Imagine that your interest in pu erh is piqued. You’re now browsing a selection and trying to figure out what to purchase. How do you make up your mind?
Should you just experiment, take a chance, purchase one, and hope for the best? That’s certainly one option, but it may not be the most economical or yield a good outcome. Fortunately, there are some telltale signs of quality to keep in mind, signs that can help ensure that you get the most for your purchase. So now that we’ve talked a little about how pu erh is supposed to taste and how you’re supposed to store it, it’s time to look at those qualities that make for a good pu erh tea!
- Size Matters
Large leaves are not always desirable when it comes to selecting your teas. It really comes down to the plucking standard.
For many white teas, for instance, the tea bud is most desirable, and for many spring harvest greens, the bud is plucked along with the first or second leaf. These are the newest, freshest parts of the plant, and so tend to yield more floral flavors in the cup. If you were to find a white or green tea made from larger leaves, it is usually a sign that the oldest leaves have been plucked and is indicative of a lower grade tea.
When it comes to oolongs, however, hardier and more resilient leaves are desired, and these are the older, thicker tea leaves. Since the crafting of many oolongs requires kneading, bruising, and shaping, the tea leaves have to be able to withstand this labor-intensive process. Older leaves are ideal, and they also have the added benefit of making for a more robust, complex cup of tea (precisely what you want in a good oolong!).
As one might expect, when it comes to pu erh, it’s a little tricky because a good pu erh has both qualities, the freshest and largest leaves.
How is this possible?
The plucking standard for a good pu erh is one bud to two or three leaves. When purchasing a pu erh, then, you want to make sure that it does in fact contain some buds. If you find very few buds and you even find a lot of stems, it might be a sign of a lower quality pu erh. However, this is a little more complicated than just standard buds and leaves, it also depends on the types of tree, and the traditional plucking styles in different regions.
Still, good quality pu erh should also feature larger leaves. This is made possible by picking buds and leaves during the right season and from the right kind of tree!
- Tis the Season
Pu erh tea leaves can be plucked in the spring, summer, or fall, but this doesn’t mean that all seasons are equal. The best pu erh leaves are harvested during the spring season as the tea trees begin sprouting new leaves and growing rapidly, if everything else is equal. Fall harvest can yield a great tea if it has the good leaf, process, and storage. One good example of fall harvest is called Gu Hua pu-erh tea. Gu Hua means grain blooms and start to ripe for harvest in the fall around late September and October. Gu Hua pu'-rh refers to the puerh tea that produced in this time window.
When leaves are harvested in the fall in a good environment, for instance, you’ll begin to notice more fragrant and fruitier notes, like dried or roasted plums or dates. Our Confidant Arbor Tree Raw Pu Erh, sold in the form of mini-cakes, is a fall-harvested tea that showcases notes of nutmeg, almond, vanilla, and passion fruit!
Understanding how the harvest-time affects flavors can help you narrow down the right pu erh for your taste buds, and all of the pu erhs we carry mostly are spring harvest with several fall harvests.
- Call of the Wild
Perhaps the most important quality when it comes to picking out a good pu erh is the source of the tea. Did it come from a bush or a tree? Was it on a farm or was it feral? Be wary of the marketing gimmicks that prey on the less informed!
Pu erh tea will generally come from one of three places: a plantation, a former plantation, or a higher-elevation, wild environment.
When grown on a plantation, the tea is farmed at a much lower altitude and is pruned to be no larger than a bush in an effort to try to maximize leaf yields. It is sometimes marketed with more pleasant sounding or exotic names, like guan mu cha, “farmed,” or “cultivated.” It is not uncommon for farmers of plantations to use pesticides and chemical fertilizers on these teas.
We don't source any of our pu erh tea from plantations unless it meets stringent requirements. It has to use ecological and sustainable farming practices; it has to grow at a high altitude; the tea has to come from trees (not bushes); and it has to be ecologically grown, using no pesticides or synthetic chemicals.
Much more highly desired are wild arbor pu erh teas. These are grown on former plantations that have been abandoned and allowed to grow with very little human intervention. Sometimes known as yefang or yesheng (“wild grown” or “wild tree”), the pu erh from these trees are not truly wild but still produce a very good cup of tea.
The best prized of all pu erhs, however, is the gushu or qiao mu sheng (“ancient” or “old tea tree”). Grown only at the high altitudes and in the most pristine of environments, these tea trees are often 100 or more years in age, some even reaching close to 800! They are totally and truly wild, free from human intervention, showcasing the most floral and complex flavors. One study even suggests that true gushu pu erh has the highest levels of antioxidants!
Now that you know what to look for, we hope that you find shopping for pu erh a little less confusing, making it easier to find what you want.
At MeiMei Fine Teas, we’re pleased to offer to you both, wild arbor and ancient tree pu erh, and if you look closely at the harvest dates, you’ll find both spring and fall harvests. This creates a nice variety from which to choose, taste, and compare, pinpointing exactly that flavor profile that you want to enjoy now and save for later!