May 23, 2010

What is puerh? (1)

Ha! I don't know. But it's interesting to look into all the different definitions of it. Even if you and I end up being even more lost, just for the fun of looking :-D

I always feel I don't really understand Puerh, which is partially because puerh is hard to understand from the beginning, and partially because I have very limited experience with old aged puerh. Old puerh is both rare and expensive, and I am often reluctant to spend big money on what I barely understand. Following are some notes I've taken in my efforts of trying to know more about puerh. I will first go over five different definitions of puerh. Then in the second part, I will go over some of the hottest debates about puerh (debates that didn't lead to standard answers). And in the last part, I will go over what I've read from a few tea books and how they treat the concept of puerh differently.

Due to the confusing situation we may soon get into, let me define a few terms first:

Young Sheng - Sheng puerh that's younger than 8 years old (some people think this number should be 15, but I guess most people agree younger than 8 years is a young Sheng, and here let's not consider tea of 9-15 years old).

Old Sheng - Sheng puerh that's older than 15 years old.

Modern Shu - Shu puerh that's made with Wodui (fast fermentation) technique. If by any chance I say "Shu" without additional notes, then I am most likely meaning "Modern Shu".

Definitions of puerh.

(The blue-colored texts are definitions quoted from official documents.)

Definition 1 - by Yunnan Province Standards for Puerh, DB53/103-2003, application started on March 1, 2003

"The raw materials of puerh come from Yunnan big-leaf tea tree cultivars grown in certain regions of Yunnan. The leaf materials are sun-dried and processed (my notes: Based on context and practice in reality, I believe the "processing" here include both fast-fermentation of modern shu puerh and slow-fermentation during the course of traditional storage.)  with post-fermentation (my notes: this is in contrast with pre-fermentation/oxidation in red tea. In puerh, fermentation happens after the enzymes in tea leaves are partially killed.) to become loose tea or compressed tea of puerh. Puerh products are of brown to red color; the liquor is dense, bright red, with unique aged aroma, rich flavor and sweet aftertaste; the spent leaves are of brown to red color." 

Did I hear somebody say, "Wait a minute... So, by this definition, young sheng is not puerh?" It's one of the big ongoing debates about puerh. Although not mentioned here, in a later part of the document, it's specified that the post-fermentation include both traditional storage (for years) and modern Wodui technique. It's actually quite interesting to see how the Official Standards (Yunnan Province or National) changed in just several years, and think why they changed.  


Definition 2 - by Yunnan Province Standards for Puerh, DB53/103-2006, application started on January 1, 2007

Puerh is unique geographically-patented products of Yunnan. It is made with Yunnan big-leaf tea tree cultivars grown in locations that are qualified for puerh production regions. (my notes: the document defines such qualified regions else where.) The leaf materials are processed with specific methods and become products of specific unique characters. Based on processing methods and how inner characters of the tea are formed, puerh can be categorized into Puerh Sheng and Puerh Shu. 

Puerh Sheng is made with Yunnan big-leaf tea tree cultivars grown in locations that are qualified for puerh production regions. The leaf materials are processed with procedures including kill-green, roll-and-twist, sun-dry, steam-compress, etc. Puerh Sheng products are of dark green color. The aroma is refreshing, pure and long-lasting. The flavor is rich with sweet aftertaste. The liquor is green to yellow, clear and bright. The spent leaves are bountiful, of yellow to green color.

Puerh Shu is made with Yunnan big-leaf tea tree cultivars grown in locations that are qualified for puerh production regions. The leaf materials are processed with post-fermentation (fast or slow) to become loose tea or pressed tea products. The products are of brown to red color; the liquor is dense, bright red, with unique aged aroma, rich flavor and sweet aftertaste; the spent leaves are of red to brown color. 

Compared with the 2003 version, major modifications on the definition in 2006 version include:
- The concept of Geographic Patent is introduced. 
- The terms Sheng and Shu are included in the definition.
- According to this definitions, Young Sheng is counted as Puerh. Old Sheng is counted as Shu. 

I highlighted "fast and slow" because I didn't find explanations within the document about how fast and how slow. I believe, based on context, that "fast" means modern Wodui (渥堆) post-fermentation and "slow" means post-fermentation during years of storage. Based on this definition, Old Sheng can be called a Shu. I know people who would call Old Sheng "Shu", and also know people who won't call it so. If an Old Sheng is called "Shu", then a potential problem is, how can a modern Shu puerh and a traditionally stored Old Sheng share the same name while they are from very different manufacturing procedures?

Later on, with the development of administration system on food products, National Standards replaced Province Standards on many food products, including puerh. 

Definition 3 - by National Standards for Puerh, GB/T22111-2008, application started on December 1, 2008. The "Definition" section of this document is exactly the same as that in 2006 Province Standards.
The text of puerh definition is the same as in Definition 2. 

Since Puerh Wodui procedure started only in 1970s (if we don't consider super-wet storage which was conducted even before 1970s, is a little bit similar to Wodui, but not exactly is), the puerh definition before 1970s didn't need to involve concepts of Sheng or Shu at all. Here I will call the pre-1970s puerh definition Historical Definition.

Definition 4 - Historical definition. (my notes: although called "historical definition" here, up till today, there are still people who believe this should be THE definition of puerh.) This definition is quite consistent with the above cited Definition 1, except that in the historical definition, there is no product made through Wodui. Puerh is seen as a product of post-fermentation during years of storage. 

The above Definition 1 is cited by Meng Hai Tea Factory (manufacturing factory of Da Yi). I don't know if it's because they prefer this definition or because they haven't updated their website information since several years ago. Their website does indicate that Definition 1 was (at least partially) forged "by more than twenty tea experts from China, Japan, Korea, Malasia, Hong Kong, Aomen and Taiwan in an international puerh conference."  

Definition 2/3 is cited by Da Yi (Taetea) Group. Interestingly, Meng Hai Tea Factory is under the management of Da Yi Group, yet they use different versions of Puerh Definition. Is it because the factory sector and the management sector have different view of puerh definition? Or probably the inconsistency is simply a result of website update lag. Probably update lag, because on another page of Da Yi website, there is the definition used by Meng Hai Tea Factory. 

What's more interesting to me is, on the website of Da Yi (Taetea) Group, the specific definitions of Puerh Sheng and Puerh Shu are slightly different from those in the National Standards document. So maybe this can be called Definition 5. 

Definition 5 - by Da Yi Group. Their interpretation is different from the National Standards mainly at:
- Da Yi defines Puerh Shu as fast post-fermentation product, which is in contrast to the highlighted part in Definition 2/3. 
- Da Yi points out that "although new Sheng and new Shu have very different characters, with time being, for example, after 10-15 years, inner characters and flavors of the two will be close to each other."  (my notes: this is another major debatable point, among numerous others, about puerh definition.)

Besides all the various definitions, another major stream opinion is, none of the above definitions is proper. There are various reasons (which don't necessary agree with each other).

If we compare all the five definitions, what seems most interesting to me is, Definition 5 is the one currently used by most tea manufacturers and tea sellers, not exactly Yunnan Standards or National Standards. It is indeed easier to use, especially in the conversations among manufacturers, sellers and consumers. With this definition, a tea cake won't be called different names (Sheng and Shu) during its entire shelf life. Besides, this definition also clearly separates products of fast (Wodui) and slow (storage) fermentation. Potential problem of this definition is, the meaning of the term Shu (ripe) is somewhat affiliated with fermentation. When a Young Sheng is newly made, it's definitely Sheng. But many people think it's odd to still call it Sheng after 20 years when the tea is very much fermented with time being.

Another interesting phenomenon is, the change from Definition 1 to Definition 2/3, although may not be a direct result of industry influence, it seems that puerh companies indeed benefit from such changes. Definition 1 doesn't see Young Sheng as a final product of puerh, while Definition 2/3 justifies factories to sell Young Sheng, as well as Modern Shu as Puerh. Therefore Definition 2/3 is clearly very inclusive. Whatever out of the factories can be called puerh. Some people believe such changes in definition reflect the natural changes in puerh technique, puerh market mode and puerh purchase habit. Some other people believe such changes are due to the factories' manipulation on puerh standards. I think, it may have to do with consumers' mentality. Nowadays, good Old Sheng is rare and expensive. Many consumers can mostly afford Young Sheng and Modern Shu. It may sound not cool to buyers if most of their purchase is not counted as Puerh by some standard definition.

Since Definition 5 is in some sense clearer than the National Standards, why wouldn't its terminology adopted by the National Standards? I have no idea, but guess (without much confidence) that the National Standards were probably compromise of different views. 

8 comments:

Neil Desai said...

Great post about puerh. Definitely didn't know a lot of that information. Thanks.

flo said...

great topic!
thx for your research


fascinating how, when you start to zoom in a thing, it becomes complex to describe. Plus, as you pointed before, teas did not appear to fit in definitions, and their history is made of many events.
I think that when definitions are made, it is because some problem arised and has to be solved. for terroir products, lots of problems pertain to the question of "authenticity".

about the use of "shu": couldn't it be that the term has a perfective value (as aspect value) ? so it would express the idea of the result of an achieved process. "shu" may convey the idea of "mature thing"
If so, a 30 years'old sheng cha, if considered mature, can logically be called "shu cha". I was told that it was not unfrequent before.
But as in early 70's the term was applied to teas that had undergone accelerated fermentation, I guess it also started to be devoted to this category.

btw, what would be the difference between "houfajiao" and "rengongfajiao" ? the latter is translated "fermentation controlled by human", but does it mean some particular additional technique vs "houfajiao" (which after all ends up to be something controlled by human too in the making) ?

and what is the difference of use between the terms "wodui" ("pile fermentation"), "houfajiao" and "rengongfajiao" ? i suspect these 3 terms are misused by us westerners and taken for one another.

Gingko said...

Hi Flo, the basic meaning of "Shu" is just as what you described. And in this sense, "old sheng" can be called "shu", and that's consistent with the current national standards for puerh.

Your questions of those terms are largely due to their translation or non-translation. "houfajiao" means post-fermentation (which happens either in storage or through wodui). Wodui means making a wet, warm pile of tea leaves to allow faster fermentation (what's used to make modern Shu). "rengongfajiao" means artificial fermentation, in contrast to the natural fermentation during the storage of puerh. I think it's better off if terms such as houfajiao and rengongfajiao are directly translated into English. But it seems the untranslated term wodui is easier to use because if translated, a long sentence would be used.

Probably we can put it in this way:
Fermentation includes:
1. Natural fermentation (which happens in long-term storage)

2. Artificial fermentation (rengongfajiao), which includes:
2a. Wodui
2b. artificially increasing the temperature and humidity of warehouse to promote aging of puerh (Guangdong people used to practice this a lot, because they favor more aged tea)

But very often when people talk about artificial fermentation, they mean directly wodui.

Also some people argue that in traditional transportation of puerh, there is high temperature, rain, and probably evaporation from animal sweat, all of which speed up the aging of puerh, and such non-artificial conditions are actually similar to 2b of above.

So your questions are not just due to the misuse of westerners. It's rather due to vague or flexible meanings of the terms themselves. So sometimes when people talk about the same term (such as "shu", "artificial fermentation", or even "puerh"), they don't necessarily talk about the same thing from the beginning. :-p

flo said...

thanks a lot for these precisions, very useful to understand the relation between terms and how the langage "looks at" a processus.
It seems to me that there is no accurate immediate translation in such specific cases, at least towards a langage/culture where the "thing" does not exist. So explanation of the "referent" is the best solution!

:))

Gingko said...

Hi Flo, Thank you for the discussion! I often feel discussions can help us better understand a lot of concepts!

Alex Zorach said...

There's such a huge difference between a 7 year old sheng puerh and a fresh sheng puerh! I know any cutoffs would be arbitrary, but how can one verbally distinguish between the new-1-2 year old ones and ones that have aged at least a few years?

Asiatic Fox said...

Too many words, and half of this I don't even understand.

I don't think one should think this hard about tea. I'd rather just sit down, shut up, and sip.

-Fox

Gingko said...

Alex, I guess it's always better to include the production year in the title of a tea so that people have an idea bout the age. And pickier buyers would want to know the storage history as well (such as the dry Kunming, or the humid Guangzhou).

Fox, indeed I have to agree this whole thing looks quite geeky :-p