The world of Puerh, the post-oxidised teas exclusively produced in the Chinese province of Yunnan, is complex and captivating. It can even be a little confusing due to the many facets and variables of this fascinating style of tea. These teas are well known for their unusual ageing process, their unique flavours and aromas as well as their health benefits. Another important distinction of Puerh remains - the difference between Shou cha and Sheng cha (fermented tea and green tea).
Sheng Puerh, also called raw, is naturally post-fermented after the tea is processed. The very slow fermentation process is caused by a bacterial fermentation that is the trademark of Puerh tea and is said to be the key to its many health benefits. After picking, heating, drying, etc. the green Puerh leaf is then steamed to shut down the oxidation process and lock in the polyphenols – antioxidants. The green leaf is then pressed into its chosen shape, brick, toucha, etc. it is the brick shape, size and a combination how tightly pressed the tea and its storage that determines how long the aging process will take. The Puerh leaf is very slowly converted over time by micro-organisms (fermentation); this will gradually change the colour, taste and aroma of the tea. The colour will become increasingly brown as a result of oxidation. Provided all the specific conditions are in place years are required before this style of Puerh will reach maturity (generally between 10 and 60 years). This is the traditional Puerh process.
The discovery of this process hundreds of years ago was a result of the long journey travelled along the Tea Horse Road from the source of Puerh in the mountainous Yunnan in China’s south to Beijing, Tibet and further. The bricks pressed and packed for ease of transporting on horseback would make the journey for many years through all types of terrain and climate changes allowing the Puerh to mature while giving the Puerh its own unique characteristics.
Puerh Shou cha, also called cooked, is a fermented tea that was developed in more recent decades using more modern methods to create a ready to drink Puerh with similar desirable characteristics of a well aged Puerh without the expensive storage etc. Inspired by black tea manufacturing and often using introduction of additional micro-organisms, this style allows green Puerh to mature very rapidly in artificial conditions usually in a heated oven room. In just a few weeks the leaves will be fermented and almost 100% oxidised. Therefore the many years of ageing needed for the Puerh Sheng cha is reduced to a couple of months! The result is a very dark red, often almost black, tea that may still benefit from a little ageing but will be mature a lot sooner.
Both Puerh styles offer similar flavour profiles but are nevertheless different – Like quality wines each vintage of Puerh Sheng cha has a different degree of maturity depending on its age, season, etc. A younger tea will have green tea qualities where an older Puerh will have mellow mature characteristics with a full bodied taste. Where a young Puerh sheng cha may cost very little a genuine aged one can cost a premium sometimes many hundreds to even thousands of dollars. This is when the Puerh shou cha becomes more appealing as they have very similar characteristics of an aged sheng (though a little less complexity) but they cost a lot less……perfect to drink while you wait for your Puerh sheng to age in your tea cellar.