Some thoughts on Puerh Tea Processing

Most people don’t give a lot of thought to the processing of puerh tea.

The trees matter, their age, health and environment where they’re growing.  This tends to be the main determinant in the selling price of tea.  If the area is famous or the trees especially old, the tea can sell for more money.

In general, the processing for puerh is relatively simple – pick the leaves, wither for a while, dry fry them in a wok (kill-green), roll them and put them in the sun to dry.

If the processing is particularly poor, it’s easy to spot, for example if the leaves are over oxidised or burnt.  Less easy is the difference between mediocre processing and exceptional.

“A good tea splashes up in the mouth” – It has taken me years to understand the meaning of this term.  It’s only been since sitting with people, drinking tea with them and having this sensation pointed out again and again that I’ve noticed it.  The flavour is vibrant, felt on the upper palate  as you swallow the tea and open your mouth, the aroma automatically fills the nostrils and emerges from them,  the aftertaste is clear, clean, transparent, without any gluiness or obstruction.

These sensations are so difficult to describe and, without feeling them they’re so abstract to read about that I’ve so far resisted trying to put them into written word, but it’s become clear to me that these finer points come largely from the processing of the tea.  They’re the same for puerh tea as they are for wuyi yancha and liubao.  What has become clear is that the correct and precise application of heat during the processing transforms the tea from mediocre to exceptional.

photo credit: Marc Sethi

Luckily for most of the readers here, this isn’t something that they need to concern themselves overly with, but as a tea producer it’s something we need to pay attention to and try to get right.   We don’t physically do the work of making our teas, but in our instructions to the farmers we work with and choice of the farmers we work with, we can direct the style of teas we make.