Raw puer is prepared from sun dried green tea leaves and are primarily hand made. The leaves are sometimes sourced from organic or wild grown tea bushes. Old trees, which can be over 100 years old, are sometimes used to make very fine teas. After the leaves are processed and sorted they will be compressed into cakes, bricks or other shapes by heavy concrete molds. Raw puer gets darker, richer and smoother if aged slowly in dry stable conditions. When a raw puer is approximately 1 to 5 years old it will probably still taste like a fresh herbaceous green tea with varying degrees of sweetness, smokiness, and complexity. At this point many puer tea professionals do not drink the tea for pleasure. Instead they drink it only to evaluate its aging potential.
Ripe puer can be purchased loose leaf, or compressed into cakes and bricks. Ripe puer differs from raw tea because it has a pile fermentation step included in its manufacture. This is a carefully controlled process that results in a dark and earthy brew. Young ripe puer (1 to 5 years old) are often not very smooth and may still have a harsh odor left over from that pile fermentation step in their production. Loose leaf ripe puer tends to taste fuller and smoother sooner, because it has more leaf surface exposed to air. Compressed teas, on the other hand, will mellow slower, depending on how tightly they were compressed and how thick they are.
Both styles of puer tea will get better with age if they are stored properly (ie. dry, dark and away from any odors). Ripe puers are made to be enjoyed sooner, and thus the vintage does not play as important of a roll as it does with raw puer. In fact, some puer experts have written that ripe puer's do not improve after reaching a certain point. This is in contrast to raw puer which seems to get better indefinitely!
Collecting and aging raw puer cakes is a very rewarding hobby of mine. I enjoy experiencing the tastes of a tea as it changes over time. I also like to keep a scrap book of the beautiful wrapping papers used to store the cakes. Puer tea has the wonderful ability to bring people together and help them to relax. It is the ideal brew for many unforgettable tea tastings.
Puer cake purchased in Taiwan last year:
Cupping two 生茶 puers at home last summer: