The people who grow and enjoy this tea in Yunnan are not obsessed with its age the same way that people in Southern China or the West are. They generally drink tea that is one or two years old and are much more concerned with the altitude, provenance, and age of the tree it came from than the age of the leaf itself.
Following Liberation (i.e. the onset of Communist rule of China following WWII) national tea production was controlled by the government and restricted to a few large production centers. The Menghai tea factory, at the foot of Nannuo mountain, was designated as the official pu er production facility, and all farmers in the Menghai range sold their fresh leaves to the factory to be processed. There they were blended together and processed into sheng pu er and black tea. In 1972, the wo dui process was invented, ushering in the age of shu pu er. It wasn’t until the early 21st century that small pu er farmers began processing their leaves themselves in earnest. Thus, though old pu er has the benefit of time, it is almost exclusively industrially-produced factory tea.
What does that mean? For one thing it means it is blended. Blended tea is sourced from many different farms – sometimes hundreds – making quality control almost impossible. Blended tea is almost guaranteed to be contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, growth hormone, synthetic fertilizer, etc. because if even one farmer in a hundred uses those things, it will be blended into the final product. It is for this reason that I seldom seek out old shu pu er – it is unlikely to be clean. The use of these chemicals was less widespread before the mid-1990’s, so if you go far back enough, then the quality improves.
It also means that the tea will not be Gu Shu cha. The concept of “ancient tree” tea didn’t exist in the tea market until the early-mid 2000’s. Before then, gu shu tea, if it was picked at all, would be blended in with all the other tea at the factory, regardless of age, quality, or altitude. Thus, it is almost impossible to find Gu Shu cha from before 2000. The factories didn’t distinguish, the farmers didn’t process their own tea, and any gu shu cha that was specifically separated from the rest of the harvest would have been commissioned by private collectors in very small quantities.
Sheng Vs. Shu
There is a notion circulating among the American tea community, particularly on the West Coast, that sheng pu er is unsuitable to drink because it is harmful to one’s stomach. This idea is probably due to the fact that the majority of sheng pu er imported into the US is of extremely low quality – young plants, from low altitude, treated with chemicals and processed in a factory. The same is true of most of the shu pu er in the US, but the ripening process masks the inferior quality, making it palatable. The result is that the characteristics that many American tea lovers have come to associate with pu er – an opaque, black liquor, “dirt” flavor, sometimes with fishy notes – are considered by Yunnan tea lovers to be the hallmark of poor quality industrial shu pu er. The same is true of the extremely bitter, orange liquor and smoky astringency associated with sheng pu er in the West. The truth is that low-quality Pu Er tea of either type is generally unsuitable for human consumption, but sheng is undrinkable while people can (and do) develop a taste for low-quality shu.
When I asked my tea farmers about sheng pu er and the stomach, they pointed out that their grandparents (who are both over 100 years old), drink ancient tree sheng pu er several times a day, and actually use it to treat various illnesses. It is entirely likely there are individuals who are, for whatever health reason unique to them, unable to drink sheng pu er, even very high-quality gu shu cha. All I can say with absolute certainty is that Yunnan tea connoisseurs and Pu Er tea farmers themselves greatly prefer sheng, specifically gu shu cha, and consider it superior to shu pu er. Additionally, because the wo dui process was industrial to begin with, and lower-quality leaves are used to make it, most shu pu er is likely to be contaminated with various agricultural chemicals (although a small but growing number of individual farmers have managed to develop a small-scale wo dui process). The same is true of factory-produced sheng, which is mostly old sheng. If you can get old tea from before 1995 it is more likely to be clean though less likely to be gushu cha.
So what does an American pu er lover do? If you have a reliable source and don’t mind spending the money, you can get old tea from before the mid-1990’s. It’ll still be factory tea, but it will probably be cleaner. A more economical method is to find a source for farm-direct pu er tea. Not only does this give you access to clean, high-quality tea, but it helps to support the emergent industry of artisan pu er production and protect the natural ecosystem of Yunnan by placing value on old tea trees and the environments in which they grow, as well as organic agriculture. More and more individual tea farmers have figured out how to create shu pu er in small batches using their high-grade leaves, so if you absolutely crave that dark, earthy taste, it can still be obtained without compromising quality. How do you know if pu-er is farm direct? Mostly you just have to trust your source. Know that if a cake of pu er says Da Yi, Kunming, Mengku, Haiwan, Xiaguan, etc., then it’s from a big factory. That doesn’t mean it’s bad tea – factories can make good tea too. But their products are by definition industrial products, their leaves will be blended, and they won’t have the purity, distinctiveness, provenance, and artisan skill that can be achieved by small farmers who grow, pick, and process their own tea.
This is the last in a two-part series on Pu’er tea. Did you miss Part 1? Read it here!
Images courtesy of the author.