Monday, March 12, 2012

Puerh FAQ and Resource Guide for Beginners

(Hey!  New springtime look!)  I often meet people who are new to puer and eager to learn.  It can be an initially bewildering exploration that I remember all too well when I was new to puerh myself.  So I thought I'd put together a sort of "where to begin" to help with those first steps on the journey.  Please note I've embedded links throughout the text below.  Feel free to add links and info if you're so moved.

What's the difference between cooked, raw, ripe, green, sheng, and shou puerh?

There are essentially two kinds of pu'erh, and each kind is referred to in a number of ways (not unlike the various English-version spellings of puerh/pu'erh/puer/pu'er).  Raw puer can also be referred to as green, sheng, or shengpu.  Ripe puer is also referred to as cooked, shu (or shou), shupu (shoupu), and on some vendor's site I've seen it referred to as black puerh.  The difference between the two is how they're processed, with ripe puerhs undergoing a fermentation period before being pressed into cakes.  Good basic intros to pu-erh can be found around the web, including this page on the Bana Tea Company website.  Another site with multiple pages and lots of in-depth information can be found here at  For some true knowledge and insight on how puerh is processed, see this great overview at ZhiZheng Tea's website, or this blog entry from Essence of Tea. Or you can scroll down to the comments for an interesting discussion.

What's the best way to brew puerh?

There are plenty of how-to guides on the internet.  YouTube videos, too.  Some "how to" links can be found here, and here, plus numerous other places, all with varying advice.  My suggestion is to begin conservatively, and always, always "listen" to the leaves.  Keep in mind the taste and experience of a puer is greatly affected by how it's prepared -- what temperature the water is, the leaf-to-water ratio, the length of steeping time, the type of equipment and water you use, even the weather and your mood will affect the taste and experience of a puer.  Generally speaking, the cooler the water and shorter the infusion times, the less likely you'll end up pulling harsh qualities from the tea.  Get good-sized samples (25 grams or so) so you can prepare several sessions with a particular tea and try brewing it in different ways.  You'll develop your brewing technique quickly that way.

How much leaf should be used?  A common guideline is 6-8 grams, but really it's all dependent on the size of your brewing vessel (and also, to some extent, the character of the tea).  Experiment and learn :)

Do a first rinse of the leaves.  Most people discard this water because it's usually very weak, but as you're beginning I would suggest taking a little sip just to aid your knowledge.  With some teas you might want to do two rinses, particularly if it's an older puerh that's starting off with a lot of funky/musty storage smell or taste.  When I first started out I spent a lot of time puzzling over just how long I should let the leaves sit in the water for the first rinse.  Over time I've found it helpful to consider the age and processing of the tea.  Younger, newer shengs still have a lot of moisture and flexibility in them and will respond and open quickly in the water, while older puers are drier and more "set in their way" and so will benefit from a little patience to coax them to open.  With very well aged puer I often let the wet leaves sit for a few minutes in the warm covered pot after the rinse to allow them time to relax and begin to open.

Water temperature and steeping times?  Keep in mind the general guidelines above and develop your own experiential sense of how the leaves respond.  You may find that newer, younger shengs appreciate not-quite-boiling water at first (but don't take my word for it, learn for yourself.. not all young shengs are alike).  You might do your first (drinking) infusion at only 3-5 seconds to gauge whether this particular puer will accept more aggressive brewing, or if it's happy to reveal great strength with just a few seconds of infusion time.  By all means, don't start your journey into puer with your first steeping at 30 seconds or longer (not unless you like a tea that punches you in the mouth).  Be gentle.  Get to know the tea you're brewing.  There's a whole world of complexity and nuance to be found in shorter steeping times, especially with those first few infusions.

still life with gaiwan and seashells
What equipment do I need?

To start, all you really need is a kettle to boil water, a vessel to brew in, and a cup to drink from.  Brewing puerh does not require a lot of gadgetry to be enjoyed.  As you grow and learn you may want to add some more implements.  Here's a rundown of tea gadgetry:

Brewing vessel:  You have options here.  The two most common vessels for brewing puerh are the gaiwan and the yixing (unglazed clay) teapot.  For the beginner to puer I would suggest a gaiwan.  You'll be drinking mostly younger sheng to start out and a gaiwan is really the perfect vessel for these.  In addition to being easy to use, it highlights aromas and potential sweetness of the tea.  Another great thing about a gaiwan is that you can easily observe the leaves as they open and soften which is good knowledge to have.  A gaiwan is not a "beginner's vessel."  It's a valuable tool you'll turn to often throughout your practice.

The yixing teapot is the other common brewing vessel.  You can find them for sale all over, at prices from very cheap to prohibitively expensive.  If you read tea blogs or forums like TeaChat you'll hear talk about "fake" yixing pots, although it's often unclear just what that means.  But rather than worry whether a yixing is fake or real, let your nose and palate be your guide.  If your yixing contributes a chemical taste or smell to the tea, get rid of it.  Some yixing teapot manufacturers will add chemical colorants to the clay (either to the body of the clay or the surface of the pot) in order to mimic the typical yixing clay colors or give it a sheen or aged look.  If you read around the TeaChat forums you'll find many discussions about yixing pots and recommendations for vendors who sell reliably good ones.

some of the yixing available at Best Tea House in Canada
Yixing teapots are a great match for puerhs that have some age to them (although I do sometimes use a gaiwan with older puerh if I'm in the mood for those qualities that a gaiwan will highlight).  A well-seasoned yixing will add depth and nuance to the tea and help to mellow harshness.  I also like the tactile quality that good yixing adds to a tea session.  There's something very satisfying about the feel of the pot, the warmth and texture of it, the flow of the pour, the tea soup drying on the surface.

Cup:  Find a good tea cup that fits your hand well and is just the right size, but do try out different cups as your experience grows.  I started with a frosted glass teacup because I liked how the color of the tea would glow through.  Then I acquired a couple of artisan-made cups, including a larger, wide, shallow cup made by Petr Novak which I loved for how it required the use of both hands to drink from, giving the sense of the tea being an offering to my mouth (also, the interior glaze was beautiful to look at as I drank, and it was the perfect size to hold a full pour from the teapot).  Lately I've become enamored with old porcelain, particularly these cups from The Essence of Tea.  The shape of them seems to enhance the gold ring effect of some teas, and their translucency allows light to penetrate in truly mesmerizing ways.  The tea liquid seems somehow more silky from them, as well.

Kettle:  For boiling the water.  Many options here, and an area I'm only beginning to explore.  Until recently I used an electric stainless steel pot, but in the coming months will be trying out a tetsubin, a clay kettle, and playing a bit with fire (charcoal heat).  Recently I was lucky to acquire a beautiful old Japanese jun-gin silver teapot, so will be learning about that as well.  Stay tuned...

That's really all you need to start -- a kettle, a brewing vessel and a cup.  But you'll soon find a few more additions to be very useful:

Tea tray:  Brewing puer with either a gaiwan or teapot can be a little bit messy and having a tea tray is a great way to contain the spills and drips.  No need to go huge and elaborate.  Just something small and easy to clean will do.

Strainer:  This is optional, but occasionally useful (I didn't use one for nearly the whole first year of brewing).  Having little bits of leaves floating in your cup isn't going to hurt you, but keep in mind those little bits will continue to steep in your teacup.  Still, I never noticed that my tea was too strong.  I do use a strainer now (only when needed since some teas keep themselves neatly in the gaiwan or teapot) simply because I want to feel as though I'm tasting the exact result of the steeping.  I've heard some say that using a strainer can contribute a metallic taste to the tea, but so far I haven't been able to detect that.

Serving vessel, or cha hai:  This is a little serving pitcher that acts as a holding vessel between teapot and cup.  You brew the tea in the teapot, you pour the tea into the cha hai, and then you pour the tea from the cha hai into the tea cups.  I use one when I'm having friends over for tea, or when my tea cup is too small to hold all the tea from the teapot.

Cha Dao utensil set (also called Gong Fu utensil set):  I dutifully picked up one of these when I first started drinking puer.  I fumbled around with the pieces for awhile and soon abandoned them.  It now sits unused in the back of a drawer.  But I know people who use them, so there ya go  :)

Puerh pick or knife:  If you start buying tea cakes, get one of these.  You'll be glad you did.  I've tried both a pick and a knife and much prefer the pick (I feel that knives tend to pulverize the leaves too much).

Presentation vessel, or cha he:  A useful little gadget, less so for presentation purposes than for getting large unwieldy dry tea leaves into the small opening of a teapot.  I still don't have one, and will pick one up soon enough.  For now I find myself creating makeshift cha he from tin foil when I'm wanting to really weigh/measure the leaves (which I don't do often) and transfer them into the pot.

Aroma cup set:  Two little cups, one tall and skinny (maybe 2 inches high) and one short and round, like this set here.  You fill the tall skinny cup with tea, then invert the (empty) short round one on top, like a lid.  Then you grab the whole contraption and turn it upside down so the short round cup is on the bottom and the tall skinny cup is inverted inside of it (with the tea inside).  Next, slowly pull up the tall cup, allowing the tea to fill the short round one.  Now take the empty (but still wet inside) tall cup, put your nose to the opening and sniff.  Notice how the fragrance evolves as the tea evaporates and dries.  mmmmm... a whole new level of tea wonderfulness  :)  A similar effect (the enjoyment of evaporative fragrances) can be had from holding the freshly emptied serving vessel under the nose, holding the pitcher nearly horizontal with the handle below (on the underside), the bottom of the pitcher facing away from you and the opening facing toward you.  Position the spout of the pitcher, which serves to direct and concentrate the fragrant vapors, just under your nose and breathe in the aromas (Michael Fung, proprietor of The Best Tea House in Canada taught me this).  You'll have to play a little with this at first to figure out just the right way, but your nose will guide you.  It's not hard to find the sweet spot.

Tea boat, water bowl, and other little goodies:  Never used 'em, can't comment on 'em.

How can I know which puers are good and which are bad?

Sample, sample, sample!  There is no substitute for getting out there and trying as many as you can.  Reputable vendors will offer sample sizes of their teas.  Still, the sheer number of puerhs offered at sites like Yunnan Sourcing (over 1000 at this writing) is truly bewildering.  Where to start?  Thankfully you'll find an abundance of tea bloggers who post their tasting notes and aren't shy to proclaim their preferences.  But keep in mind that just because Joe Blogger thinks a particular puer is the bee's knees doesn't mean you'll find the same merit in it.  Still, it can provide a starting point to help in picking samples initially.  After awhile you'll get a sense for what you prefer.

What should I look for in a puerh?

Finding enjoyment in puer tea is a case-by-case matter.  One man's bliss is another man's bitter brew.  The more experience you have with tasting different puers, the more you'll learn.  Try teas from different factories, mountains, blends, years, and "listen" to how you react to them (hence the name of this blog).  Try to ignore all the talk about aging potential, at least for now.  There are many opinions about what kinds of puers will age well (most coming from folks who've only been drinking the stuff a relatively few number of years).  It's the in-the-moment, regardless-of-age complexity and nuance of puerh that is it's allure.  Expect a learning curve as you start out and begin to develop your palate.

If you're just starting out, here are some of the things to notice while drinking puerh:

Taste:  What flavors do you detect?  How do these change from infusion to infusion?  Where in the mouth or throat do you detect various flavors and sensations?  Be watchful in the minutes after the sip.  Is there a sweetness that develops in the mouth or throat?  (see this post here for a discussion about hui gan)  Does any bitterness present turn to sweetness or other nuanced flavors around the edges?  Bitterness is not necessarily a bad thing.  There are different kinds of bitterness.  See if you can acquaint yourself with these and learn to discern them.  Another thing to watch for is what might be best described as "taste sensation."  After drinking a tea is your mouth or throat filled with a sensation of cleanliness?  Sometimes that sensation won't be so nice, like with this particular tea.

Fragrance:  Smell the leaves while they're dry, after the first wetting, and throughout the session.  Smell the fragrance from the tea liquid, and from the vapors that linger in the lid of the gaiwan or teapot after pouring an infusion.  Some puers will also give a fragrance (of sorts) in the minutes after you take a sip, perfuming the breath in the inhale and exhale (hui gan can also sometimes carry fragrance, see link in paragraph above).  For a little extra fun you might want to pick up an aroma cup set (see above).

As you make your way into the world of puerh you'll want to deepen and expand your awareness beyond the obvious taste and smell.  Following are some things to keep in mind:

Mouthfeel:  Pay attention to the feel of the tea liquid in your mouth.  Does it feel thick? Thin?  Does it feel dry or oily?  Does it coat the mouth in a pleasant way?

Clarity:  Observe the color and clarity of the tea liquid (or "tea soup" as it's sometimes referred to).  Initially this won't mean much to you, but as you gain experience with puerh you'll get a sense for how the color relates to the tea's age and processing.  A cloudy appearance to the tea liquid is generally considered undesirable and a sign of poor processing.

Bodyfeel:  You'll hear people talk about the qi of some puers, although there is sometimes debate as to what that means exactly.  Regardless of what can be suitably called "qi," you'll want to take notice of how the tea affects you both physiologically and mentally.  Yet another aspect of "listening" to the tea.  You might feel a warming sensation in the throat or abdomen... or the ears, or the top of the head, etc.  Some teas will quicken the heart, some will induce a sense of calm, some will seem to sharpen your focus while others will leave you feeling a little drunk ("teadrunk" as they say).  Each tea is different and will affect the body in various ways (or not at all, with some).  Your job is to simply to practice awareness and notice.  As with developing and refining your palate (your ability to detect subtleties and nuances in taste) and sense of smell, puer offers a great deal of wonderment in how it affects the body and mind, perhaps more so than any other kind of tea.

Appearance of the leaves, dry and wet:  Examine the dry leaves.  Notice the color, if they're brittle or flexible, long and ropey or short and piecemeal.  Are they shiny?  Dull?  Can you see leaves or buds, or is it just a mass of chopped leaf matter?  Are the inner and surface leaves of a cake similar or different?   It's also useful to observe the wet leaves, both throughout the session and especially at the end.  As with clarity and other matters, you won't quite know what leaf appearance means at first.  It's a learning tool initially, helping you to get better acquainted with the subtleties of puer.  Pick through the leaves at the end of your session.  What do you see, feel?  Are the leaves soft or do they retain a brittle quality?  Are the leaves tender and fragile?  Are they sturdy and thick?  Are the leaf veins prominent and strong?

More! More! More! I want to learn more!

There are some very good blogs, full of not only tasting notes but plenty of invaluable info and tidbits on the finer points of pu'erh appreciation.  A few standouts for the latter include MarshalN's blog, Teamaster's blog, and Mattcha's blog.  The Half-Dipper's blog is fun reading too, and while his blog places more emphasis on tasting notes it's sprinkled with plenty of tea wisdom as well.  Another blog of note is the Tea Urchin's blog, which is hands-down the most enjoyable tea-related reading on the web.  The author is an excellent writer with a knack for great story telling.

Another great online resource are the forums.  TeaChat is a large and very active one with a good search engine.  Other forums to check out include the Live Journal Puerh group and the TeaDrunk forum.  The Badger and Blade forums also contain some puerh-related threads that can be interesting to browse.

Finally, there's the online magazine, The Leaf.  A wonderful resource full of great information and beautiful imagery.  Very well done.  It can be hard to come by esoteric puerh knowledge written in English, but The Leaf does a great job of bridging that gap.

Speaking of magazines, you'll see The Art of Tea magazine for sale on a few tea vendor sites.  Like The Leaf, it's full of beauty and depth of knowledge.  Worthwhile reading if you don't mind spending the cash to pick up a copy.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A note of update

I'm afraid this post won't have any pretty pictures associated with it as I seem to have lost all my SD cards (I suspect a certain resident teenager), but I've been wanting to post an update of sorts.  My tea drinking continues.  It's become something of a practice, to be honest.  Not that there's any right or wrong to this sort of approach, but it just suits me.  I've been paying more attention to the whole process of tea making/drinking, slowing tweaking my set-up and routine in certain directions.  I've also put aside (for now) my efforts to record my tea sessions or place judgments on the teas I drink.  Does that mean all teas are more or less enjoyable for me?  Not in the least.  But each has it's characteristics and 'personality,' if you will.  Some dive more deeply than others.  Some stay with me longer after a session.  Some (like this morning's tea) blow me away with wonderfully heady and ever-changing aromas, while others remain more subdued, preferring to shine (or not) in other ways.  But the matter of "learning tea" is a valuable one, I'm certain.  Contrary to certain schools of thought, I believe there is merit to the note-taking and judgment-making.  It's simply a matter of holding these things lightly and not getting too caught up in quantifications.  It has it's place and time, as anything does.  Beautiful music may come from unskilled hands (and likewise, practiced hands may produce sounds that only grate the ears), but in the larger scheme of things it comes down to the very simple matter of worth in the moment, or time well spent.  If you enjoy music, then spend your time at it.  Practice, learn about it, work toward mastery (though with a light and joyful hand... by all means, set aside the whip and chains!).  The very same goes for tea, or anything that could be considered for practice.

I've been revisiting some of my favorite teas from the last year or two and it's been both interesting and educational.  This morning's tea was this one here and I was delighted with the terrific notes of plum in the aromas and taste.  Not just one kind of plum, either.  At times it was almost sour, like an umeboshi plum.  At other times it carried high sweet notes, and still other moments it had an almost Christmas tree plum ring to it.  Toward the end of the session the aroma was very much like what I often smell in the air at Uwajimaya (an Asian supermarket near here).  And last week I revisited this particular tea.  Wow, I sure wish I'd picked up a few more cakes of this one!  The quality and characteristics are superb and well-balanced, but what was most interesting to note was it's evolution and maturation since last year.  The tea soup was a clear and very dark yellow this time.  It seemed, to me, to be well on it's way toward it's early-middle-age.  This also came through in the deepened sweetness that began to ring toward certain characteristics I find more familiar (and deeply enjoyable) in older puerhs.

Speaking of older puerh, I'm currently of the mind that (at least for my body and temperament anyway) puerh teas generally don't sit well with me until they're nearing at least the 7 or 8 year mark.  Any younger than that and I react differently to them, feeling as though they're too astringent or harsh.  Of course, there are exceptions.  A few weeks back I had the immense pleasure of tasting a Mingqian (first pick) gushu puer comprised of a blend of leaves from Jingmai, Lao Man E and Hekai, from 2011.  I'm still dizzy over that one, truly one of the deepest-reaching teas I've ever tasted.  It has totally spoiled me for any other young sheng, I'm afraid.  But rare, out-of-this-world teas aside, given the current crazed market for aged puer it's necessary to learn how to drink (and yes, judge) young puer if one is to have any hope for perhaps someday holding some very good aged tea in one's collection (short of winning the lottery).

Happy drinking to you all :)