Raw vs. Ripened Pu-erh — What’s the Difference?

Pu-erh teas (also called pu-er, puer, pu’erh, and pu’er) come in two basic versions: raw (also called “uncooked” or “green”) and ripened (also called “cooked” or “aged”). Which one is better depends on your taste preferences. We carry both and encourage you to start your selection process by looking at what the differences between them are.

Both raw and ripened pu-erh start from máochá, a mostly unoxidized green tea processed from a “large leaf” variety of Camellia Sinensis. This tea is found in the mountains of southern Yunnan, a province in eastern China.

Raw

The máochá (literally, “light green rough tea” or “rough tea”) is directly compressed to produce raw pu-erh. It is un-aged and unprocessed and is therefore technically a type of green tea. Gentle handling of the leaves from first plucking to final tea cake assures no unwanted oxidation. The leaves are spread out in either the sun or a ventilated space to wilt, removing some water content, but this step is sometimes skipped by processors. Using a large wok, the leaves are dry pan-fried. This is the “kill green” step that arrests enzyme activity in the leaf to prevent further oxidation. The leaves are shaped into strands by rolling, rubbing and shaping them. Bad leaves are manually picked out after drying. Once dry, they are sent to be pressed into various shapes. The tea cake will have grey and dark green tones. (Sometimes máochá is aged uncompressed and sold at its maturity as aged loose-leaf raw pu-erh.)

Slow oxidation (catalyzed by fungal, bacterial, or auto-oxidation influences instead of by the plant’s own enzymes) and other, possibly microbial processes can give an earthy flavor to raw pu-erh. Storing the tea dry where it is kept in “comfortable” temperature and humidity assures that the aging process occurs slowly and that the result is more desirable. Wet storage involves spraying the tea leaves with water and letting them dry off relatively slowly in a humid environment, thus speeding up the oxidation and microbial conversion but not giving the leaves time to develop subtle taste nuances. There might also be hazardous mold, yeast, and bacterial growths in them, though. Other factors affecting taste are humidity, temperature, and odors, so a batch from Taiwan will not be the same as one from Yunnan or Hong Kong. They also need to be stored in cooler temperatures and kept out of direct sunlight and heavy air flow.

Ripened

Ripened pu-erh tea is pressed máochá that has been specially processed to imitate aged raw pu-erh. The máochá undergoes the same initial processing as for raw pu-erh, and then the leaves are ripened for several months prior to being compressed. Then, they undergo a secondary oxidization and fermentation by organisms growing in the tea leaves plus from free-radical oxidation.

A technique called “wet piling” is used to ensure even fermentation. It is a fairly recent invention that approximated the results achieved using the aging process. The leaves are piled, dampened, and turned regularly, a procedure akin to composting. This is where the factory in which the tea was processed makes a difference, with the more skilled and attentive workers producing the best results. The process can take as long as a year to complete, with the pressed form appearing on the market a few months after that.

The tea cake will be mostly dark brown with some leaves having an orange-brown tone due to oxidation/fermentation. Since the leaves are dark and steep up a dark red liquid, this version of pu-erh is often categorized as black tea. (In China, black tea is a tea that is post-fermented, so it could apply to this type of pu-erh. Tea experts, though, think the term “black tea” should only be applied to teas of lower standard and status.)

Older ripened pu-erhs may not be better tasting than newer ones. There is some debate among experts on whether aging past 10 years makes any sense, since their side-by-side taste comparisons do not reveal any additional flavor nuances.

The Choice Is Yours
You can choose to start with a raw pu-erh that is lightly aged to ease into this very different and unique type of tea. Then go for a stronger, more earthy pu-erh as your taste expectations adjust. We invite you to explore our selections that have been carefully chosen from a wide field of suppliers.

About Janice and Stephen Shelton

Purveyors of Premium Teas
This entry was posted in For Pu-erh Devotees and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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