Pu-erh Tea is a variety of fermented tea produced in the Yunnan Province of China. Demand for more variety of tea has driven the tea gardens to produce more and more diverse forms of tea. In recent decades, demand has increased again for Pu-erh Tea to be sold as the raw product without the artificial accelerated fermentation process.
On the other hand regular teas while produced from the same plant as Pu-erh, Camellia sinesis, vary vastly in terms of processing. Thus, where black tea, green tea, oolong tea, and white tea are processed in fairly the same manner, pu-erh tea has a completely different method of production.
Pu-erh teas are fermented using microbes and oxidising the tea once it has been dried and rolled. This process of fermentation is exclusive to China and produces a dark, black tea Hei Cha, also known as ‘red tea’ in China.
Traditionally Pu-erh began as a raw product known as mao cha (rough) - it can be either sold in this form or pressed into shapes and sold as sheng cha (raw). Both these teas go through the complex process of gradual fermentation and maturation with time. The wo dui fermentation process, that was developed in 1973 by the Kunming Tea Factory, hastened the process and produces a new type of tea Pu-erh Tea. This fermentation process was further adopted and developed by other tea factories. However, its legitimacy was questioned by traditionalist since pu-erh is an aged tea. All types of pu-erh can be stored to mature before consumption, which is why it is commonly labelled with year and region of production.
Ripened or aged raw pu-erh is often mistakenly categorized as a subcategory of black tea due to the dark red colour of its leaves and liquor. However, pu-erh in both its ripened and aged forms has undergone secondary oxidization and fermentation caused both by organisms growing in the tea and free-radical oxidation, thus making it a unique type of tea. This unique production style not only makes the flavour and texture of pu-erh tea different but also results in a rather different chemical makeup of the resulting brewed liquor.
A general outline of the processing the regular teas undergo is as follows: oxidation of the leaves, stopping the oxidation process, tea forming or rolling, and drying. The oxidation process is what determines what type of tea is formed. From the lowest level of oxidation to the highest, the teas are placed-white tea, green tea, oolong tea, and black tea.
Plucking: Loose Leaf Tea and flushes which includes a terminal bud and two young leaves, are picked from Camellia sinensis bushes typically twice a year during early spring and early summer or late spring. Some teas may even have up to five flushes in a year, while some may have only two. For high quality teas, plucking is always done by hand.
Withering/ Wilting: The tea leaves will begin to wilt soon after picking, with a gradual onset of enzymatic oxidation. Withering is used to remove excess water from the leaves and allows a very slight amount of oxidation. The leaves can be either put under the sun or left in a cool breezy room to pull moisture out from the leaves. The process is also important in promoting the breakdown of leaf proteins into free amino acids and increases the availability of freed caffeine, both of which change the taste of the tea. Disruption: Known in the Western tea industry as "disruption" or "leaf maceration", the teas are bruised or torn in order to promote and quicken oxidation. The leaves may be lightly bruised on their edges by shaking and tossing in a bamboo tray or tumbling in baskets. More extensive leaf disruption can be done by kneading, rolling, tearing, and crushing, usually by machinery. Oxidation/Fermentation: For teas that require oxidation, the leaves are left on their own in a climate-controlled room where they turn progressively darker. This is accompanied by agitation in some cases. In this process the chlorophyll in the leaves is enzymatically broken down, and its tannins are released or transformed. This process is sometimes referred to as "fermentation" in the tea industry. Fixation/Kill-green: Kill-green is done to stop the tea leaf oxidation at a desired level. This process is accomplished by moderately heating tea leaves, thus deactivating their oxidative enzymes and removing unwanted scents in the leaves, without damaging the flavour of the tea. Rolling/Shaping: The damp tea leaves are rolled to be formed into wrinkled strips by hand, or using a rolling machine, which causes the tea to wrap around itself. This rolling action also causes some of the sap, essential oils, and juices inside the leaves to ooze out, which further enhances the taste of the tea. Drying: Drying can be done in many ways- panning, sunning, air drying, or baking. Baking is usually the most common. Great care must be taken to not over-cook the leaves. The drying of the produced tea is responsible for many new flavour compounds particularly important in green tea.
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