Green Puerh Q&A

The Green Puerh class hosted by Tim­o­thy and Michael pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity for some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent from our usual fare.

Michael began with a young, unblended sin­gle estate tea, 2008 Bing Dou. Tim­o­thy con­trasted this with a semi-fermented, clas­sic Meng­hai recipe, 2002 7352.

The duo did their best to explain the dif­fer­ences between the small batch and fac­tory teas, but hav­ing a full house of new and old tea lovers alike, a num­ber of insight­ful ques­tions arose.

Why is one cake looser than another?

Fac­tory stan­dards are most often pro­duced with hydraulic com­pres­sion, which usu­ally results in a fairly dense tea cake. The tea busi­nesser who com­mis­sions a spe­cial pro­duc­tion may request that the cake be com­pressed in the old style — the bag of tea leaves to be pressed is placed between two parts of a stone mold, and a worker stands on top of the mold. Com­pared to the mech­a­nized approach, this yields a loose cake, where one can eas­ily flake off a piece by hand.

Why not loose tea?
One guest noted that we often enjoy puerh tea in loose form as we do with oolong. So why do we see most puerh end up in com­pressed shapes?

The rea­son, as most read­ers have already guessed, is ease of trans­port. A dense tea brick takes up much less space than the same weight of loose “mao cha” and made a more effi­cient use of carts trav­el­ing on the Tea Horse Road.

Much fur­ther along on our tem­po­ral Tea Road, we have dis­cov­ered that blend­ing and com­pres­sion (now favor­ing cakes over bricks) results in a more com­plex aged tea when com­pared to loose puerh.

OK, I get the dif­fer­ent ‘blends,’ but what does this Recipe Num­ber mean?

At first sight, we often have noth­ing but an opaque num­ber and our own senses to go by when judg­ing a fac­tory tea.

I decided the best way to break down the code is in a graphic — I hope this will not offend the design­ers in the audi­ence too greatly.

The first por­tion needs lit­tle explain­ing — this 7352 blend was first used in 1973.

The “aver­age” grade of leaves I believe to be some­what sub­jec­tive. Puerh leaf is graded by size, 0–8, with 8 being the largest leaves. This is sim­ply a mea­sure­ment and not qual­i­ta­tive — that is, there is no ‘bet­ter’ end of the scale.

A cake is a blend of sev­eral grades, and the mid­dle digit rep­re­sents a rough esti­ma­tion of the mean leaf size.

Please elab­o­rate in the com­ments if you can do better!

The final digit rep­re­sents the tea fac­tory who processed the cake. Under social­ist con­trol, there were 3 fac­to­ries of note.

  1. Kun­ming
  2. Meng­hai
  3. Xiaguan

All three fac­to­ries are oper­ated pri­vately today under the same num­bers, but many other num­bers have been added. Cat­a­loging them is left as an exer­cise to the reader.

Say, what’s that other num­ber?
OK, nobody asked this, but any­one still read­ing obvi­ously has a strange fix­a­tion with num­bers, ala Lennon.

Today, a sec­ond impor­tant num­ber is printed on the face of a Dayi wrap­per. It indi­cates the year and batch of pro­duc­tion. Ex. 801 rep­re­sents the first batch of 2008, while 809 rep­re­sents the 9th batch of the same year. Some col­lec­tors seek out the 1st batch each year, while oth­ers con­tend that the qual­ity of each batch is indis­tin­guish­able from another. Quite often, the first batch is sold at a small premium.

This batch label­ing began in 2004, but the astute reader will notice that this short hand only accounts for a 10 year span, and the planet recently turned a decade older. 2010 pro­duc­tions, 2nd batch begin again as 002.

Usu­ally, the year in long form will be printed on the back of the wrap­per, so no need to worry about the sorry lives of tea anthro­pol­o­gists in the dis­tant future (after all humans are killed by poi­so­nous robo-gasses).

When did Meng­hai become pri­vate?
Meng­hai Tea Fac­tory started pro­duc­ing com­mer­cial prod­ucts in 1989 under their own Dayi brand. By 1996, all of the prod­ucts were of the pri­vate brand. Dur­ing the tran­si­tion period, for­eign tea orders (includ­ing Hong Kong) were made only via the government’s CNNP, until reforms finally allowed the orig­i­nal tea fac­to­ries to fill orders directly.

Many of these details are less impor­tant than the expe­ri­enced gained by drink­ing the tea itself. The way the tea tastes, lingers in your mouth and throat, and the way that it makes you feel are the most impor­tant parts of judg­ing the tea. But the curi­ous among us sim­ply can­not resist dig­ging deep into the prove­nance and his­tory of tea.

Per­haps this short primer will inspire some­one to take a closer look at some facet of tea they have yet to uncover.

5 thoughts on “Green Puerh Q&A

  1. Loved this post! Thanks for all the puerh knowl­edge; you really seem to know a lot about qual­ity tea, and it’s always a plea­sure read­ing your blog.


  2. Cheers Mar­lon — I’ve only scratched the sur­face of puerh after sev­eral years, there is so much left to explore.

    Been enjoy­ing your trav­elog as well, it is good to see new tea faces.

  3. Wow. This infor­ma­tion is amaz­ing. Do you have some more insights as far as eval­u­at­ing a pu’erh cake by sight and smell?

    When shop­ping for pu’erhs I find it dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out the qual­ity of a bing-cha. On taste it’s a bit eas­ier, but how can I tell which bing chas to sam­ple based on appearance??

  4. Dylan -
    Bril­liant ques­tion but so dif­fi­cult to con­vey by text alone. You prob­a­bly noticed that in Asia no one is buy­ing puerh with­out hav­ing tasted it first. Since we don’t have that advan­tage, we have to rely on our own vir­tual tea shop — dis­trib­uted tast­ing and experience.

    I guess what I am say­ing is, I am look­ing for­ward to your thread on on the subject!

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