In April 2020, we launched a 2 week challenge to explore as much pu’erh as humanly possible — and in the process, we saw some interesting trends in our drinking habits. Here’s what we found.
Ask a bunch of hardcore tea folk to drink pu’erh for two weeks, and you get a LOT of pu’erh. 287, to be exact. We analyzed the data (see “Methodology” below for the details on that) to see if we could learn something about some age-old pu’erh debates.
What’s better: sheng or shou? Does pu’erh age really matter? Our sessions had some things to say about all that…
As many of you know, there are two types of pu’erh: sheng (raw) and shou (raw). In a nutshell, sheng pu’erh tend to be more bright, vibrant, and mineral tasting, especially when young, since they ferment slowly over time. Shou pu’erh, on the other hand, undergo an accelerated fermentation and have more of those smooth, earthy and almost-soil like flavors.
They are two very different teas that happen to share the same category, and there’s a lot of debate about which is “better”. (I find that traditionalists are especially into sheng, often arguing that shou was developed in order to copy what already existed in sheng.) But is there a “better”?
For the challenge, there was definitely a favorite in terms of drinking frequency:
We tended to drink much more sheng than shou, with a total of 182.5 sheng (63.4%) and 105.5 shou (36.6%)
Wait, where does that “.5” come in? We have our friend Jérémie to thank, for logging an oddball of a tea: Yunnan Sourcing’s 2016 Green Mark, a blend of shou and sheng material.
Clearly, we preferred to drink sheng. But did we like it better?
Here’s how the ratings stacked up:
The ratings were almost dead even: on a 1-5 scale of enjoyment, it was a 3.98 average for shou, and a 4.00 average for sheng. That tells me that sheng vs. shou just comes down to preference: they’re two different teas with the capability to be equally as satisfying.
These are pretty high averages given the 1-5 range of possible ratings, which also tells me that we just tended to buy and drink teas that we already like.
Tasting Notes & Descriptors
To learn more about how we describe pu’erh, I input all 287 logged tasting notes into a word cloud analyzer. We got this nifty image:
And before you start squinting, you can check out this word cloud in glorious, hoverable detail from the source site. (And yes, I did not have to input all that manually into Photoshop. Thank god!) There are some odd ones in there if you dig deep…
Most common notes: Sweet, Fruity, Floral, Bitter, Woody, Thick, Earthy, Vegetal, Astringent, Smooth, Mineral, Wet, Dry, Forest, Complex
I was surprised that “sweet”, “fruity”, and “floral” ranked higher than “bitter”, “earthy”, and “vegetal, which are some pretty classic pu’erh descriptors. Some other descriptors were also notably absent: notes like “dank” or “funky”.
Of the hundreds and hundreds of tasting notes, 120 of them were repeated more than once.
Most of these tasting notes turned out to be really pleasant!
But this ain’t no pu’erh explorin’ without some horror stories:
- burnt cardboard and needles” from a mystery Chinatown shou – Robin B.
- “nuts, wet towel, dirty basement, and macaroni” – Delphine G.
- “like I’ve been poisoned” – Rie
- “a fishy entry in the mouth” – Jérémie
(Thanks for taking one for the team, you guys.)
Interestingly, there was some evidence that some of our descriptors were socially-influenced: the word “mushroom” for example is a pretty popular note for pu’erh, but it doesn’t get used in the challenge until it shows up on the afternoon of Day 5, a full 1/4th of the way through. After that, it becomes a much more common note to use, coming up another 9 times.
Less dramatic but still interesting are “basil” and “maple water”, two oddly specific notes:
So if we find ourselves agreeing with the super specific tasting notes on a vendor’s website or packaging, it could be that they’re really good at documenting notes — or that tasting notes are pretty subjective and suggestible. This doesn’t mean that tasting notes aren’t valid, just that taste and perception can be more complicated than we think.
BY TEA TRAITS
Origin + Regions
Sure, pu’erh is supposed to be from Yunnan Province only — you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Chinese teamaster who prefers Vietnam or Laos “pu’erh”, if they even acknowledge that it’s pu’erh.
But is pu’erh from outside Yunnan Province really so bad?
And does it matter where in big ol’ Yunnan a pu’erh is from?
To find out, we sorted the teas into three categories:
- Yunnan pu’erh, then sorted into the three major subregions:
- Xishuangbanna (incl. Menghai, Yiwu, Nannuo, Bulang)
- Simao (incl. Jinggu, Jingmai, Ailao)
- Lincang (incl. Mengku, Yongde)
- Outside Yunnan, if from another Chinese province or another country altogether, and
- Region Unspecified, if origin information was not available, including blends and factory teas with unspecified origins.
Then, I compared the average rating each region to our overall average rating for the challenge, 3.99.
Let’s start by looking at the three “authentic” pu’erh regions in Yunnan.
Interestingly, teas from lesser-known Lincang and Simao performed better than Xishuangbanna teas, which are often more famous and reputable, with a price tag to suit the reputation. Xishuangbanna is considered to be the most well-established region for pu’erh, while Lincang and Simao are still relatively untapped — it’s no coincidence that many of the household names for pu’erh like Menghai Dayi and Xiaguan are located in Xishuangbanna.
It might be that there are some relatively hidden gems in Lincang and Simao at a better value, or that we may not be accessing the best possible Xishuangbanna teas due to price or availability. The more famous a region, the higher the price point to get to the good stuff. Lots of possible factors at play here.
It’s also useful to look at the breakdown for the ratings here:
While Simao and Lincang pu’erhs had similar ratings, Lincang was the safer bet with no 1-point (“terrible”) ratings but also fewer 5-point (“love”) ratings. Simao inspired more fans, with the most 5-point ratings of any region. Xishuangbanna exhibited the whole range of ratings, with most of the positive ratings landing in the “good” rather than the “love” category.
Again, I don’t think this means Xishuangbanna is better or worse than the other two regions – it might just be more difficult to access the best of its big and challenging market, and that Lincang and Simao are more approachable.
As for teas from outside Yunnan? They performed surprisingly well, and had an average rating that was higher than the Yunnan teas! The rating is likely skewed since we only had 8 data points, but it at least demonstrates that pu’erh from outside Yunnan may not be as disastrous as a Yunnan teamaster might want to see. 😉
Finally, the worst performing teas were those with no specified region. It’s possible that the teas in this category were indeed from a single origin, but what this says is that there’s a correlation between good quality pu’erh and pu’erh with lots of information provided. Lean towards vendors that can give you the deets on your teas, ok?
A contentious topic.
“Is it a thousand years old or not?”
We’ve seen the price tag that comes attached with buying gu shu teas, as well as the fall out of over-the-top marketing claims. But does the age of the tree really mean anything for the pu’erh?
For our data, I defined old tree or gu shu as anything from trees 100 years or older.
For anything that was grown tall (as is traditional in Yunnan) but not super old, around the 40-100 year old range, I defined as qiao mu, a new term I learned from Glen from Crimson Lotus Tea.
Qiao mu also gets translated as “arbor”, “wild arbor”, or “da shu”/tall tree, but as Glen explains, it’s a little redundant because pu’erh should technically be qiao mu by default. Pu’erh is sometimes made from small bushes in plantations, called tai di, and these and anything with no cultivation information I lumped into a third category, the aptly named Young or Unspecified.
Oooh, juicy findings here. By a small margin, it seems like gu shu pu’erh and qiao mu pu’erh DOES do better than average, based on our ratings, and plantation pu’erh performs worse than average.
Check this out though: gu shu (100+ year) and qiao mu (40-100 year) had almost identical average ratings. This means that it didn’t really matter to us how old and tall the trees were, just that they were allowed to grow tall as is traditional for pu’erh.
We just wanted pu’erh as it should be, I guess.
Factory Teas and Grades
Do you like 7542, or are you more of an 8582 guy/gal? As many of you know these are some famous formulas in factory made pu’erh, which are often considered to be a solid standard for the pu’erh world.
Some famous factories include Menghai Tea Factory (Menghai Dayi), Xiaguan, CNNP, and Changtai, and certain formulas and vintages of their productions can fetch a pretty penny on the market.
What factories do well is to grade and blend tea, and I wanted to see if factory production and leaf grades in general would make a difference in rating.
Did factory productions rate better than non-factory productions? And did grade matter for the pu’erhs?
Wow. Factory teas vs. non factory teas = no difference. We liked factory teas maybe a smidge more, but only if you squint, and squint hard.
I’m honestly surprised because factory teas are seen as being the ol’ reliables: get a Dayi, Xiaguan, or Changtai cake and you know you’re getting something good, right?
I guess that’s true for the average Chinese mainlander, who doesn’t have a Denong or white2tea or Crimson Lotus to curate for them. Pick up a factory cake at a licensed dealer and you’re OK. But we have access to some good teas without having to rely on the factory brands, I guess.
As for leaf material, gong ting (buds only, highest grade material) did a little better than average, which might help justify the increased cost: gong ting material is more difficult to pick and is seen as a premium product. On the other end of the scale, huang pian (coarse, big leaves, often the stuff sorted out after the main tea is made) did just fine — right about average — so either we like the deals we get with huang pian or it just can stand for itself even as a “low grade” tea.
Finally, the worst performing category were scented teas — anything nuo mi xiang/sticky rice scented, tangerine, and bamboo roasted. They weren’t terrible but they were a little below average for us. I actually like these oddball pu’erhs more than the next person, but they really are a little one-dimensional sometimes and have less staying power.
I saved a big one for last. We talked about the age of the trees involved: what about the age of the tea itself?
Typically, any pu’erh that’s 10+ years old is considered to be pretty mature — at least able to speak for itself. Below that and you’re at great risk of a grumpy old tea man telling you that your pu’erh still needs some age.
So for our purposes,
- 2010-2019 = young / < 10 years,
- 2010 and below = aged, 10+ years
At first, I compared the ratings of ALL pu’erhs, and I got this rating:
Laaaame! No interesting data.
If I stopped there, we would have assumed that age really didn’t matter. Old tea and young tea perform about the same for us, right?
But then I split the data between sheng and shou.
Sheng pu’erh is considered to be more critical to age, since shou pu’erh by definition is already accelerated in its fermentation, right? Shou pu’erh needs the age just to get rid of some initial wet pile taste, then it’s good to go.
Sheng on the other hand requires time to chill and naturally ferment, often in just the right environments — and that’s why old 10-15+ sheng is even MORE expensive than old shou. Is it worth it though?
Another super juicy one for me. Looks like our sheng ratings improved with age while our shou ratings degraded with age. Basically, we liked our sheng a little older, and we liked our shou a little younger.
Maybe old shou didn’t change enough to justify the price? And maybe there really is some merit to old sheng. Or both. Interesting regardless.
Regardless, we did explore quite a range of years in pu’erh during the challenge.
Oldest tea: 1983 Menghai shou from Camellia Sinensis, by both Delphine G. and Aimee L.
Average age: 2012.44, which means the most average pu’erh for us would have been a Spring 2012 tea.
Most popular year: 2019
Best and Worst Teas
As for our best and worst performing categories…
Best: Lincang Gu Shu, at 4.44 average rating
Combining the high-performing “Lincang” origin + “gu shu” tree age gives us the highest rated teas for pu’erh love 2020 – Lincang old tree pu’erhs.
Now, my personal bias might have had a hand in this because I’ve had a lot of Lincang gu shu that I really love, but: (A) there were 31 total teas in this category, so it wasn’t just me pumping them up, and also (B) the data was compiled and analyzed after we all logged our teas: I couldn’t plan to come to this conclusion, as much as I do enjoy that it exists. 😉
So if I’m somehow subconsciously manipulating the data to make my favorite teas look better, you may as well know. But really, I do think that Lincang pu’erhs are super underrated. Go check them out.
Or just check out more old tree stuff. Xishuangbanna rallies back in the gu shu category too, with a 4.22 rating.
Worst: Mystery Teas, at 3.63 average rating
Maybe no surprise here.
Mystery teas were any teas with no information at all, often gifted by a friend or received as a sample with no label.
There were a total of 13 mystery teas during the challenge, which was honestly less than I thought we’d have,
cowards!. That’s just 4.52% of all teas… which is good, I guess, that the teas we hated the most came up the least. Props to our friend Benoit who had by far the most adventures into the unknown here.
It hammers the point home that pu’erh that comes attached with more information is the way to go. Find a vendor who knows the details enough to share them with you!
Whenever possible and especially when data was unclear/missing from the description, I went back to the vendor’s site to verify information.
Based on your tasting notes, we assigned a 1-5 rating to each tea.
1 – Terrible — a catastrophic/regretful session, there’s just no salvaging the tea. Kill it with fire!
2 – Bad — poor or disappointing tea performance, little to no enjoyment
3 – Mixed — both positive and negative performance from the tea, some enjoyment but also some difficulty
4 – Good — a positive experience with the tea, some or mostly enjoyment
5 – Great — an overwhelmingly positive session, all enjoyment. a favorite tea!
Understandably this can be subjective since one person’s “eww!” might be someone else’s “this will end my world”, and some data was missing, but I tried my best to keep it consistent while also factoring in the person’s patterns in their logging.
We can definitely try to make our data collection better in the future, but for now, just be aware of potential flaws in the data but enjoy!
Anyway, note again that these are not definitive conclusions and the data/setup is far from perfect: we deal with tiny fluctuations sometimes (ex. a 4.14 vs 3.8 rating for old vs. young shou – significant but not exactly earth-shattering numbers).
They do show that many of the things we may know about pu’erh are more complicated than they seem, and as always, there’s more exploring to do.