A Cool Summer Evening with Pu-erh Tuocha

A Cool Summer’s Evening…

By my way of thinking, the sweltering inferno that is often Sydney summer, does not call for abstinence from the joy of a nice cup of tea, but rather an opportunity to sample the more refreshing brews in our stores. Besides the fact that research has suggested that a hot cuppa can actually help to cool you down in the heat (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-hot-drink-on-a-hot-day-can-cool-you-down-1338875/), it is just so delicious that I couldn’t bear the thought of giving it up over something so trivial as a hot day. It’s going to take a lot more than that to drag me away from my tea.

 Jelena and Pu-erh tea

So, after the brutal heat of late which had kept me sipping on my invigorating Dragon Well and Bi Lo Chun, a slight cool change gave me the excuse to (literally) dig into a beautiful ripened pu-erh Toucha. Before settling into this warm and cosy cuppa however, I got to try my hand at one of our new bamboo trays!

Chinese Pu-erh tea


Usually, I would just use my cake knife and gather the tea on a piece of paper- putting the leftover leaves in a paper bag to keep them fresh for next time. Although this method works just fine and won’t affect the quality of your tea, the convenience of these trays really does speak for itself. While their dimensions mean that you do not have to constantly worry about your tea flying off into the sunset when you break it, they also have a small gap in the corner where you can easily empty the contents into a mug, or Gaiwan as I did. When combined with a fitted bamboo drawer, you can easily store the inevitable leftovers in a box that will simultaneously make a complimentary feature in any kitchen or living room. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, your leaves will be kept in a well ventilated space where they are protected from being crushed by the copious domestic forces which threaten their fragile peace.

While using the Gaiwan does involve a little more effort than say a mug, the small serving size makes for a much richer experience.

The tea is brewed to perfection as it is not stewing in a large body of water for extended periods of time, and the small mouthfuls provide a more acute conception of the delicious flavour.

The rich, woody flavours gained from its fermentation provided exactly the wholesome warmth I had missed for so long (despite loving my summer teas, a change is always welcome).


Indulging in some shortbread on the side, it was this tea that made my cool summer’s evening into brewed perfection



Raw Pu-erh tea, a green tea or Hei-Cha

I have always thought of Pu-erh tea as: traditionally compressed and produced in the Yunnan Province of China, ripened Pu-erh as HeiCha (黑茶) and freshly produced raw Pu-erh as green tea.

I have recently come across a few posts and articles debating about this categorisation, especially the term of ‘fermentation’ used in the categorisation.

From a consumer, but not scholar or academic’s perspective, I make following observations.

Teas were traditionally ‘category less’

Tea has a consumption history in China for more than 2000 years. For a big majority of this history it was ‘category less’.

To understand the absence in categories, we need to look into its history during the pre-modern transportation era: tea’s production and consumption were extremely geographical.

For example, Oolong teas such as Tie Guan Yin and Zhang Ping Shui Xian were the local teas in the area where I grew up (Long Yan of the Fu-Jian province). With a few exceptions, these teas were only grown, processed and consumed locally (pre mid-20 century), and these were the only teas the local tea drinker were familiar with, known as Tie Guan Yin or Zhang Ping Shui Xian, but not as Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea or Zhang Ping Shui Xian Oolong tea.

From the production point of view, the tea farmers leant their knowledge and skills from the previous generations and were more likely NOT even aware of the 6 tea defining categories. This however had zero impact on both of the tea product and consumption. The locals knew their teas best and no one else could do a better job in making their teas. This is why the tea names in China are more associated with the areas they are produced than the tea categories they belong to: An-Xi (area name) Tie Guan Yin (tea name), Zhang Ping (area name) Shui Xian (tea name), Yunnan (area name) Pu-erh (tea name) etc. 

The categorisation of teas only came into place and became meaningful when modern tea scholars and researchers started studying and analysing teas from top down – with so many varieties around, it makes sense to create some ‘shoe boxes’ to put them into.

Pu-erh tea looseRaw Pu-erh tea, green tea or else

To discuss or answer this question, we need to step back and ask some of the following first:

  • ‘Fermentation’ is the factor used to define and differentiate the various categories of teas. Some argue that the term 'fermentation' used to describe the tea processing process, such as Oolong or black tea, is not actual fermentation as there are not yeast or bacteria involved. This is a topic of debate for another day. We would just call it an 'enzyme mediated oxidation' now, bearing in mind that 'fermentation' is the term used in most of the tea books and journal reports.  
  • Is tea categorisation as clear cut, black and white as people think or expect? My personal opinion is that the modern science is trying to use a simplified and well-ordered format to capture a highly cultural tradition, and the reality is that there is plenty of vague and grey areas that deserve due respect and acceptance. 
  • Green tea is a category with a vast variation within, but not a single tea. For example, if we offered the exact same tea leaves to a Mao Feng processor and a Long Jing processor, the end products produced could look and taste rather different. This however would not make one more of a green tea than the other, or one ‘yes’ and the other ‘no’. 
  • I personally believe the very fundamental difference between a conventional ‘green tea’ and a ‘raw Pu-erh green tea’ is in the tea leaves, or more precisely the tea trees/bushes: The bush leaves are smaller and more tender, more suitable for being consumed fresh and young; While the arbor leaves on the other hand, being bigger, thicker and stronger, are more suitable for aging and fermentation. They are therefore processed accordingly to facilitate these different consumption styles: most of conventional green teas are dried with relatively higher temperature: eg. Chao-Qing (炒青 – fried dry) and Hong-Qing (烘青- baked dry); while the Pu-erh is Liang-Qing (凉青 – aired dry) with a much lower temperature to preserve enough enzymes and nutrients for the future post-fermentation.
  • Based on the category definition, as long as a tea is not fermented, it is a green tea. An unfermented, newly produced raw pu-erh therefore can only be a green tea.

It is also worthwhile mentioning that there are new products coming to the market all the time, challenging the conventional categorisations/definitions. Eg, Pu-erh teas are conventionally compressed, this does not make loose pu-erh not a Pu-erh tea; Is a Pu-erh white tea cake pu-erh tea or white tea? All this prompts me to re-ask the question: do we really need to know the categories of the teas we drink? Or we should just enjoy the teas as they are and not to worry too much about anything else as our ancestors did?



Chinese tea fermentation in an image

The level of fermentation is THE element used to categorise teas. For example, green teas are unfermented, Oolong teas are semi-fermented and black teas are fully fermented. The level of fermentation of teas is high associated with its appearance and taste: Green teas are light in colour, more ‘grassy green’ and refreshing in aroma and taste; Black teas are more smooth in texture and often dark yellow and red in tea brew colour.

Chinese Oolong teaA way of illustrating this is through Oolong tea, classified as semi-fermented. Different Oolong teas have various fermentation levels, which is carefully controlled and crucial to the nature of the final product. During Oolong tea’s processing, one of the important steps is to ‘bruise’ the edges of the tea leaves by putting the leaves in a bamboo cylinder and toss around (Yao Qing - 摇青). This process triggers the enzymes to be released from the cells and start a chain of chemical reactions within the tea leaves to facilitate the later fermentation. Once the tea leaves are fermented to the desired level, a process called Chao Qing (炒青) is applied, where the tea leaves are heated (NOT dired!), often in a wok, with highly skilful temperature control to stop the fermentation to progress further.

semi-fermented Oolong teaThe image below is from a semi-fermented Oolong (Zhang Ping Shui Xian). As seen on image, the edges of the tea leaves are red in comparison to the rest of the green ( called ‘green leaf of golden edge’ - 金边绿叶 in Chinese). The red part is where the leaves are fermented and border between the red and the green is where the fermentation stopped.

All teas are categorised around their levels of fermentChinese Oolong teaation, and maybe some additional elements if relevant.

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