"Oolong Puerh" Processing

Puerh and other heicha
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beachape
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Sun Mar 04, 2018 7:46 pm

Saw a post on Reddit recently which linked to an old teachat thread from 2013 (https://www.teachat.com/viewtopic.php?f=20&t=18208) and discusses "oolong puerh": modern puerh which is heavy in fragrance but light in body. The discussion mentions the possibility that these flavors come from a difference of processing (more sha qing, or increased leaf bruising/oxidization) and I found this topic very interesting. However, I was left with the question...are the teas that I like oolong puerh or are they talking about something else?

I consider myself a puerh novice; started enjoying dayi shu and tried young dayi sheng and was turned off; camphor, smoke and astringency which were too overpowering when young. Never really succeeded in getting my hands on any really well aged sheng (oldest tea I've tried is the 2002 yiwu ancient spirit which I enjoy but seems a little light in body). Now 10 years later I've started trying "boutique" young sheng from western vendors and the teas that I've found are very different from a fresh batch of 7542. Some of these teas leave me with a really strong peach/fruit flavor and aroma which I enjoy when the body is a bit thicker. Are these teas, which some vendors may label "ready to drink now," what are being referred to as "oolong puerh"? I initially presumed that the biggest difference was base material/region which made something like W2T's Dangerous Messengers (which I quite enjoy) taste so different from a 7542 of the same year, but now I wonder how much of the difference is processing. Hoping someone can explain to me why these teas taste so very different.
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beachape
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Mon Mar 12, 2018 2:23 pm

TL DR: fruit/floral vs smoky/astringent young sheng. Greater difference in base material or processing?
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tealifehk
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Tue Mar 13, 2018 12:02 am

beachape wrote:
Mon Mar 12, 2018 2:23 pm
TL DR: fruit/floral vs smoky/astringent young sheng. Greater difference in base material or processing?
From my experience with aging pu here in Hong Kong over the last six years, it appears the less bitter and astringent young stuff with fruity/floral flavors that is drinkable as soon as you buy it is the pu that is going to die on you. I was told this early on, but have learned this lesson first hand. Some of the cakes were sold as 'suitable for aging' by a Western vendor and they have been anything but. They would mellow out much slower in Kunming, IMO, but certainly wouldn't improve over the long term.

I'm drinking some 2015 Xiao Hu Sai and it has mellowed dramatically in under a year (sample in an open bag in the glass cabinet I store my pu in at home). It's still good, but another year would probably kill it!

The bitter, astringent factory stuff needs five years to be good, but is still complex and interesting after five years of Hong Kong dry storage. I wouldn't dare drink mid-2000s 7542 young (or from cryostorage), but after five years, it is lovely!

I think part of the issue is leaf selection. I bought some Jingmai maocha in Kunming in 2016 (2015 maocha, I believe) that has aged well and hasn't lost all of its complexity in two years. The maocha is composed of large, thick leaves. This tea was potent, but still good when young, and not bitter or astringent, so there appears to be a middle ground too: tea that is good young and good aged as well.

I'd say it is both base material and processing at play. Obviously the really smokey stuff isn't going to be as pleasant to drink young, so it's a combination of factors that contribute to aging potential.

I've also noticed the same with shou. I recently tried a Western vendor's shou production that I've had aging away and it appears to have died on me in a few years! Barely any flavor left to it, and I had high hopes for it. Dayi shou, on the other hand, just improves over time. I've since learned my lesson and now won't take gambles with pu. I won't buy any unless I know it will age well for me! The fancy , ready-to-drink cakes I've learned these lessons on were single cakes, so it's not too much of a financial hit, and I think those single cakes that died on me will become interesting because of age alone, but it will take another five years or so for them to break down to that level. The floral/fruity notes will be completely gone, though, and I'll just end up with aged pu that is pleasant to drink, but sans any interesting flavors from the terroir. I have two cakes that have aged that way and now have notes of turpentine! In the most pleasant way possible. :)

I had a vendor in Guangdong show me some of their single origin cakes...they went to Yunnan and had them pressed for them. Those cakes are now entirely devoid of flavor after five years of GD dry storage. Good to drink as far as smoothness, but just boring and flat, flavor-wise. :( They showed me pictures of the trees, of them with the trees, etc. But in the cup? No distinctive character at all.
Last edited by tealifehk on Tue Mar 13, 2018 6:23 am, edited 1 time in total.
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tealifehk
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Tue Mar 13, 2018 12:19 am

I carry plenty of well-aged factory pu (sheng and shou): I think I'll offer up some dry storage oolong pu as an educational experience as well, so people can see what I'm talking about! I won't reveal who pressed the cakes, but I think it will be eye opening for some.
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beachape
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Tue Mar 13, 2018 10:04 am

Thanks tealilfehk. I believe I read someone on a tea forum or teablog write that these qualities Floral/Fruity/Sweet/Astringent/Smokey are a zero sum game. To gain some of the fruity sweetness you necessarily loose one of the other qualities. I don't mean to fuel the debate of which cakes age better; after all if I enjoy drinking the "oolong puerh" fresh then why age it at all? No harm in drinking your aged factory blends and some fresh boutique cakes. I'm more interested in finding out how it comes to be; what are the factors that make a cake more fruity/floral.
.m.
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Tue Mar 13, 2018 1:59 pm

There's an argument floating around that different kinds of puerh might benefit from different kind of storage. That the more light & aromatic type of puerh is better stored in a drier environment, than the more old school astringent kind.
See here:
http://mattchasblog.blogspot.cz/2017/09 ... ional.html
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tealifehk
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Tue Mar 13, 2018 7:05 pm

.m. wrote:
Tue Mar 13, 2018 1:59 pm
There's an argument floating around that different kinds of puerh might benefit from different kind of storage. That the more light & aromatic type of puerh is better stored in a drier environment, than the more old school astringent kind.
See here:
http://mattchasblog.blogspot.cz/2017/09 ... ional.html
Yes, the cooler, drier environment will make the tea age much slower, so instead of dying in three years, the loss of aromatics will take much longer (perhaps 10 years or more)! In the end, though, you will end up with similar results: flat tea! I have now decided the fruity, aromatic type stuff is better sealed airtight and maybe even refrigerated (like green oolong)! If there's a harsh edge, a few months of age followed by sealing would do it. I'm currently in talks to get Yiwu tea from 2018 and I am not looking to age it as I have no idea how it will fare. I'd rather just sell all of it while it is fresh and tasty! I do like the young, aromatic stuff too, and wish I'd drank that stuff early instead of trying to age it!
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pedant
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Wed Mar 14, 2018 12:58 am

tealifehk wrote:
Tue Mar 13, 2018 7:05 pm
I have now decided the fruity, aromatic type stuff is better sealed airtight and maybe even refrigerated (like green oolong)!
hojo's a proponent of that type of storage
http://hojotea.com/en/posts-38/

have you tried his (young) shengs? imo, they're mostly modern processed, fruity, aromatic types.
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tealifehk
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Wed Mar 14, 2018 6:51 am

pedant wrote:
Wed Mar 14, 2018 12:58 am
tealifehk wrote:
Tue Mar 13, 2018 7:05 pm
I have now decided the fruity, aromatic type stuff is better sealed airtight and maybe even refrigerated (like green oolong)!
hojo's a proponent of that type of storage
http://hojotea.com/en/posts-38/

have you tried his (young) shengs? imo, they're mostly modern processed, fruity, aromatic types.
No I haven't, but now I see why people are storing sheng sealed. I'd go one step further and age it until it is RIGHT where I want it, then vacuum seal and refrigerate. That's what I'm gonna do with certain cakes I think, although I think the residual moisture might be an issue? I'll have to try it.
.m.
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Wed Mar 14, 2018 10:06 am

I do not think Hojo refrigerates puerh. From what i understand (though i might be wrong) he vacuum seals it with oxygen absorbers, but keeps it warm so that there would be enzymatic activity and therefore some kind of aging, which actually sounds interesting. I'm not sure about the moisture content in his sealed cakes.
On the other hand I just saw a picture on Facebook of some fresh maocha from Hojo that looked really really green, definitelly not a color i'd expect from sheng.
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tealifehk
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Sat Mar 17, 2018 3:06 am

.m. wrote:
Wed Mar 14, 2018 10:06 am
I do not think Hojo refrigerates puerh. From what i understand (though i might be wrong) he vacuum seals it with oxygen absorbers, but keeps it warm so that there would be enzymatic activity and therefore some kind of aging, which actually sounds interesting. I'm not sure about the moisture content in his sealed cakes.
On the other hand I just saw a picture on Facebook of some fresh maocha from Hojo that looked really really green, definitelly not a color i'd expect from sheng.
Yes, I know Hojo is actually aging in the bag. I'm not looking to do that as IMO without sufficient humidity and air I don't know what the tea is gonna turn out like. Virtually all of the classic factory cakes from the 60s to the 2000s were stored in natural conditions in Hong Kong after traditional storage. Why fix what ain't broke? With the new stuff, I'm just looking to preserve the tea exactly where I want it!
leavestogether
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Tue Jan 15, 2019 1:38 pm

This is a cool topic and something I've been thinking about recently as well!

As far as I know processing is different today than it was in the previous eras of puerh tea making. Perhaps not the method per se but the technique, the details etc. It's like roasting coffee. Folks today are using all kinds of vintage coffee roasters but they're producing incredibly different coffees! They're lighter in color, more fragrant and more bright / acidic. The technology is mostly the same but the specifics are being tweaked for sure.

I was recently chatting with William from Farmerleaf about this style of processing and he had some interesting things to say. He mentioned that in the earlier eras tea was a cheap commodity and so folks didn't care as much about the processing. Back then teas were typically cooked less for less time than they are now and anecdotally many of these teas were undrinkable in their youth.

In puerh tea processing, as you'd imagine, you can control the bitterness and astringency. Most of the tweaks to those attributes have to do with oxidation. For instance a long withering stage can impart a slight oxidation. Also a low temperature Sha Qing. "Low and slow" will certainly lead to a little enzymatic browning. Perhaps in some cases it's so subtle we can hardly detect a drastic color change.

If you taste a puerh tea that is a bit "roasty" or "toasty" then the Sha Qing is definitely to blame and you might want to carefully investigate the leaves for burnt or heavily cooked spots. It might be the case that the leaves weren't turned properly. Recently Glen from Crimson Lotus dropped a maocha called Jingmai Personal Roast which was a tea he worked through the Sha Qing. It definitely didn't turn out quite right and he was selling it for educational purposes. Unfortunately its all sold out now! There is also a video of him making it which is pretty cool because at first glance he doesn't appear to be far off in terms of technique. However in the end the tea is drastically different from his friends who were cooking it properly.

William also mentioned what he calls "Green Tea Style Puerh." He's referring to pan fired green teas which are similarly cooked in a wok. In this style a high temperature Sha Qing with a long time is applied such that the leaves get almost dry in the wok. He says what you end up with is a very fragrant tea with no bitterness when it's young. However he says a nasty bitterness will creep up after some months of aging and the mouthfeel will become thinner and thinner until the tea turns bland. Much like how a green tea goes bad overtime. So perhaps some of these tea are in some middle ground between William's "Green Tea Style" and a proper Sha Qing. It's hard to say I guess.

It's also quite hard to say what happens with all these new boutique teas and single region teas. No one has really seen them through to maturity. William mentioned that all of this talk about whether or not these new teas are "suitable for aging" is mostly opinion rather than fact. This certainly complicates the purchasing of new cakes to age and ultimately we're all part of this experiment to some extent.

I didn't Hojo was aging in sealed bags! Aging in that environment is very much like aging oolong! It stands to reason microbial activity over time will be drastically different then if the tea were aged in a more traditional manner. Unless of course the environment in the bag is somehow moist or the cake was sealed right after pressing. In that case if you applied some heat you'd have a very subtle, very gentle, sous-vide puerh of sorts.

It'll be interesting to see if in the future more scientific inquiry is applied to aging tea. Perhaps it is and I'm unaware, which is likely the case I bet, but in China of course.

Cheers Everyone!
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tingjunkie
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Mon Jan 28, 2019 3:11 am

Sun drying vs indoor/oven drying must have a considerable effect as well.
John_B
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Mon Jan 28, 2019 4:40 am

tingjunkie wrote:
Mon Jan 28, 2019 3:11 am
Sun drying vs indoor/oven drying must have a considerable effect as well.
One of the participants on that Tea Chat thread claimed this was a main cause of sheng not aging well; "Nada" mentioned it on page 2:

...noticed a big difference between those that had been dried in a heated room after pressing vs those that had been dried in the open air... The naturally dried cakes did seem to be ageing better.

In freshly pressed teas, the difference seems to be huge - the cakes dried in a heated room had strong aroma and tasted fresh soon after pressing, while naturally dried cakes seem to take months after pressing to recover from the process and have a much more subdued aroma.


I never really did feel like I made it to a final answer of any sort (my blog post on this subject cited that old Tea Chat thread last year, at the same time this thread started). That input is promising, but other answers about regional material types varying made sense too.

I tried quite a bit of aged Yiwu last year and never really did like older versions I tried as well as younger ones. The teas had faded instead of transitioning positively, versus others gaining positive complexity and interesting character. There's no guarantee that didn't just relate to the initial character of those particular teas, versus a typical regional origin aspect range.

Sample-size and original condition issues would always come up until someone could try a very broad range of teas they had experienced aging themselves, over a 15 year period or so. This would allow for actual transition to be experienced and storage related factors controlled for.
TeaZero
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Tue Jan 29, 2019 10:43 am

The way pu erh shoul be stored depends really on your local environment. I can imagine in HK one would seal my teas completely to avoid too much humidity, while in dry climates just keeping the tea in original packaging is fine. In mild climates with moderate humidity, a bag would do. There's just no correct way that works for everyone.

Personally not fan of pu erh tea that's processed for consumption when young. In that case I rather just go for a young (aged) white tea. For aging, I prefer to go with Dayi or Xiaguan, which are proven to age well.
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