Dark tea "logs" aging outdoors.
Second, during that aging/storage process of dark tea, active micro-organisms come into the stored leaf. These micro-organisms trigger a natural bacterial fermentation process in the leaf, thus changing the chemistry, the taste, the very nature of the leaf and the steeped tea. Oooohhhh… micro-organisms… bacteria… bugs… Despite my daughter’s initial reaction at learning this (“Yuck, that is totally disgusting”), we eat lots of foods with active micro-organisms: yogurt, cheese, pickles, some breads, beer, olives and many others. So there really is nothing weird or yucky about it. The most well-known dark tea is puer. What makes a puer tea a puer is the fact that it comes from Yunnan province of China, which has a unique ecosystem, environment, and terrior. Also the micro-organism in puer, Aspergillus niger, is different than those in other dark teas. In addition, the manufacturing and aging/storage processes in Yunnan are unique to puer. They also use a different cultivar to make puer.
That’s a huge honking tea leaf. Despite being native to SW China, this is from the botanical branch Camellia sinensis assamica (as in Assam, India); not from Camellia sinensis sinensis which is the cultivar native throughout most of China. I told you this was going to get geeky. There are two main types of puer: sheng puer and shou puer. Sheng puer (pronounced “shung” rhymes with “young”) is traditional puer, made in the same manner for hundreds of years, even though there are many regional, family, or company variations. The aging/storage process of sheng puer is typically a long process over years or often decades. The bacterial fermentation process is a very slow gradual process. So the longer a good sheng puer ages, in theory the better and more complex the flavor gets. But that means people have to wait a long time to get their tea. And people are not patient (again I refer back to my daughter). Sheng puers are also called raw puer, green puer, or uncooked puer. At TeaSource we call them sheng or uncooked puer. Sheng puers when well-made and aged numerous years can be medium to full-bodied with very thick, rich, complex flavors. But a good sheng puer can also be delicious when it is new (or “young”). The steeped cup is lighter, some sweet and possibly some bright notes, usually no earthiness. It might be mistaken for a green tea.
As evidenced in the photos above, the dry leaf of sheng puer can have some light and dark green color, maybe some light brown, maybe some downy looking leaves. In the top photo it sort of looks like a dark green leafy salad squished down into a solid shape. Imagine leaves that have fallen to the ground, in your garden 4-9 days ago. The steeped leaves can look like green tea leaves. Starting probably in the mid-twentieth century, puer manufacturers tried to make a puer that did not take years or decades to be good to drink. So they came up with shou puer. Shou puer (pronounced “show” like a TV “show”) became available in the early 1970’s. They can make finished shou puer in a matter of months, rather than years or decades. They do this through very deliberate and controlled manipulation of the leaf and the environment. Manufacturers try to simulate what happens over a matter of years/decades with sheng puer, so that similar chemical changes occur over a matter of months. And the tea is ready to sell relatively quickly. Shou puers tend to be darker, richer, thicker, and red to deep red, sometimes almost black in color. Some people describe the flavor as earthy or peaty. Shou puer is sometimes called ripe puer, dark puer, or cooked puer. At TeaSource we call them shou, or cooked puer. Shou puer usually has very dark brown leaves of varying shades. Imagine leaves that have been in your compost pile for 3 months.
A couple of additional puer observations
Many tea “purists” think of shou puer as a lesser tea, sort of a poo
r man’s version of sheng puer. They look down their long pointy noses at folks who drink shou puer. It addition to being full of themselves, these folks are full of “it.” It’s a mistake to think of shou puer as a short-cut tea or a lesser version of sheng puer. I prefer to think of them as two separate teas. There are some wonderful shou puers and some wonderful sheng puers. It is true to that sheng puers, because of their very nature and their aging process can go to places shou puer can’t. But it’s definitely a mistake to think of shou puer as Pabst Blue Ribbon and sheng puer as Sam Adams Lager. Be very wary of buying a puer that claims to be more than 8 years old, make sure you are buying from someone you trust. There was a puer bubble a few years back. It was just like buying Florida swampland in the 1920’s or dotcom stock in the 1990's. And an incredible amount of counterfeit and dishonestly labeled puer was made and sold, and is still out there floating around. Most of this stuff is mediocre at best and really funky at its worst. So buyers beware: buy from folks you trust. Puer comes in many styles: loose leaf, bricks, cakes, mushroom shapes, etc. A Beeng Cha is probably the most common shape of puer (pronounce “Beeng” like the search engine, Bing). It is a cake around 8” in diameter. Its shape is like 3-4 pancakes stacked on top of each other and then smushed into one unit with a hollow spot punched into the bottom. Typically they are 357 grams, about 12.6 oz. That makes about 130, eight oz. cups of tea. And that is only on the first steep. All puers yield numerous steepings from the same leaves.