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Warming up to Pu’er: A Beginner’s Guide -- 普洱茶

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jiasen

Massive fan. A couple of months ago we were clearing out an old storage area and found some 普洱 from 10 years ago. There was much rejoicing in our home.

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@Jiasen -- That was indeed a lucky find! Had the tea improved with time?

 

Had also been planning to ask people who are currently fans of Pu'er whether it was "love at first sip" for them, or whether a long "getting to know you" phase was required.

 

What do you think? How did that work for you, @Jiasen and others? Could you please share your experience.

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JustinJJ

It was "love at first sip". I'm not an expert by a long way but apparently it does mature with age. My girlfriend is from Kunming so fortunately I get bags of puer quite often. I also like the non-fermented tea made from the same leaf - it has a slightly sweet/honey after-taste. 

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It was "love at first sip".

 

Justin, you were lucky to have a "native guide" to help bring you these good tastes. Kunming people grow up with Pu'er tea from an early age and become very familiar with it. One of the glories of Yunnan.

 

The question I get asked most when out and about here in Kunming is simply, "生的,熟的”? (Raw or Ripe?) It's assumed by my host that I'll be having some tea, and that the tea will be Pu'er, the only question they are really asking is what kind I would prefer.

 

This happens several times a week, at a foot massage or barber shop as well as at someone's office or home.

 

Anyone visiting Kunming can easily enjoy plenty of informal Pu'er tasting by just walking into small tea shops with an open mind. The proprietors of these places love to brew up some nice tea. They get bored just sitting there, and welcome the opportunity to share. It genuinely goes beyond the desire to sell their wares; I've never been pressured to buy.

 

It's also a relaxing place to chat and practice your Chinese. You can usually get away from the standard seven or eight Taxi Driver questions that become so boring after time. You can talk about the tea with someone who knows a lot about it.

 

Once I counted fifteen such small, store-front tea shops within a block or two of where I lived at the time. Now I probably have 6 or 8 within an easy walk of my front door. And I live in an ordinary, older residential neighborhood. 盘龙区,东华小区。

 

I agree with you , Justin, about some Raw Puer 生茶 having a pleasantly sweet aftertaste. A few times I've been taken to task for drinking my tea too fast, specifically without pausing to take a mouth breath after the sip of tea has gone down my throat. This lets that aftertaste 后干 develop and become easier to appreciate.

 

Those who most love Sheng Cha (Raw) talk about its "clean, crisp" taste and criticize Shu Cha (Ripe) as being kind of "muddy." On the other hand, the Shu Cha aficionados talk about their favorite teas as being "full and rich and mellow" and may see Sheng Cha as having too much of a bite or being "sharp."

 

Good Sheng Cha is never bitter, but at times it can be too astringent to suite one's palate. 涩 sè is the term for that. It's not a flaw and some Sheng Cha fanciers have compared it to good coffee needing a little edge to really stand out; the best cannot be completely bland.

 

I think there's pretty general agreement that Shu Cha shines after a meal. Chinese praise it as being 养胃, aiding digestion. And I also think there's a consensus that too much Sheng Cha on an empty stomach can lead to discomfort, a feeling akin to being extremely hungry, aka "hunger pains."

 

I've come to like examples of both kinds, though personally I still drink more Shu Cha. For one thing, I can consume it in the afternoon and evening without it interfering with sleep. It contains less caffeine, which is an issue for me.

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Simon_CH

A good start of the thread, please continue.  :clap

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abcdefg

Thanks, Simon. Second part tomorrow.

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jiasen

 

@Jiasen -- That was indeed a lucky find! Had the tea improved with time?

 

Had also been planning to ask people who are currently fans of Pu'er whether it was "love at first sip" for them, or whether a long "getting to know you" phase was required.

 

What do you think? How did that work for you, @Jiasen and others? Could you please share your experience.

 

 

It was love at first sip for me. I've found that I really enjoy Pu'er after a big greasy meal because (at least it feels like) it cleases the body.

 

Most tea leaves should be drunk while they are still fresh, but Pu'er is a rare exception. It's more like a vintage wine. There are some batches out there which are more than 50 years old.

 

The 2nd and 3rd "brew" (not rinse) of the leaves is when it tastes best in my opinion. So I always think of the first cup as a warm up.

 

My father in law happens to be a Pu'er collector - like he even has a cellar. His A Grade stash is amazing to drink.

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Simon_CH

Shouldn't the first rinse be poured away? The whole washing the tea thing? At least that's how I learnt it. 

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Shouldn't the first rinse be poured away? The whole washing the tea thing? At least that's how I learnt it.

 

Yes, I think so, Simon. The first quick rinse is discarded. It's just to 洗茶。Sometimes tea people also talk about "waking up the tea" 醒茶叶。

 

The English wording can be confusing; not so in Chinese. It's 洗茶, followed by 第一泡,第二泡,and so on.

 

The rinse is done before the first actual infusion/brewing. And the first actual brewing is still sort of a "warm up," like Jiasen said. 

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Let’s brew some Pu’er. (This is the second installment of the Beginner's Guide to Pu'er.)

 

Intelligent questions have arisen. Sorry for the delay. Will now pick up where we left off. The tea had been flaked off the cake and the teapot had been set out. We were ready to boil water.

 

Here’s a fairly typical layout. You can, of course improvise everything except the pot. Will return to discuss the various optional tools. (In a footnote.)

 

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Use fully boiling water to heat the pot. Pour it all the way full and even let some overflow. After putting on the lid, pour some more boiling water over the now-lidded pot, rinsing it outside as well. The idea is to create a high-temperature brewing environment.

 

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Now pour this hot water from your teapot into the common pitcher. And from there into the individual drinking cups.

 

post-20301-0-69396900-1434084776_thumb.jpg post-20301-0-46967600-1434084795_thumb.jpg

 

If you have wooden tweezers 夹子, use them to pick up each cup and swirl it gently, then discard the water. This washes them more or less. 

 

post-20301-0-33569600-1434084991_thumb.jpg post-20301-0-62049800-1434085004_thumb.jpg

 

Need to digress here just a moment and show you how to pour from one of these small teapots. Mentioned it above in passing, but it deserves more than that. Doing it well requires some practice. Men typically use one hand, whereas women use two.

 

post-20301-0-71723800-1434085173_thumb.jpg post-20301-0-61723100-1434085192_thumb.jpg post-20301-0-21812100-1434085207_thumb.jpg

 

Keep the surface of your first and second fingers away from the hot clay walls as best you can. (The third photo above, far right, wrong grip, would hurt a lot.) Also, don’t cover the small hole in the middle of the lid with your thumb, or it won’t pour. These pots, at least the good ones, are built tight.

 

post-20301-0-95517500-1434085224_thumb.jpg post-20301-0-05656900-1434085237_thumb.jpg

 

I can’t illustrate two-handed techniques because I’m taking my own photos. I’ll come back and post some pictures of female tea friends pouring at the end as a footnote.

 

Empty the rinsed hot teapot. No standing water. If you have one of these “collars” you can put it on the mouth to facilitate adding the dry tea neatly.

 

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Certainly not essential. Likewise not essential is using a wooden tool from your “toolkit” to scoop the tea into the pot (shown in use above.)

 

Remember that this tea doesn’t look like what we have handled before. It consists of chunks and thick flakes, not individual leaves and buds. Pu'er is "large leaf" tea which grows on trees, not on shrubs. Each tree can be 10 or 12 meters tall and each leaf can be as large as the palm of your open hand.

 

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Now fill the pot with boiling water, right to the brim. If some runs over the sides, that’s OK. (The special platter 茶盘 used here makes it less messy, since it catches splash.) It's the first special use "tea item" bought after investing in a pot and gaiwan.

 

post-20301-0-22438600-1434086295_thumb.jpg post-20301-0-94718600-1434086310_thumb.jpg post-20301-0-73803600-1434086322_thumb.jpg

 

If catching the surplus water in the drawer is not enough, you can attach a hose to one corner and conduct it to a plastic bucket. I don’t have a bucket set up for this photo.

 

As before, after filling the teapot and replacing the lid, pour a little more water over the top. High steeping temperature is the goal. Wanted to add that the water should be brought to a boil, but not held there. You want it to reach a boil, but don't keep it boiling and boiling and boiling. That can change its taste.

 

Right away, without waiting at all, discard this rinse water. It will have cleaned dust and debris from the tea leaves as well as “waking them up.” You don’t want it to have time to actually steep and carry away valuable flavor.

 

But in order not to waste the heat, you can pour it into the pitcher and the cups, like you did a few minutes before with plain hot water. Or you can simply dump it.

 

If you dump it on the tea tray/platter/cha pan 茶盘,you can pour it on the small ceramic animal that is sitting there for that purpose. It sort of protects the wood of the tray against excess concentrated heat. Again, it’s not something essential, mainly just for fun. Called a 茶虫, “tea bug.” This one is a turtle. Friend insisted I have one. They come many shapes. Frogs are popular.

 

post-20301-0-14483300-1434086672_thumb.jpg

 

Now you are ready for the first actual brewing. Same drill. Steeping time is only seconds, since we have used a lot of tea. After you pour the tea, leave the teapot at least partially open; do not fully replace the lid; that would adversely affect the taste.

 

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Sip this first brewing and share it with your friends.

 

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Like Simon and Jiasen mentioned above, the first steep is usually not the best. Most votes go to number two or number three. But you can still tell a lot from brew number one and use that information to adjust your technique. If it was too strong, brew the next couple pots a little quicker; if it was too weak, brew them a little longer. This first steep tells you what's to come as the tea develops in the pot: It is predictive as well as diagnostic. 

 

Take a close look at the leaves. You can see they are already starting to loosen up and expand. They are no longer tight chunks.

 

post-20301-0-36060500-1434087205_thumb.jpg

 

How to drink it from the small cups? Men wrap their fingers underneath; that’s considered masculine. Women open their hand up, extending fingers in the air; that’s considered feminine and graceful.

 

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But there’s more to it. When you take a sip, take a good big one. Not an actual gulp, but enough to fill the mouth. Your tongue should be entirely coated in the tea, front and back and sides; different taste buds reside in different zones. You can even discretely swish it around. And after swallowing, take a mouth breath to enjoy the aftertaste 后干。 Each little cup contains about two of these “shots.”

 

There can’t possibly be more to say about sipping tea, right? Well, there actually is one more important thing. Don’t let the tea in your cup cool off. The flavors are fullest when the tea is hot. So if you drink just half the cup and then move away to answer the phone or some such, when you return, toss the remainder and pour a new cup.

 

post-20301-0-82333800-1434087597_thumb.jpg post-20301-0-84429200-1434087607_thumb.jpg

 

Today’s tea was real strong. Probably stronger than it needed to be. Although it would have been perfect “after-dinner shu cha,” beneficial to digestion, for mid-morning consumption, I think I would have preferred it a little lighter. One crude test is whether you can read through it.

 

Interesting to note, however, that this fine Pu’er is still not the least bit bitter, even though ideally it should have been less strong.

 

Here's what the leaves looked like 8 or 9 brewings later. (This tea can be brewed about 10 times before losing flavor.) Looks more like coffee grounds than what we usually think of as tea leaves.

 

post-20301-0-83253500-1434092483_thumb.jpg post-20301-0-58185800-1434092494_thumb.jpg

 

So that's an overview of brewing Pu'er, or at least one fairly standard approach to it. I'll close out this post now because it's getting pretty long. But I intend to add a couple footnotes just below as promised.

 

In the third part of the Pu'er story, in a few days, we should focus on the different kinds of Pu'er. As always, your discussion and comments are very welcome.

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How does a woman hold the teapot? She uses two hands instead of one. Actually a man can also use two hands if he feels steadier that way.

 

post-20301-0-18342600-1434089594_thumb.jpg

 

This is one of my tea teachers, and she illustrates superb pouring technique. Note how her wrist bends at nearly a 90-degree angle. Most of us can't do that; I can't. Tea masters 茶艺师 do special exercises to increase the flexibility of their arm, wrist and hand joints.

 

Here are some additional photos of tea tools that are commonly used. (These are not specific to Pu'er.)

 

post-20301-0-71604200-1434089820_thumb.jpg  post-20301-0-38323700-1434089851_thumb.jpg

 

You can see the "collar" used above when putting tea into the pot. Next (left to right) there's a tool used to gently push tea out of a dish into the teapot. Beside that is a pick, for prying apart tea leaves when in cake or brick form. (Most people use a metal one instead.) It's also used to execute some fancy moves when brewing Tieguanyin. (Tell you more about that later.)

 

The "bucket-shaped" scoop is for tea leaves. Works well. And the wooden tongs or tweezers 夹子 are for picking up small drinking cups. That way your hands don't touch the part of the cup where your guests will place their lips.

 

This set, made from a hardwood the name of which I've forgotten, cost me 100 Yuan (bargained down from 150.)

 

Let me mention something else that is semi-important. Tea such as we brewed today will stain light-colored towels almost irreparably. Be warned that the stains never completely wash out. One does, however, need a towel to wipe the drip away from the base of pitcher, cups and pot when brewing and serving. What to do?

 

The answer is a special towel, 茶巾。Every place selling tea gear has them. Not expensive.

 

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It's a tightly-woven cotton fabric, very absorbent, and can also be used for polishing your teapot when you are ready to put it away. Yixing pots don't have a lacquer finish; they are natural clay. With use and handling over time, they develop an attractively shiny patina. Rubbing your clay teapot while still warm helps that process along.

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Shelley

This absolutely fascinating, once again thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge with us.

 

I have had in my cupboard for years a small little teapot on a tray with 4 small teacups, I did not know what they were but now I think they are one of these small teapots for making Pu' er tea.

 

i have attached some pictures, some are a bit shaky because I am using one hand but they are good enough for you to see, I have held the pot in my hand so you can see the size and put my hand next to the set so you can get an idea of scale. I do have quite big hands for a woman so I have been told.

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You're all set Shelley. Congratulations! You can definitely brew tea in that, Pu'er as well as several other kinds of "gong-fu" tea.

 

What it looks like from the photos is that you have a Jingdezhen tea set or a very good copy of one. 景德镇。This tea ware is made in a famous city in Jiangxi 江西 of the same name from high-fired porcelain. The blue and white decoration is characteristic of pieces from there. It might even have some markings underneath.

 

How it differs from an Yixing pot is that it's glazed and will therefore stay the same over time, whereas an Yixing pot will gradually improve and eventually become able to "mellow out" a rough Pu'er tea during the brewing process. An Yixing pot can actually help the tea taste better.

 

You can use it as described in the posts above to makes some Pu'er. It will also work well for Dian Hong and Tieguanyin. It's not ideal for green tea, however. The temperature tends to get too hot for them.

 

Glad you have enjoyed these articles. It has been fun writing them. (They always take longer than I think they will.)

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# 8 -- Jiasen --

 

My father in law happens to be a Pu'er collector - like he even has a cellar. His A Grade stash is amazing to drink.

 

I'm jealous! Not sure I've ever seen a real Pu'er cellar. They aren't common here (Kunming.) Is he in Hong Kong, by any chance? Tea cellars are more popular there.

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Shelley

I am glad to know it's use. It does say made in china on the bottom in English and Chinese. Looking forward to using it now. Computer and car are now fixed and life is back to normal, shopping trip on Monday :)

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jiasen

I'm jealous! Not sure I've ever seen a real Pu'er cellar. They aren't common here (Kunming.) Is he in Hong Kong by any chance?

 

 

Cellar is more a figurative term here. I mean he sets aside a specific place in his house where he stores all the different types and ages of Pu'er he owns. I don't think it is subject to temperature control or anything related. He lives in northern China.

 

Also to clarify on the confusion before, I meant first brew rather than first "rinse". My wife deals with the logistics of tea making, and she assures me we have been drinking properly rinsed tea :P .

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abcdefg

I understand, Jiasen. That makes sense. He still sounds like a good gentleman to know.

 

---------------- 

 

Shelley, hope the shopping trip goes well. Glad your logistic situation has improved. You will probably find a better selection of Pu'er at a better price via internet. I can help you select some if you'd like. But maybe the Chinese store will have the other tea you were hoping to buy.

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Made the same tea again today, an older 熟普洱 from Menghai 孟海。But used about a third less leaves than I did the other day. Came out less intense, but equally enjoyable. Probably better for daily drinking. More balanced; less "medicinal." 

 

This is the third brew 第三泡。

 

post-20301-0-14545600-1434249659_thumb.jpg

 

 

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Balthazar

@abcdefg: Thanks for the informative posts, and the beautiful pictures.

 

I realize there hasn't been any activity here for about two weeks, so apologies for the bump, but I thought I'd share some pictures. As I've written elsewhere, I live in Norway, the climate is far from optimal from aging puer (although it's very good for almost every other kind of tea, cold and dry). At least not in the capital, living somewhere along our long coast may be a bit more forgiving on the tea.

 

As I have also written elsewhere, I've started coping mostly by buying small quantities, so that I have a reasonable chance of finishing the tea before it goes thin and sour. And, inspired by this blog post I have been using crocks for some of my tea.

 

fgWqY1p.jpg

vSm8dYF.jpg

YUjNYXw.jpg

ovLQlOG.jpg

FNfZlV6.jpg

 

So far, so good. I imagine this will keep the tea alive, and if I'm very lucky there might even be some ageing.

 

The picture below, however, shows a set-up that should not be replicated. Basically, I experimented with a tea that had gone terribly sour over the winter, to see how much humidity would be too much humidity. It didn't take too many weeks for mold to start growing on it.

 

siMmOQq.jpg

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Txh4lFG.jpg

 

This summer I've also been fortunate enough to try some aged raw puers. I've had some 25 gram samples before, but to paraphrase the Russian puerh consumers, "a cake is a sample" - 25g really isn't always enough to tell you a lot about the tea. The proprietor of a certain puer focused vendor was kind enough to let me buy a few 100 gram samples of aged tea without adding a markup (compared to the gram price if you buy a whole cake). It has been very educational. The pictures below are from a session with the "2000 CNNP 7532 Tiepai" (贴牌, referring to the fact that its exact origins cannot be verified). It has a much more wet/traditional storage profile than other aged sheng puers I've tried, save for the "1990’s Hong Kong Style Storage Aged Raw Puer" from the same vendor.

 

5MP5PrW.jpg

lEQ3PdO.jpg

MwwFFiI.jpg

UliYI9S.jpg

OTziNvV.jpg

 

The pictures of the tea liquid are of the second and third steeps respectively. 14,5g was a bit too much, I think about 11g is optimal for this tea with this pot. (I usually never use a scale, however. Or a 公杯 for that matter.)

 

It brews pretty dark, almost like a shu puer. Compare to some much younger teas:

 

zgdLAb9.jpg

rTmX6HZ.jpg

 

vs. a shu puer:

 

 

vG1oxUL.jpg

 

This is a another aged sheng, from 2003, that's been dry stored:

 

GH8Hc50.jpg

 

Of course there are other variables involved as well, but it's interesting to note the color differences nonetheless. As for the whole dry vs. wet storage debate, I'm not sure which side I'm on. Both methods have unique qualities, and bring out different things in the tea.

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