The Difference between Raw and Ripened Pu’erh Tea

Puerh teaPreviously I wrote about 6 Interesting Facts About Pu-Erh Tea, but did you know that when we talk about pu’erh, there are actually two further categories? Many articles you find about pu’erh discuss the post-fermented variety (also known as ripened pu’erh, or inaccurately referred to as cooked pu’erh) so let’s tip the balance a little and explain both categories in more detail. Oh and one more interesting fact, the Chinese use the term black tea to refer to pu’erh, which, of course is not to be confused with the black tea that we know and love in the Western world.

Pu’erh is a complex category of tea in that there are two stages of manufacture. The first stage is to produce what is known as maocha (loosely translated as ‘rough tea’). Maocha is essentially an unoxidized green tea but differs from traditional green tea in that the tea leaves plucked for green tea are typically a bud and 2 leaves, whereas for maocha, the leaves plucked are typically a bud and 3-4 leaves. The leaves that are often picked to produce maocha are often large fibrous leaves plucked from trees or bushes in the Yunnan province of China.

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The second stage of manufacture determines whether we create the raw or the ripened variety of pu’erh. The final product of raw pu’erh involves the steaming of the maocha so that the leaves can be further manipulated, sorting the leaves into various grades, pressing the leaves into various shapes, drying to prevent molding, and then storing in order to begin the aging process. The aging process can vary up to 20 years. Depending on the age of the tea, it can taste astringent (a slight dryness to the mouth), sometimes a little bitter, grassy, smoky but can also have a sweet aftertaste. This tea is not recommended to be consumed daily.

Ripened pu’erh was developed in 1973 at the Kunming Tea Factory, in order to speed up the natural aging and fermentation process of raw pu’erh. Maocha is taken through the stages of fermentation which involves placing the tea on the ground and sprinkling water over the tea to kick off the process of fermentation; kind of like composting but without the manure.  The moist leaves are covered with sheets in a warm environment to maintain humidity, where bacteria then helps to nurture fermentation. The fermentation process can take up to 60 days. Once the tea is fermented, it is sorted and separated into grades; and is either sold as loose leaf tea, or goes through an additional process of blending and compressing into different shapes. The cakes or bricks are finally baked to prevent molding.

Ripened pu’erh is typically served at a Chinese restaurant when Chinese families go out for Dim Sum on Sundays, and is purported to aid with digestion and said help to lower cholesterol. The flavor profile of this tea has often been described as having woody notes, hints of mushrooms, jujube (Chinese dates). It can have a peaty, earthy taste with a round thick mouth feel (i.e. gives a pleasant coating around the mouth). It has a deep brown color and is a great tea for coffee lovers to try because of the deep brown color and also because of the bold robust flavors when you sip it.

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the difference between raw and ripened pu’erh tea.

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