The production process starts from the source, that is, the evergreen tea bushes or old arbors and finishes at sales point by all means of transportation, including bipedal walking. The compressed teas tied to mules that journeyed across vast and daunting distances along all manner of trade routes were also carried by humans.
1. The tea bud and leaves (one bud, and the two closest adjacent leaves) are plucked rather than picked. Although both can mean ‘to pull off or out from the place of growth,’ plucking implies a more delicate action.
‘…compared to the 1st bud or 2nd leaf, the 3rd leaf has stayed much longer on the tree; hence the 3rd and 4th leaf is very rich in polyphenols and minerals. In order to get a strong flavour and aftertaste, the 3rd leaf is essential.‘
–Akira Hojo (hojotea.com)
‘Apart from the quality of the leaf produced by each kind of tree and the method of processing, each area also produces a different kind of tea. Much akin to the importance of terroire with French wine, Puer from each different area has different qualities and tea drinkers will often prefer one over another. Unlike the French wine system of regional or domaine classifications, there is no strict rule about how an area is defined, so tea could be sold as Lao Ban Zhang, but it could actually come from, say Xin Bang Zhang (New Ban Zhang as opposed to Old Ban Zhang).‘
–‘About Puer Tea,’ Zhi Zheng Tea Shop
2. The leaves are withered outside or indoors to remove moisture and then left to breathe.
3. The leaves are pan-fried manually in large woks or put through tumbling machines to neutralize or deactivate the enzymes that would cause the leaves to further ferment or oxidize.
4. The leaves are either rolled by hand or by a rolling machine. The rolling twists and breaks the leaves to release compounds in the tea cell walls which are ultimately beneficial to the tea’s flavour.
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 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.
7. 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.
8. Ageing by storing produces a vintage raw Pu’er (continuous oxidation takes place during the ageing process).
Naturally fermented raw Pu’er:
is almost constantly in a state of change caused by cellular breakdown…Over the course of many years, the plant will ferment and decompose, resulting in cellular breakdown. When the cell walls of Puerh leaves break down, the material inside the cells is released. The more of this “vegetable fat” released, the smoother the tea will be. The more cellulose released, the sweeter the tea will be; and the more scented oil [that] is released, the more obvious the fragrance will be.
–‘An Introduction to Aged and Aging Puerh’ by Huang Chan Fang, The Leaf, issue 2.
While fermentation also utilizes oxygen, it relates more to cellular break-down caused by the presence of bacteria. Puerh tea is unique in that it is covered in bacteria: the jungle trees themselves are teeming with it, as are the villages where the tea is processed. When the cakes are steamed and compressed, more bacteria and other microorganisms make their home in the cakes. As a result, Puerh cakes are truly alive—teeming with colonies of fungi, bacteria and mold. Penicillium chrysogenum, Rhizopus chinensis and Aspergillus clavatus are just a few examples of mold colonies natural to Puerh tea. All Puerh tea is moldy, in other words. Puerh tea has always been fermented, and throughout history many ways of going about this have been developed, though storage for long periods is the oldest and best method.
–Aaron Fisher, ‘Puerh and Storage: Aging and Aged Tea,’ Part II, The Leaf, issue 4.
Raw Pu’er teas can be consumed fresh, and can also be left for many years as they naturally ferment. The quality of the leaves plucked in the initial stages, that is, the freshly harvested leaves that have wintered called ‘maocha’ (毛茶), is crucial. Naturally aged raw Pu’er teas made from inferior raw materials will not get better with age.
Photos: Li Xingze
Horse Tea Road Sculpture: Han Deya
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