Dining In 2 minutes 31 July 2018

Asking The Expert: Choosing Pu’er Tea

How do novice pu’er tea drinkers choose quality products? Ann Sit from Fook Ming Tong offers tips.

tea Ask the Expert drinks

Pu’er tea is arguably one of the most popular Chinese teas. Its pervasiveness across all social groups is reflected in the price difference of various options in the market.

Pu’er can be seen at any dim sum restaurant for ten dollars a pot, but the same tea can also be sighted in the form of a cake at auctions, with connoisseurs splashing hundreds of thousands dollars for it.

For newcomers to the tea-drinking culture, how should they select the right pu’er tea? Ann Sit from Fook Ming Tong gave us some valuable insights.

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Sit is a tea sommelier and Fook Ming Tong’s general manager. She began learning about Chinese tea as a teenager, and her qualification in tea connoisseurship has been recognised by the government of Mainland China. At the moment, she dedicates her time scouring tea plantations around China to source the best teas for her customers.

What’s the distinguishing characteristic of pu’er? 

Tea leaves are mainly categorised by the degree of fermentation. The production process of pu’er involves procedures such as picking, withering, fixing, kneading, drying. In the end, it’s heaped up and stored before it gets fermented. In comparison to oolong, green tea, shoumei, tieguanyin and other tea varieties, pu’er is fermented the most. Industry professionals call it black tea or post fermented tea.

In fermentation, the stimuli in tea leaves like chlorophyll are decomposed. Pu’er is usually dark brown in colour. It tastes mild and smooth. Thanks to the long fermentation period, there’s also a deep fragrance to the tea.

How many types of pu’er are there?

Pu’er can be roughly divided into loose tea leaves and tea cake. After fermentation, tea cakes can be made using steam and machinery to flatten. Without shaping, it would be sold as loose leaves.

Some pu’er teas can be fermented longer than others. The dry room method puts leaves in an airy space for natural fermentation. Alternatively, some tea makers would ferment the tea manually by placing it in a room with high temperature and humidity. This step is called piling. The wet room method has the tea in a humidity-controlled space to speed up fermentation.

Loose leaves or tea cake can be further categorised into many more varieties. For example, raw (sheng) or green pu’er have a shorter post-fermenting period and would display a light green colour after brewing. As for tea cakes, there are many shapes available. Tea bricks are pressed into rectangular blocks, while tuo cha carries the form of mushroom caps.

Loose leaves are more suitable for novice tea drinkers.
Loose leaves are more suitable for novice tea drinkers.

Which variety is the most suitable for new tea drinkers?

Loose leaves are more suitable. Generally speaking, tea cakes are made to preserve the tea’s quality, let its mellow fragrance develop and the enzyme oxidise. Tea makers tend to make tea cakes with premium tea leaves. Some use leaves from trees with centuries of history, or leaves grown from better soil and climate. For this reason, tea cakes are more expensive. The purchasing of tea cakes also requires advanced knowledge, such as the tree’s age, origin, the area in which the tea leaves are stored. Such knowledge might not be understood easily by average consumers. On the contrary, loose leaves are less complicated and more affordable. A tea cake costs at least $300. Some are even priced at several thousand dollars.

Where should we buy loose leaves?

The ideal option is well-known tea shops. Pu’er tea is made from a complicated process with many procedures.  Situations like bad humidity control in the fermentation room could damage the quality of the tea. Besides that, average tea drinkers might have problems identifying the quality of teas. Factors like the degree of pesticides used, whether the tea is made from piling (manual fermentation), the hygienic and storage conditions are hard to tell.

Furthermore, post-fermentation of pu’er involves complex reactions of microorganisms, if done poorly, it would not only affect the taste of the product, but also cause damage to health. Famous tea shops usually pay closer attention to the teas they buy to maintain their reputation. 

What to look out for when buying loose leaves?

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The most important element is that the leaves remain intact. There shouldn’t be too many broken leaf fragments, branches and petioles. You need to also give it a sniff. The leaves should smell fragrant instead of dull or sour. If you spot green mould, it means the leaves have gone bad and should not be bought. It would be ideal to taste the tea on the spot. The brewed tea has a rich and bright red colour. However dark the tea is, it should be clear enough for you to see the bottom of the cup.

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