Many pu’erh tea drinkers have become familiar with Menghai county and the tea factories in that region. The name itself is practically synonymous with “high-quality,” a reputation earned from the region’s success throughout the 1970s and 80s. With no sign of slowing down, to this day, Menghai teas tend to be more expensive on average than similar teas from the surrounding regions.
When it comes to Menghai, tea connoisseurs will pay a premium. While the name of this region alone will drive pu’erh lovers crazy, make no mistake that there really is something unique about a Menghai pu’erh (as our recent gold medal tea can attest to). Specifically, there are certain, beloved qualities that these tea drinkers are seeking, qualities that define what a Menghai tea is supposed to be.
The teas from this area are famous for their aggressive, bold, and strong attributes. For example, after sipping, one might notice that the mouth-watering sweetness of the hui gan (回甘) is unusually assertive and quick—unless, of course, one happens to be distracted by the especially titillating, cooling sensation of the woodsy, camphor-like zhang (樟). Forgetting their reputation, it is for the excitement of these qualities alone that one should reserve a space for a good Menghai pu’erh in your tea cabinet.
But no matter how thrilling a Menghai pu’erh can be, it is important to recognize that it represents just one face of the many-sided world of intriguing pu’erh. Where Menghai epitomizes strength, for instance, we might say that a good Yiwu pu’erh epitomizes secrecy. It is like the yin (陰) to the Menghai’s yang (陽).
Indeed, a Yiwu pu’erh is in many ways the polar opposite of Menghai, even down to their production. As opposed to the larger-scale operations of Menghai tea factories, many Yiwu teas are produced in smaller batches by hand. In terms of taste, Yiwu pu’erhs usually lack the boldness of Menghai, but they more than make up for it with a profound hou yun or “throat charm” (厚韵), a vaporous sensation that flows from the throat up through the nose as if one were breathing the essence of the tea.
Part of appreciating the difference between teas comes down to understanding what they are striving to be. A Yiwu tea is simply not trying to be a Menghai tea. Its flavors are more subtle, meant to be experienced over time through multiple infusions. As if it is engaging in a courtship ritual with its you, it conceals its best flavors through the first two steeps, demanding patience before you have the chance to experience what it has to offer.
Does this mean that a Yiwu pu’erh is somehow “better” than a Menghai?
Not at all. It doesn’t imply anything about superiority or inferiority. They’re just… different. And we should respect this difference, learn it, develop an awareness of it and an appreciation for it.
No matter which one chooses to sample, it is important to remember that both are just two kinds of pu’erh, two sides of a wonderfully complex, enriching world of pu’erh tea. There are certainly more with which we can (and should) become acquainted, each with their own characters as well (like Mengku, Fengqing, and Jingmai).
Without acknowledging these differences, it is easy to miss all that this world has to offer.
In sum, like wine, we should strive to understand pu’erh in terms of regions and terroir, and through that, develop a familiarity with what we really like and what each kind has to offer. Only then will we grow in our tea journey and better understand where we are in it.
It has unfortunately become commonplace to associate shou or ripe pu’erh with earthier flavors and smells, ranging from musty basement to forest floor. Part of the problem lies at the feet of tea producers who attempt to sell stale or ruined batches of pu’erh as shou, which is disappointing.
The good news though is that there are very good shou pu’erhs that lack these earthy notes, and one in particular has been skyrocketing in popularity in mainland China: Xiao Qing Gan Pu. Not only does “Gan Pu” (the shortened nickname) taste amazing for a shou pu’erh, it tastes amazing in general, making it a perfect tea for nearly anyone—tea novices, pu’erh newcomers, connoisseurs, and special friends.
As one comes to expect from pu’erhs, Gan Pu is indeed aged, but what makes it unique relative to other kinds of tea is that it is stored in a dried green tangerine shell. And it is precisely the storage of this tea in such a special kind of fruit that imparts to it such wonderful flavor.
In the west, there are some who confuse the green color of oranges with the quality of being immature or raw, believing them to be unworthy in some respect or another. There’s a good reason for this mistaken intuition. When bananas are picked too soon, for example, they can appear green as well, and so we tend to set them out and let the oxidation processes take place, observing the transition to yellow and eventually brown.
This is not the case with oranges though. The green color of the orange is related to chlorophyll content, an important phytonutrient, and oranges lose this color in colder climates when the temperature drops. In more tropical climates, however, the warmer temperature remains stable, and so these citrus fruits will retain their green colors.
This is the case with the Xinhui tangerine, a special kind of green-shelled mandarin with exceptional flavor. This is also the reason why the name of this tea translates into the cute phrase: Little Green Tangerine Pu’erh.
While stored in the green shell of a Xinhui tangerine, the pu’erh begins to absorb its unique flavors and essential oils. In many ways, it is almost best to consider this a flavored tea, but it is important to realize that this flavoring is completely natural. There are no additives, no preservatives, no artificial ingredients of any kind. The citrus flavor of the tea comes entirely from resting inside the mandarin peel.
In addition to being a flavored tea and widely accessible to tea drinkers of all stripes (including those who have struggled to enjoy pu’erh), this pu’erh places itself firmly within the tradition of traditional Chinese medicine as well.
The Xinhui mandarin peel has long been prized for its medicinal qualities, believed to help sooth the lungs and throat while reducing excessive body heat. In the west, for example, we have similar thoughts about vitamin c, recommending it to those who come down with a cold or sinus infection. The idea within traditional Chinese medicine is similar, except the preference is given for whole foods, herbs, and oils over isolated chemicals.
For those who would like to partake in this tradition (or simply those looking for some additional flavor in their teas), it is strongly encouraged when preparing Gan Pu to break away some of the small bits and pieces of the mandarin shell to infuse along with the tea. It gives a slight boost to the citrus flavor—but rest assured that this is not just a cup of citrus. You can still taste the dark chocolate and caramel flavors of the shou pu’erh. The addition of the mandarin just gives it a citrusy undertone, somewhat like a piece of chocolate infused with orange peel essential oil.
Due to the popularity of Gan Pu, there have been more stuffed teas of varying levels of quality emerging in the market. Sometimes this practice is even used to mask the inferiority of stale or low-quality teas. Our Gan Pu, however, is authentic. The shell is indeed sourced from Xinhui in Guangdong Province and the ripened pu’erh comes from Menghai County in Yunnan Province.
What is more, this Gan Pu has been crafted with gong ting or “imperial palace” pu’erh (宫廷), a phrase used to denote the highest grade of leaf quality. It is important for us to not only introduce these novelty teas to the market, but to introduce those of high-quality so that our customers can appreciate and understand exactly why they’re so beloved.
The infusion of gong ting teas tends to be very smooth, almost silky, and they lack any trace of bitterness. By using gong ting pu’erh in this Gan Pu, we find that it creates a delightful sensory experience. The silky texture of the tea is very soothing, and the chocolatey and citrusy aromatics prove to be a match made in heaven. This is an extraordinarily well-rounded tea, almost dessert-like, and it is sure to please!
Last week, we introduced you to Mengku pu’erh, discussing the important characteristics typical of Mengku teas. There is, however, an outlier to this group, a puerh so unique that it deserves its own category. This tea is teng tiao cha or “vine tea” (藤條茶).
Tucked away in the eastern mountain range of the Bing Dao area is a village known as Ba Nuo (壩糯), and it is here that you will find some of the highest elevations in all of Yunnan province, peaks exceeding more than 2,000m in some places. It is also the birthplace of teng tiao cha.
The higher altitudes in this area affect the growth of the tea trees in a rather unique way. Because the tea leaves are exposed to colder temperatures than usual, they take a longer time to develop, grow, and mature.
This colder climate means that the overall yield of tea leaves will be lower (and thus more expensive), but this also adds something extra to the tea itself: complexity. By growing in these colder climates, the leaves develop more depth of flavor, more interesting aromatic profiles.
But the cold alone isn’t what makes a vine tea a vine tea. Rather, it is the unusual plucking techniques of the locals, a technique that originated in Ba Nuo village and has since spread to a few other areas.
When harvesting the tea leaves from the trees, the locals will pick all of the leaves from the branch, sparing only those leaves at the end. This method forces the branches to grow longer and lower to the ground, twisting and distorting in myriad, serpentine ways, almost appearing vine-like (hence the name “vine tea”). To encourage this growth, they also carefully inspect any new shoots, removing those that don’t belong.
Between the unique appearance of these tea trees and the colder climate, the tea leaves tend to grow much thicker, making for an incredibly rich and robust flavor profile with a creamy texture, featuring notes of stonefruit and flowers with a honey-like sweetness. It’s a tea that is as exciting as it is exotic.
But its exotic nature does not end with its intoxicating, fruity aroma and intriguing flavors. On the contrary, what makes teng tiao tea especially rewarding is a special sensation known as hou yun or “throat charm” (厚韵). Closely related to hui gan (回甘), hou yun is a special kind of lingering aftertaste, one that begins in and permeates the throat with a vapor-like effect. It then rises up through the nose, awakening the sinuses. It is almost like a special kind of breath.
In spite of our attempts to describe it as best as we can, it never quite feels satisfactory associating words and phrases with hou yun, as it always feels like one isn’t describing it well enough. This might be why experienced tea drinkers often resort to, “You’ll know it when you feel it.”
And of all the teas that possess that hou yun quality, there is none better that exemplifies it than teng tiao pu’erh. It is a one-of-a-kind tea that affords a one-of-a-kind experience.
Mengku is one of the four major pu’erh production areas in Yunnan province, and though its fame skyrocketed in the early aughts with some excellent marketing by Shuangjiang Mengku, a pu’erh tea factory, it would be unfair and inaccurate to say that this fame was undeserved.
On the contrary, Mengku’s strong reputation has persisted for more than a decade, and there’s no sign that it is letting up any time soon. This is for good reason. The pu’erh from this region truly is remarkable, and much of this has to do with the unique terroir of the area, especially that of Da Xue Shan or “Big Snowy Mountain” (大雪山).
Da Xue Shan stands nearly 3300m high (more than 10,000 ft), and although its name might suggest that it features a peak of perpetual snow, the truth is that the weather here is about as ideal as it can be for the flourishing of tea bushes. There is snow on the summit of Da Xue Shan occasionally, but for the most part, it is relatively rare.
Sprinkled throughout Da Xue Shan are a number of villages, and two of those at the highest elevations are Xiao Hu Sai (小户赛) and Da Hu Sai (大户赛), each positioned at opposite ends of a mountain ridge that serves as a natural boundary for Da Xue Shan park and national forest, an area accessible only with special permission from government authorities. Between the two, Da Hu Sai provides far easier access to this forest than the more isolated Xiao Hu Sai.
Technically speaking, Xiao Hu Sai is comprised of three smaller villages. Two of these belong to Lahu people (拉祜族), one of the many ethnic minority groups recognized and protected by the Chinese government, and the third belongs to the traditional Han Chinese (漢人). By contrast, Da Hu Sai is predominantly populated by a mix of La Hu and Han.
Although neither village is as popular as Bing Dao, they have been receiving an increased amount of recognition year over year. For Xiao Hu Sai, this is largely owed to the large number and quality of the nearby gushu (古树) pu’erh trees. Sandwiched between several sources of water, these trees provide a constant stream of nourishment, helping them flourish. The leaves from these trees have long been a source of food and a best-kept secret for the locals.
Approximately parallel from Xiao Hu Sai on the eastern portion of the mountain ridge sits Da Hu Sai. It is located at a slightly higher elevation from Xiao Hu Sai, and while it has been less well-known for its teas, it has always been more frequently visited for its easier access to Da Xue Shan national forest. Although tea gardens are nearby, many residents will venture forth and harvest leaves from wild pu’erh trees, providing for a more robust and complex flavor.
While the teas from both of these villages are excellent, on the eastern side of Da Xue Shan and at a lower elevation lies Bing Dao (冰岛), one of the most highly regarded pu’erh production areas in the world. Like Xiao Hu Sai, the Bing Dao area holds five smaller villages, but more importantly, it is the unique terroir of this place that imparts a distinctive character to its teas. It is this terroir that has caught the attention of tea drinkers everywhere, and for this reason, it is becoming known as the “Champagne of China,” the tea equivalent of the famous wine-producing region in France. There is simply no comparison to be made between Bing Dao and the rest.Even though Bing Dao reigns supreme (and carries the highest price point) amongst Mengku teas, in truth, so many of these teas are outstanding. They have tremendous energy, inclining so many Mengku pu’erh drinkers to comment on how relaxed and focused they feel when sipping these teas. They also tend to be the most accessible in terms of taste for those new to pu’erh. You simply cannot go wrong with a Mengku pu’erh.
(yan gu hua xiang)
floral fragrance, rock bone
Wuyi rock oolongs might be some of the most difficult teas to craft in the world. Each of them requires careful attention from the tea master. Too much oxidation, for example, will destroy the complex flavor altogether, but too little never manages to bring it out, leaving the tea leaves greener in color and weaker in taste.
Even with the same cultivar, subtle changes in terroir from one area in the Wuyi Mountain Range to the next can result in drastically different aromatic profiles. This is most notable with the variety of Shui Xian available in the market. Some taste weak, inferior, even cheap, while others are roasted so heavily that they are unrecognizable. Finding a good one requires not just establishing a relationship with an expert tea master but also locating a superior growing area, one whose terroir will amplify everything the tea has to offer.
Between roasting and terroir, then, you have two of the most important ingredients that make the difference between an inferior Wuyi rock oolong and a superior one.
But how can you tell the difference? What do are you looking for?
What is a Wuyi rock oolong supposed to taste like?
Distinguishing between the varietals of Wuyi oolongs is no easy feat. It takes time, patience, scrupulous notetaking, and frequent tasting. To an unrefined palate, identifying a cup of Rou Gui from Bai Rui Xiang or Shui Jin Gui is little more than luck.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be able to do this to enjoy a Wuyi yancha. Rather, there are some general characteristics to look for when sipping these oolongs, characteristics that are easy to identify as long as you know what they are.
Perhaps one of the most important traits of a rock oolong is an unusual one known as yan yun (岩韵). Literally translated as “rock- or cliff-rhyme,” this is used to describe the distinctive aftertaste of yancha. Owing exclusively to its terroir, yan yun is an almost effervescent sensation that arises in the mouth before moving up through the nose and into the back of the throat.
Yan yun feels like a gentle tingling or tickling sensation, similar what occurs when drinking a carbonated beverage. For the locals, it is yan yun that determines the quality of a rock oolong, for this characteristic alone is what captures the spirit of this rocky terrain, reminding one of the misty waterfalls and babbling streams.
Accompanying yan yun are yan gu (岩骨) and hua (花), that is, “rock” and “floral” aromatics, respectively.
The rock (or, lit. rock bones) is the characteristic of the oolong that is derived exclusively from the terroir. This gives the tea a heartiness to it, an almost broth-like or meaty quality. These are the heavier tasting notes and richer sensations, usually accompanied by flavors such as dark chocolate, minerality, roasted fruits, smokiness.
In the mouth, yan gu presents as a drying sensation, a quick evaporation that unfolds into the yan yun described above. It is yan gu that is known as the “rhythm of the rocks,” the defining flavors that will slowly mellow out but persist over many infusions.
But even though the rockiness of yan gu ultimately makes a rock oolong a rock oolong, it’s still incomplete without hua.
A good yancha must be balanced, and the only way to balance the heavy flavors and drying sensations are with lighter flavors and cooling sensations. This is the work of hua.
Hua usually presents with floral notes—orchid, daffodil, pine, elderflower, even rose. This fragrance, however, should not be overwhelming; rather, in the well-crafted yancha, it is slow to develop, subtle to the nose.
This is why we say: “floral fragrance, rock bone” (岩骨花香).The yan gu is what makes the tea a rock oolong, but it is the hua that makes it a superior rock oolong. The yan yun is the sensory treat that remains after sipping one of these quality yancha. It will leave you feeling satisfied, delighted, excited, filled with a zest for life that echoes the rich and diverse environment of the Wuyi Mountain Range.
Of the four great tea bushes of Wuyishan (四大名丛), arguably none is more precious than Bai Ji Guan (白鸡冠), and yet, strangely enough, there is a good chance that you haven’t even heard of this incredible tea. It may not have the level of fame that Da Hong Pao possesses in the west, but that’s not on account of it lacking in appearance, aroma, or flavor. Rather, the answer is far simpler — it is rare to find this tea outside of Fujian.
Let’s take a look at what makes Bai Ji Guan special, and why it has managed to evade popularity beyond the area in which it is grown.
Bai Ji Guan is sometimes translated as “white cock’s comb” or “white rooster crest.” Some say that this has to do with the yellow color of the processed leaf, believing that it resembles the crest of a rooster, but this isn’t quite right.
The name was established during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD), and while the leaf possesses a golden color in appearance, the name was given to this tea because when the sun shined down upon them, the older leaves looked as though they were white in color and, with their buds arranged around them, they resembled the crest of a rooster.
The vibrant yellowish hue of these leaves is owed to a fortuitous mutation, and this helps them stand apart from all other tea bushes throughout the world. But it is this mutation that also makes this tea so difficult to source.
Because there are so few tea bushes of this unique cultivar, the overall yield in any given season is extraordinarily small by comparison to other Wuyi oolongs. This is compounded by the fact that it is much harder to craft this tea than other rock oolongs, and yancha are already difficult enough to process.
While Wuyi teas tend to have a medium to high level of oxidation, Bai Ji Guan falls within the 25–50% oxidation range, which means quite a bit of skill is required to oxide this tea just right, enough to bring out the flavor but not too much so that it becomes like any other tea from this region. The slightest mistake, and the entire batch is ruined. And with its abnormally small leaf size, it is easy to make such a mistake.
Thus, very few with the necessary set of skills to process this tea are willing to even craft Bai Ji Guan, concerned that the smallest mistake will ruin their investment. This makes White Rooster Crest rare, valuable, treasured.
The rarity of this tea is fortunately matched by the rewarding taste. Bai Ji Guan tends to be complex, difficult to compare to other teas. There’s a natural sweetness that accompanies its fruity profile of bright, freshly sliced pears and peaches, but these summer fruits are softened by a calming floral note reminiscent of elderflower essence. As is typical of yancha, however, there is also the minerality that one expects, the rich yan yun (岩韵) that spreads like a mist up through the mouth and lingers in the nose.
To put it simply, Bai Ji Guan is a true delight and treat for the senses.
If you haven’t yet heard of pu’erh (pronounced “poo-are,” although “poo-air” is acceptable), you’re missing out on one of the most popular forms of tea in the world. Given its incredible shelf life, complex flavor profile, and ease of preparation, there’s good reason why widespread interest in this tea isn’t slowing down.
But if these reasons aren’t compelling enough—or you’re just understandably reluctant to follow the crowd—you may want to pause and reconsider. If you wait too long to give pu’erh a chance, you may come to realize that you’ve been cheating yourself of one of the healthiest teas in the world as well.
Let’s take a look at some of the exciting health-promoting benefits of pu’erh.
In 2008, researchers out of Osaka, Japan formulated a pu’erh tea extract and began to observe its effects in controlled settings.
Beginning with a study on animals, the researchers discovered that pu’erh extract was able to significantly decrease the rise in cholesterol that follows a meal; and when taken for more than 5 weeks, there was a decrease in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and fatty accumulation around the kidneys of these animals, effects that they did not observe with green tea extract.
Of course, there is a difference in the biological makeup between animals and people, and so it’s always possible these findings don’t apply to humans. Fortunately, the researchers were determined to figure this out.
In a subsequent study, this time with human subjects, the Japanese researchers administered pu’erh extract for a total of 4 months to 21 patients who were diagnosed with high cholesterol. At the end of the study, they recorded significant decreases in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and even bodyweight!
Afterwards, the research team concluded that pu’erh looks promising in helping prevent and manage hardening of the arteries and obesity.
It may not be much of a surprise to learn that a tea promotes heart health, but did you know that pu’erh may even be good for the brain?
One of the most important neurotransmitters in the brain is known as glutamate, responsible largely for exciting neurons and causing them to communicate with one another. It is estimated that more than 90% of the synaptic connections in the brain rely on this neurotransmitter.
Unfortunately, as with most things in life, there can be too much of a good thing, and in cases where overexcitation (“excitotoxicity”) occurs, glutamate causes our precious neurons to become damaged, eventually even dying. There’s no need to worry though—this is something that only occurs in the case of disease or injury, such as Alzheimer’s or stroke.
Now, for the good news.
Researchers out of Changchun, China found that pu’erh exhibited neuroprotective effects from cellular death by interfering with the chain reaction caused by excess glutamate. In other words, these researchers believe that some important biological compounds in pu’erh can help protect our brains when we need it most.
Though brain health is obviously quite important, pu’erh also appears to be a potent prebiotic, a kind of food that the bacteria in our intestines need to survive and flourish.
While many foods act as prebiotics, such as bananas and sauerkraut, each food nourishes different kinds of intestinal bacteria, and not all of them are equal. If you’ve ever shopped for a probiotic, for example, you might notice anywhere from 5 to 12 strains or more on the label, and while probiotics can be helpful, without prebiotics to keep your microbes alive, they will only have limited use.
A couple of years ago, researchers in China noticed that pu’erh protected against and improved symptoms of diet-induced metabolic syndrome—the cluster of symptoms associated with poor dieting, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and excess abdominal fat.
As they looked into the matter further, they discovered that pu’erh was working by remodeling the microbiome in the intestines. That’s right, pu’erh was feeding and strengthening the good bacteria!
More recently, in a collaboration between researchers in Canada, Australia, and China, it was found that pu’erh was specifically promoting the growth of Akkermansia muciniphila, one of the good guys that help in the fight against obesity, diabetes, and inflammation. We’re only starting to develop a clearer picture of exactly how pu’erh protects and promotes intestinal health.
While the above is exciting, it’s important to keep in mind that this is just a small sample of the burgeoning research on pu’erh. With so many health benefits being uncovered yearly, it’s a wonder why more people haven’t yet caught on to this amazing tea.
Fujita, H., and Yamagami, T. (2008). “Extract of black tea (pu-erh) inhibits postprandial rise in serum cholesterol in mice, and with long term use reduces serum cholesterol and low density lipoprotein levels and renal fat weight in rats,” in Phylotherapy Research 22(10), pp. 1275–81. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.2477.
Fujita, H., and Yamagami, T. (2008). “Efficacy and safety of Chinese black tea (pu-erh) extract in healthy and hypercholesterolemic subjects,” in Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism 53(1), pp. 33–42. https://doi.org/10.1159/000153006.
Li, C., et al. (2017). “Pu-erh tea protects the nervous system by inhibiting the expression of metabolic glutamate receptor 5,” in Molecular Neurobiology 54(7), pp. 5286–99. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12035-016-0064-3.