Pu Erh Tea Taste Explained!
Pu erh tea tastes like dirt! That's what you'll hear some people say when they first try pu erh taste. Those who had a bad experience trying this post-fermented tea the first time, might believe you need an acquired taste for it. As a matter of fact, Pu erh has a wide spectrum of flavours, and you sometimes just need to find out what matches your taste.
Pu erh is unique in the world of tea. There is no other tea like it in terms of processing, storage, and taste. Different factors such as origins of the raw materials, soil, altitude, time, storage conditions affect the taste of pu erh and make it such a fascinating type of tea.
What are the main flavours of pu erh? What are the factors that affect the taste of pu erh? Being aware of all this will make you enjoy pu erh at a deeper level and make you a more knowledgeable pu erh buyer. Let’s go through some of the main aspects and find out!
Main Flavours of Pu erh
Generally speaking, Pu erh can be sweet, bitter, floral, mellow, woody, astringent, sour, earthy, watery, or even tasteless. A combination of tastes appear in one single steeping. Bear in mind that the taste also changes as the tea ages. So, don’t throw away your pu erh if you didn’t like it the first time.
Raw and Ripe
Raw Pu erh (sheng cha) and ripe Pu erh (shu cha) are the two main categories of pu erh. Sheng cha is generally bitterer, with a strong green vegetal flavour. But after some years of natural aging, the bitterness would disappear and the charming aged aroma would arise. Because of that, sheng cha is popular among pu erh collectors.
Shu cha appeared after the pile (wo dui) fermentation process was developed in 1973. This process accelerates the fermentation process and also gives newly-produced shu cha a special ripe flavour called “wo dui wei” (pile fermentation taste). During storage, the smell and taste of the aging shu cha changes all the time. With time, shu cha will gradually get rid of the “wo dui wei” and become mellow and smooth.
If the wo dui wei stays, you can consider airing and awakening your pu erh in a yixing jar.
Pu erh of different tea mountains has different taste. Banzhang, Yiwu, Jingmai, Bingdao, Bulang, Bangdong… Famous tea mountains like these all produce Pu erh with their own distinct characteristics in taste. Banzhang tea has the most aggressive flavour; Yiwu tea is peaceful with high aroma; Jingmai tea is moderate and soft; Bingdao tea tastes crisp and sweet; Bulang tea tastes heavy; Bangdong tea has a sweet aftertaste that last very long.
Besides these 6 famous tea mountains, new contenders have appeared in the recent period. See below a map with all mountains shown:
Wild Arbor Tea and Garden Tea
Wild arbor tea are grown in the nature and tastes calm, sweet and soft. Although the aroma isn’t as strong as the garden tea, but it’s broader and deeper. The taste of wild tea is more comprehensive and smooth.
Garden tea tastes thinner and more stimulating compare to wild tea. It has a strong sweet aftertaste and a high aroma, but don't last as long as the wild arbor tea. Garden tea is classified in different grades.
The distinction between garden tea, arbor tea, and arbor tea from famous tea mounts can greatly affect the price of pu erh.
Aged pu erh has a distinct taste (chen wei), also called aged aroma (chen xiang). No matter the tea is raw or ripe, after 3-5 years of appropriate storage, chen wei would be there. That’s the result of the activities of micro-organisms in the tea leaves. The older the tea gets, the stronger the chen wei is - because the gradual process of micro-organic growth. The aged taste is considered a part of the charm of pu erh as the tea will become more mellow and smooth.
It's however a common misperception that older must be better. Individual pu erh drinkers might have preferences for young, mildly aged or aged pu erh. Those who drink young pu erhs prefer the strong characteristics of fresh bitterness and astringency.
Taste Affected by Storage Conditions
In order to let the pu erh age well, in other words, to let the micro-mechanisms in tea leaves to work well, there are 3 aspects of concern: air circulation, temperature, and humidity. If any of the aspects went wrong, the tea will age badly. For example, if the storage environment was too humid, the tea would taste musty; if the air circulation was bad and if there were other smells in the room, the tea would absorb those smells too. These types of tastes/smells of the tea are called the storage taste – cang wei. Under different storage conditions, same tea can taste very different.
Sometimes pu erh tea can taste like fish which could mean that it was stored in unsanitary conditions.
Mellow and Smooth
After appropriate storage and aging of the tea, the taste of pu erh should be mellow and smooth. The liquor feels soft and silky in the mouth and the throat. Young pu erh might be smooth, but it’s rarely mellow. Experienced pu erh drinker would describe this taste of aged pu erh as “rice soup sensation”.
The Sweet Aftertaste "Hui Gan"
In Chinese, there is a term for the sweet aftertaste of tea "hui gan". If you are a tea drinker, it should be a familiar experience. Pu erh is made of the large-leaf variety from Yunnan Province which has a strong bitterness, but once the bitter sensation is gone, the sweet aftertaste appears in the mouth. Unlike other types of tea, the hui gan of pu erh is generally quite long-lasting. You can feel it down the throat rather than just on the tongue, people called it “hou yun”, means the “throat charm” of pu erh.
Hou yun and hui gan are considered important factors for good aging ability of tea cakes.
Normally, tea leaves from Lincang tea region have a heavy bitterness and those from Yiwu and Menghai are lighter (except for Banzhang and Bulang area). There are also variations in the bitterness. For example, Pu erh from Yiwu, Banzhang and Mengku is bitter but not sharp, and there is a balance between bitterness and astringency. Note that the bitterness is also related to the amount of tea, water temperature and the steeping time of the infusion.
Many pu erh collectors prefer to collect cakes that have a strong bitter taste, believing those cakes will age better over time. Based on our experience, cakes with good aftertaste (hui gan) and a thickness of flavour generally do better over time.
Some pu erhs may cause dryness in the mouth. However, this shouldn't be excessive. If the dryness is unpleasant and even tightening your throat, we call this 'locked throat' in Chinese. Read this article for more info about the causes of dry mouth feel and throat feel.
Fresh leaves were supposed to be dried in the sun, but during the cloudy days, they had to be dried with firewood, which caused the smoky taste. Another reason is that firewood was used during the process of stir fixation.
Whether the smoky taste is good or not is totally subjective. Some people think the smoky taste is unpleasant; others think it actually smells good and call it the “old tobacco flavour”. There were times when such tea was actually really popular. Nowadays they're more a taste of the past.
Pu Erh Tea Preparation
Now that we've discussed the different aspects of how pu erh tea can taste, it's important to also prepare it carefully to draw out all these flavours. Watch the video below to see how pu erh is made gongfu style: