Day 1: The definition of pu-erh tea

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Da Dian 1001 Tea Night

Day 1: The definition of pu-erh tea


Pu-erh tea is officially defined as a series of tea products that are using the large leaf type of sun-dried raw tea (毛茶) from the specific location of Yunnan province in China, through either natural or induced fermentation process.


The official concept of pu-erh tea classification that based on specific location of Yunnan province has created the business opportunities in Chinese tea industry in Yunnan province. The vigorous progress of pu-erh tea market construct unhealthy competition among the businessman which later result in the lost of traditional Chinese virtue due to its great monetary value. By looking into the developmental history of pu-erh tea, the production of pu-erh tea also could be found in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and certain area of the Guang Xi province other than Yunnan province. The Yunnan province in the history has covered certain areas of Myanmar, however the boundary has changed due to the China formation to the current Yunnan province that we all know at this century. Does this mean the pu-erh plantation has transferred back to the current Yunnan based on its geographical changes? Take an example, the Bu Lang Mountain is well known for pu-erh tea, but the similar tea plantation from the same mountain, which locates at the China-Myanmar countryside border, is no longer considered as pu-erh tea? Does this also mean that foreign tea plantation which shared the similar pu-erh tea plantation is no longer classified as pu-erh based on its definition? Another good example is the products of Guang Yun Gong pu-erh Tea that produced at Guang Dong (广云,广东产) whereby the raw tea leaf were come from Guang Xi – Yunnan border tea plantation should not be considered as pu-erh tea? Therefore, in my view, the classification of pu-erh tea shall not be purely based on the geographical area, but based on the tea-plant species. Once we agreed with the large leaf type, then the geographical condition is just for the reference, not definite.


Da Dian has some difficulty to define certain Da Dian products (eg. Yi Bang Mountain tea products) when we look at the definition of pu-erh based on it’s leaf size. Yi Bang Mountain is one of the well known Six Great Tea Mountain (六大茶山) of Pu-erh tea, but the majority tea-plant species here is considered as small leaf if based on the general scale.


* The leaf size is measured based on the matured tea leaf surface area. The formula is as below:


Matured tea leaf surface area = L x W x 0.7; whereby


* L       – Length of leaf (not include the tip of leaf and leaf stem)

W      – Width of Leaf (the central length after the folds from the tip to the stem)

0.7    – the mathematical formula in leaf surface area calculation


The classification of leaf size as below:

Large Leaf variety                = The total area is ≥ 40cm2

Medium Leaf variety             = The total area is between 20cm2 and 40cm2

Small Leaf variety                 = The total area is ≤ 20cm2


In order to get the accurate leaf size for pu-erh tea categorization, the leaf that we choose has to be the primary leaf (the true mature tea leaf, 真叶) for the measurement. The primary leaf is growth after the secondary leaf (), and usually it has a life span up to one and a half year. We usually refer to this primary tea leaf when talk about tea leaf. The secondary tea leaf and another leaf called scale leaf () is not a classic leaf, therefore they could not use to represent the tea species. Thus, the primary leaf shall be used to measure the leaf size.



The small one is secondary leaf, the primary leaf is usually the larger in its size. We are looking for mature leaf for the comparison.


The definition mention about the pu-erh tea products shall undergo a fermentation process, whether it is through natural or induced in it’s methodology. Here raise another question: is raw tea (生茶) classified as a type of pu-erh? The newly processed raw tea, where the tea leaf is just compressed into a teacake (such as Da Dian Yi Wu Collection, batch 301 and batch 302 (大滇易武典藏 301批, 302 批)), to be considered as pu-erh tea? We have an uncertain answer if just based on the official definition of pu-erh tea.


My conclusion here is, they are not pu-erh tea regrettably.


Green tea, sun-dried green tea also known as sun-dried raw tea.


Green tea, is defined as a product that are unfermented, or the fermentation rate is at zero level.


As a result, there are only two types of tea can be considered as pu-erh if based on the definition (whereby the fermentation process has to take place): aged raw tea (老生茶) and ripe tea (熟茶). Therefore, most of the time we are consuming sun-dried green tea.


Several professional concepts have taken into consideration to define pu-erh tea. Science conceptualized pu-erh based on its primary leaf size, whether they are large, medium or small leaf in its scale. However, the official definition focused on the geographical area where locked the pu-erh tea production to Yunnan province. There are huge discrepancies among these parties. This explained why many of us disagreed the Pu-erh tea refers to the only tea species.


In my personal opinion, the sun-dried raw tea that has been undergone fermentation process, and result in some changes that make the tea different from the original raw tea, with at least minimum fermentation to consider as pu-erh tea. The life span of raw teacake consists of light level fermentation, medium level fermentation until the end of the fermentation process. The fermentation level will define the tea, whether it belongs to a pu-erh category. For an example, the transformation process of a Yi Wu raw teacake takes about three years in time. The tea liquor () will turn from yellowish to slightly deep reddish brown in its color. The surface of teacake will change to dark in color. When these obvious observation is noticed, now this teacake can be considered has undergone the fermentation process. By now, it can be classified into pu-erh family.


The birth of ripe pu-erh tea has brought the tea industry to another milestone. The induced post fermentation processes were researched and led by the Guang Dong, Tea Import and Export Corporation at 1970s. Kunming tea factory manager, Wu Qi Ying led a group of research workers to learn and later apply the technology at Yunnan Tea Corporation. These technologies, knowledge and skills were continuously researched and applied at Kun Ming tea factory, and Meng Hai tea factory and they successfully produced the so-called Riped Pu-erh that we all known today. Most of us know about this history in tea development and here, there are few questions are elevated. First, is Wu Qi Ying the pioneer and invented the ripe pu-erh tea? Second, what are the skills and knowledge that has been learnt by Wu Qi Ying? Can’t she just apply and mirror those skills that have been successfully researched at Guang Dong?


Regrettably, the answer to the above question is NO. Wu Qi Ying has learned and applied, but she failed throughout the process. This was because the environment humidity at Yunnan was relatively low. Hence, she could not wait and tried to improve the process. The solution is just not to add the water vapor to increase the humidity. The team took more than one and half year to research by trial and error, repeatedly manipulate the ratio of water and the temperature where the fermentation process took place. At last, the Kun Ming tea factory succeeds in the research and Meng Hai tea factory followed the recipe and made a slight adjustment to adhere to the local weather and temperature to produce the ripe pu-erh tea.


Da Dian 1001 tea night ends here for the first night. Thank you. Over!



*This article was written in 2010, translated in 2015

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