Puer cakes being wrapped in bamboo "tongs" in Kunming, Yunnan
To be fair, puer tea can be difficult. The flavors and aromas don’t lend themselves to the obvious charms of sugars and salts. It’s not mysterious in a mystical sense, but quality information is elusive and this tea doesn’t fit neatly into a commoditized category like black tea or green tea. Its simplicity adds to its complexity, hence the trouble with giving it a firm definition.
Drinking puer with Mr. Zhao at his home in Nan Nuo Mountain in Yunnan
But I’m going to attempt to give it a working definition anyways. I will not address what it tastes like - it’s enough just to respond to “what is puer tea”? The below explanation assumes you have some understanding of how tea is made. I lack the skill to summarize without these assumptions.
All puer is made using the Yunnan-grown assamica leaf. If it is made with the small leaf Camellia sinensis, it is generally not considered puer.
A small village in the town of Jing Mai, Yunnan
All puer tea comes from Yunnan, particularly the southwest areas of Lincang, Xishuangbanna, and Puer (hence the name). Even if the tea making process is the same, but if the tea material is not from Yunnan (particularly those three areas), it is not considered puer tea.
Sheng puer mao cha (loose leaf tea) from Mr. Zhao's spring 2019 lot
To be brief, puer tea comes in two very different styles: sheng puer (raw) and shu puer (ripe). Sheng puer is a simple non-oxidized tea whose finished product will change naturally over time. Shu puer starts out as sheng puer, but goes through one more deliberate and accelerated “post fermentation” process to speed up this change into a matter of weeks as opposed to years. However, these two styles of tea couldn't be more different.
Shu puer in the first stage of the post fermentation process
Sheng puer is a simple tea to make and goes through some similar processes as other tea, but there are two essential distinctions. The “kill-green” step is not as thorough as green tea, leaving the elements for oxidation somewhat intact. Also, puer tea is always finished by air drying, not machine drying, so the moisture loss is always imperfect. These two facts are critical. It preserves the elements of change within the leaf that become apparent with age.
The liquor of a 1988 sheng puer from Ms. Zhao
Both styles of puer tea can be drunk immediately after they’re made or can be aged indefinitely. There is no minimum age to define puer tea. However, the qualities of sheng puer will change considerably over the course of years. The change in shu puer is less dramatic.
Puer cakes in a special room for long-term storage
When aging puer tea, the environmental conditions during storage can vary widely and will have a signature impact on how it changes. It’s not uncommon for puer tea to be sent to Guangdong or Hong Kong to be stored in its warm and humid climate, which will cause the changes to be faster and more intense. Yunnan is cooler and dryer and so the pace of change is slower and more subtle. There is no universally agreed upon method of which storage is better. They are just different.
Because of puer tea’s simplicity, the small details – the mountain, the tea tree, the season, the weather conditions – all play a pivotal role. It’s not hard for the puer tea enthusiast to get lost in the minutia of these details – and like baseball statistics when I was a kid; they are fun to get lost in. But it’s best not to take them too seriously. Statistics don’t always guarantee performance.
Traditional pressing stones for tea cakes
If you’re still reading, I hope this brings puer tea a little more into focus. This is not an official definition of puer. I am not qualified to give one. Any of the above parameters can and are being disputed by someone. It doesn’t matter. Always let the tea speak for itself.