Pu-erh tea is the only truly fermented tea because there is a real microbial fermentation. Black tea and Oolong tea are oxidized but not fermented as no microorganisms are involved. The oxidation is caused by enzymes which react with the oxygen in the air.
The tea leaves for Pu Erh derived from old, wild tea trees that grow in the Chinese province of Yunnan and parts of Burma, Vietnam and Laos. This tea plants are often a assamica variety (called Qingmao) but also neglected varieties, originally cultivated tea plants of the sinensis variety which find their way into Pu Erh. This teas get a unique flavor through the shaded area and the particular composition of forest soils.
Originally Pu Erh tea was invented to make tea durable without sacrificing quality trough transport over long distances. Much later Pu Erh became a collector’s item for connoisseurs.
Basically, there is a distinction between two styles of Pu Erh; Shou and Sheng.
Sheng is the original form of Pu Erh. For producing Sheng green tea leaves are pressed into shape and stored. The fermentation takes place here in a natural way. Sheng is therefore often referred to as Raw or Uncooked Pu Erh. This style of Pu Erh takes several years to mature and gain in flavor with age.
After suddenly increasing demand of Pu Erh in the 70s, a process was developed to age Pu Erh faster. Artificially aged Pu Erh is called Shou, Ripe Pu Erh and sometimes Cooked Pu Erh. The tea is not really cooked; the term “cooked” refers to the artificial aging process.
Pu Erh shapes
Pu Erh is offered in many shapes. The most common is Beng, a cake or disc shape, with units between 100g and 5kg. Most common are 350g and 400g Beng. Besides that, there are many different shapes.
- Tuo, nest or bowl shape with weight between 3g and 3 kg while 100g, 250g and 500g sizes are the most common. This shape is also often used for single servings.
- Zhuan, the block shape was originally used for the caravan transport. Comes in sizes of 100g, 250g, 500g and 1000g.
- Fang, the square shape is often accompanied by inscriptions. Common units are 100g and 200g.
- Jin, the mushroom shaped Pu Erh weighs either 250g or 300g.
- Jingua, the melon shape has no standardized weight.