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Pu-Erh Teas of Yunnan Province

Posted on 06/06/2023

While many types of tea are grown in China’s Yunnan province, perhaps the most iconic and unique is Pu-Erh tea, an ancient and culturally significant beverage with an incredible history, grown nowhere else in the world.

The mist-shrouded “tea mountains” of Yunnan are an epicenter for tea production in southern China. Surrounded by rice terraces, rivers, and gorges, their forests’ canopies shelter the delicate leaves of tall tea trees, some of which are hundreds of years old. Tea terraces comprising neat rows of meticulously maintained Camellia sinensis bushes are arranged in ascending broad steps cut into steep hillsides. During the harvest season, hundreds of thousands of leaves and buds are picked here each day.

Tea harvesters begin their work before the sun is up, to optimize the hours of the day in which the moisture content of the leaf is ideal for processing. After plucking, fresh tea leaves are sorted and separated by size and type into different grades. Then the tea leaves are transferred to withering troughs and exposed to forced air to decrease the moisture content in the leaves. Next, the tea is stir roasted to halt the oxidation process that causes the leaves to ferment. Then, the tea is rolled to develop its shape. These steps have traditionally required the hand of a skilled artisan over a hot wok, but modern methods have developed a way for this to be done with precision and accuracy by machine. The leaves are finally baked or dried in the sun.

Most Pu-Erh tea falls into one of two categories. “Sheng cha” is stored for a period of time to allow its flavor to develop, which results in a gentle yellow hue in the cup similar to green tea. It has a sweet, light aroma with lively flavors. “Shou cha” is not finished until it is fermented. This is accomplished in 2-3 months by creating a humid environment in which moist, heaped leaves are subjected to a closely monitored temperature. This causes a microbial enzymatic reaction in the leaves, which results in a much darker, richer cup that is smooth and earthy.

While Pu-Erh is often processed as loose tea in the modern era, it is perhaps most well known for being compressed into cakes. Like wine, Pu-Erh tea cakes improve with age. Unlike most teas that are valued for their freshness, the older the Pu-Erh tea, the higher the price. In temperature-controlled humid environments, some cakes are intentionally aged for years. Select vintages are sold at auctions for thousands of dollars. However, aging the tea is not a prerequisite for Pu-Erh tea. Not all cakes are aged, just as not all Pu-Erh teas are compressed into cakes. Its versatility is just one reason why Pu-Erh tea has such a wide appeal. Because it varies so widely in taste and method of processing, tea experts have long deliberated on what constitutes Pu-Erh tea. The main consensus? Sheng or Shou, compressed or loose, aged or young, authentic Pu-Erh tea comes from the mountains of Yunnan province.


ZH20: China Pu-Erh Leaf

This standard Pu-Erh is most often recommended by our tea consultants to the uninitiated. The mature and complex flavor profile of Pu-Erh tea is an acquired taste, so this milder variety is the ideal balance of earthy flavor to familiarize your palate.

China Pu-Erh Tuo Cha

Tuo Cha means “bird’s nest tea,” referring to the shape of these mini compressed cakes, like little birds’ nests. Each small cake steeps a thick, black cup with a full body and dark depth of flavor rivaled by few other teas. It is one of the most popular varieties of Pu-Erh.

ZH54: Royal Pu-Erh

The Royal Pu-Erh is a treat for connoisseurs of Yunnan teas, fragrant and robust with hints of spice and molasses. Its smoothness complements its hearty character. For those who prefer a loose leaf tea but are looking for something special, this is the ideal choice.

ZH100: Bulang Mountain Sheng Pu-Erh Cake

This specialty aged Pu-Erh selection is 7 years old, and its flavors will only grow richer with passing time. Mellow yet complex, the flavor is “rich with pronounced stone fruit notes of plum and apricot wrapped in honey sweetness, a mouth-filling nectar-like quality.” Pry off small pieces to steep a cup or a pot, then seal the bag and store it away in your cupboard.


This blog post contains excerpts from Volume 30, #2 of the Upton Tea Quarterly. To read more about Pu-Erh tea and its origins, you can read the whole article below:

Upton Tea Quarterly

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