Although June has arrived, the weather where I live has been fairly cloudy, dark, and cold. For this
reason I wound up drinking a ripe pu’er tea, or shu pu’er cha (熟普洱茶) called Yang Luo Han. In the last blog post I briefly discussed sheng pu’er, or raw tea. Raw tea naturally ferments and ages over time. Ripe pu’er is considered the other main category of pu’er tea, and involves a production process that is different from raw pu’er.
The character 熟 (shu) in Chinese means cooked or ripened. The use of this character in ripe pu’er refers to a certain stage in its production called wet piling, or wo dui (渥堆) in Chinese. In this stage tea leaves are grouped in large piles of up to a meter high, sprayed with water, and covered with a thermal blanket. Creating such a hot and humid environment encourages the tea to ferment rapidly. To fully ferment the tea can take anywhere from 45 – 60 days, and involves turning the leaves over from time to time to ensure that the tea ferments evenly. The final result of this ripening is a tea that is much darker, richer, and mellower than raw pu’er. However, due to the fact that the fermentation is so accelerated, ripe pu’er tends to lack the complexities that naturally aged raw pu’er can have. This kind of tea can be more warming and settling for the body than raw pu’er, which is why I chose to drink some on such a cold and cloudy day!
The flavors and sensations of an average shu tea are very different from those of an average sheng tea. Because of the wet piling process, some ripe pu’ers can take on a flavor called dui wei in Chinese (堆味), or the piling flavor. This flavor is usually associated with unpleasant ruddy, fishy, & earthy flavors that are very pungent. This tea was a 2015 production however, which has given it time for the dui wei flavors to settle down and dry out. The Yang Luo Han has a very rich earthy flavor, with very slight hints of malt or cocoa. Rather than having the powerful and sometimes bitter / astringent mouthfeel of sheng pu’er, this tea had a smooth mouth feel, and helped settle my stomach. The rich and bold qualities of this tea can be in the color of the brewed tea, which is a very dark black with slight hints of red.
The texture of this particular ripe pu’er has a high viscosity, and seems to be rich with tea oils. In my case, the effects of the tea oils can be seen over time by looking at the teapot which I use to brew ripe pu’ers. This is because I use an un-glazed clay teapot, which slowly accumulates tea oils over many uses. Below I will place two photos, the first is a photo of my teapot when I acquired it new four years ago, and the second is a photo of it in use today.
The photos show how the teapot had a lighter smoother, reddish/brown hue when it was new. However, after a few years of use, the black tea oils from the ripe pu’er can be seen accumulating on the surface. To me this is a testament to the many enjoyed sessions of tea in the past, as well as a testament to the rich oils of ripe pu’er!
At present I have one or two ripe pu’ers that I enjoy drinking relatively regularly, and I believe that this kind of tea can offer a unique flavor, as well as warming and settling qualities. That being said, it took me a fair amount of sampling through different varieties to be able to tell what qualities I enjoy in a ripe tea, and how to taste for (what I think) are the good or bad fermentation/piling flavors. This line of thought reminds me of something I’ve talked about with a few of my tea friends, which is that ultimately the right tea is the tea which you enjoy. For this reason I believe that although unique, ripe pu’er is not the only tea that could leave one feeling warm & settled. Therefore if you happen to try ripe pu’er, and dislike the earthy & musty qualities from fermentation, I wouldn’t worry! I believe that you could find similar warming and settling qualities with a red tea, or perhaps a more oxidized wulong tea.