is not just the geography, but also over time accumulate an understanding of its association with the value of the tea.
Often times I see people reaching a bottle neck in learning pu er is when one is not focused on its terroir. Do not get distracted by the fancy names of the tea, like Imperial Grade, top pu ers are ALWAYS named after the lot, village, mountain, or region it comes from. Usually the more specific the terroir is, the more valuable the tea is. Just like a Margaux wine does not want to get homogenized with any wine from Bordeaux, one should not mistaken a Ge Deng as it is the same of any pu er from Yi Wu.
Note that because pu er only received fame in recent years, the price volatility is high. That means different locations are still competing for its terroir ranking in our generation. However, while price swings, the general quality association with a terroir is relatively defined. And one can argue that this only adds more to the fun of learning pu er!
For a comprehensive guide to pu er geography. Refer to this article:
The second factor I would focus on for pu er is the age of tea tree. One of the most attractive merits of pu er as a category of tea is that it allows a tea lover to experience the magic of ancient tea trees at a relatively low cost. There’s still thousands of acres of tea trees planted in Ming and Qing Dynasties left in the pu er regions vs. the next highest count region for ancient tea trees is Feng Huang Shan which has merely hundreds of tea trees left.
However, due to high popularity of pu er in the recent years and also the modern episode of Yun Nan being a hub of exported teas, therefore one of the highest volume tea regions, majority of the teas from Yun Nan is NOT from the desired ancient tea trees.
So depending on the age, the raw material (fresh leaves) are categorized into these hierarchies:
- Gu Shu/Lao Shu – ancient tea trees planted during Ming and Qing Dynasties, usually around 150 – 600 years old.
- Xiao Shu – heirloom tea trees planted during the gap/down time in the past hundred year to decades.
- Sheng Tai/Organic – clone tea trees planted since the late 80s and 90s, usually are only converted into more sustainable ways of cultivation in the past 10 years.
- Tai Di/Plantation – clone tea trees planted in recent years on leveled ground (similar to rice terrace) with high density and yield
Because even the ancient tea mountains, aka. top terroir for pu er have all four types of tea trees, therefore, this adds to a complex layer of the value, taste and quality of pu er, in addition to the location alone.
This matters because even given the same tea mountain, the plantation teas can sell just a fraction of their gu shu teas. Budget aside, as part of the aspiration for a pu er connoisseurs to develop a discerning palate, it’s an essential skill to be able to differentiate the age of tea tree after getting a grasp of its terroir.
One thing to note is that age of the tea tree is different from the age of tea, which is referring to the vintage of the tea’s harvest and production. A common myth is that the more aged a pu er is, the better and more valuable the tea is. This is not true.
First of all, there’s not a traditional practice in Chinese culture to age tea, this is a new thing only started in the 2000s. A lot of the aged pu er are just left over teas of low quality that couldn’t be sold prior to the tea aging concept. One might argue that very old pu er has collectable value, just like Jefferson wines do, but this is not to be mistaken for an endorsement of quality and we are talking about “old” being 100 year old, not since the mass production era in the 70s. If a pu er is only drinkable after it is being aged, it’s not a pu er worth aging in the first place. Just like a $9.99 bottle of wine does not become a $999 bottle of wine after 20 years, not all pu ers are intentionally aged nor worth aging in the first place. The price correlation of a made pu er’s age is much lower than with its terroir and age of tea tree, especially given China’s general economical growth and increase of labor cost and product prices – new tea prices are higher each year, not old teas.
For more explanation on the history of tea and the different age groups, refer to
Beyond terroir and cultivar, there are also quality difference of pu er made on sunny days vs. rainy days, the specific techniques of sha qing, etc. But to start one’s journey, I’d first get a good understanding of the tea’s terroir and the age of tea trees.