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Pu-erh is a post-fermented tea made from a large leaf varietal grown in Yunnan Province. This tea is often aged, which mellows and refines its flavor and character. It is made either as loose leaf or pressed into a myriad of shapes; round cakes (bingcha), rectangular bricks and a birds' nest shape (tuocha) are the most common. Pu-erh can also be pressed into short lengths of bamboo, then dried and stored- a specialty of the Dai people in Xishuangbanna.

 

Pu-erh has traditionally been savored in Hong Kong, Guangdong Province and Taiwan; other post-fermented teas are also made elsewhere in China as well as in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Japan.

 

There are two main steps in production: The first is making a base tea (mao cha), and the second is post-fermenting and often compressing it. Pu-erh produced before the 1970s was made from sun-dried green tea and naturally aged, a process that is now known as sheng, green or raw. In 1973, a technique for accelerating the process of aging and changing the character of the tea was developed by the Kunming Factory. This process is called wo dui and involves increasing the moisture level as well as the temperature of the tea to speed up the fermentation. These pu-erhs are referred to as shu, brown or cooked pu-erh. 

 

Sheng Pu-erh (green or raw) 

Present-day style – not post-fermented

Old style – post-fermented by dry storage method

Both methods benefit from extended aging, as it will change the color of the tea as well as the character.

 

Shu Pu-erh (black or cooked)

Mao cha is subjected to controlled levels of humidity and heat to hasten the fermentation of the leaves. The increased moisture generates heat within the pile naturally; in the same way that freshly picked green leaves generate heat within a pile.

 

One recipe is as follows:

Pile the tea and spray it with water until the moisture level is 20-30%.

After six to seven days, turn the pile (60-70 C) for the first time.

After six to seven days, turn the pile (50-60 C) for the second time.

After another 6-7 days turn the pile (40-50 C) for the final time.

Solar drying (one day).

 

Other recipes lengthen this wo dui process to 50-60 days.

 

Aspergillus is the main bacteria present which helps to transform the leaf in a very complex chemical change.

 

Heat is produced when the leaf is piled, similar to what makes barns catch fire after being filled with freshly made hay bales.

 

After several fermentations (turning the piles of tea and letting them sit for weeks at a time) the tea may be compressed or left loose. The tea to be compressed is weighed, steamed, and pressed. 

 

This is one reason that areas like Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of which have very humid climates, are considered good places to store pu-erh and indeed, a considerable amount is hoarded there to drink in the future.

 

“Artificial wet storage” is similar to wo dui except instead of a more delicate hastening of the natural process, it's a much more abrupt process of drenching the leaf to make the final product appear more mature and aged than it actually is. This is the process by which fake pu-erh is made.