‘Ripe,’ ‘Cooked’ Pu’er:
Refers to Pu-erh tea that has been artificially fermented by a “cooking” process. This “cooking” process involves incubating the tea in a moisture-rich environment wherein microbial activity causes the temperature of the tea leaves to rise, drastically intensifying and accelerating the fermentation process. The Ripe Pu-erh offers an alternative to having to wait ten to thirty years for the Raw Pu-erh to age or mature. It is a quick way to achieve the smoothness loved by consumers and to remove the astringency and grassiness that are typically present in Pu-erh raw material.
–‘Glossary of Pu-erh Tea Terms’
The process is essentially the same for raw Pu’er excerpt step 6 below.
1. The tea bud and leaves (one bud, and the two closest adjacent leaves) are plucked.
2. The leaves are withered outside or inside to remove any moisture and then left to breathe.
3. The leaves are then pan fried in large woks to neutralize or deactivate the enzymes that would cause the leaves to further ferment or oxidize.
We had already learned that after the leaves are picked and sorted, they are thrown into hot pans to stop the natural oxidation process of fermentation. All teas must go through this stage. The moment a tea leaf is plucked, it begins to oxidize, so the speed with which the plucked leaf reaches a heating source is key.
–‘Jeff Fuchs, ‘Simao to Lijiang: Sleep Between Slurps,’ The Ancient Tea Horse Road (2008)
4. Rolling (twists and breaks the leaves to release essential oils).
5. Drying under the sun continues until up to 90% of the moisture is removed. The tea leaves are also partially fermented during the drying process.
6. The leaves are placed in piles or spread across a tea factory floor and undergo a second fermentation by mould, called ‘wet-piling,’ ‘wet storage,’ or post-fermentation. This process involves piling, dampening and turning the leaves over and can take up to two months. The actual time depends entirely on the discretion of the fermentation master.
7. The leaves are steamed and compressed into cakes using traditional stone presses or mechanized presses. The pliable leaves can also be pressed into bricks, mushrooms or other shapes.
8. The cakes are often placed on racks in relatively warm temperature-controlled rooms to get rid of any moisture and to prevent the possibility of mould forming.
9. Ageing by storing produces a vintage ‘ripe’ or ‘cooked’ Pu’er (continuous oxidation takes place during the ageing process).
All Puer teas will, like wines, have different qualities which will determine the time at which they ‘peak’. One tea might reach its best in 7 years, another in 20. The only way to tell is to monitor the tea, check its appearance, smell, and above all, taste it.
If one is afforded the luxury, keeping some cakes in storage whilst keeping another, or perhaps part of a cake, in the same environment so that one can brew a sample from time to time will provide an indicator for how the tea is ageing. Cakes that are stored singly will age more quickly than say, 7 cakes kept in their bamboo skin ‘tong’ wrapper as more of the tea is in contact with atmosphere; the fragrances will dissipate more quickly, but in this way a sample of tea can act as a barometer for the stored cakes.
–‘When is Aged Puer Tea Aged Enough,’ Zheng Zhi Tea Shop
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Photos: Na Mo, Peter Micic
Tea Horse Road Sculpture: Han Deya