SHENG AND SHOU: TWO PARENTS OF THE PU ERTEA FAMILY
Sheng ("raw") Pu er, renowned today for its rich taste and medicinal properties, is certainly one of the first teas to have appeared in China. In accordance with the traditional method of processing, the leaves are usually compressed into cakes, thereby slowly oxidizing on contact with the air, which improves their flavor. They are fermented over a very long period of time, from 10 to 50 years. Sheng Pu er teas are not considered fully mature until they have been aged for 30 years. At this stage they are referred to as “vintage.” As with all teas, the plant matter used to create them determines their quality. Therefore, the best Sheng teas come from wild tea trees that are often several centuries old. During the 1970s, because of the growing demand for rare Pu er teas, the Chinese tea industry developed a new type of Pu er that could be brought to market faster: Shou ("cooked") Pu er teas. Shou Pu er teas are processed in the same way as the Sheng variety, but they are exposed to a rapid fermentation over 45 to 60 days to speed up the aging process. These teas are meant for immediate consumption, and, unlike the Sheng teas, they do not get better if they are preserved over a long period of time. Their flavor improves only slightly with aging. Shou Pu er teas are usually of lower quality, and the leaves used for their production come almost exclusively from plantations. Long considered an industrial product by true enthusiasts, Shou Pu er teas are appreciated today for their distinctive characteristics, including an earthy taste with hints of undergrowth and the animal-like notes triggered by rapid aging.
DIFFERENT SHAPES OF PU ERTEA
In addition to the difference between Sheng and Shou, Pu er teas have other distinguishing features. One of the most obvious is indisputably their shape. There, too, the Chinese have shown great inventiveness. While the most common shape is the cake, Pu er teas can be compressed into many other shapes and sizes. The most common shapes are:
• the cake (bing cha), which usually weighs around 12 ounces (355 g);
• the brick (zhuan cha), weighing 9 ounces (250 g);
• the nest (tuo cha), which normally weighs 354 or 9 ounces (100 or 250 g) but is also found in a 1/6-ounce (5 g) size;
• the pumpkin (jin gua), which comes in several sizes;
• the mushroom, weighing around 8 ounces (240 g);
• the cube, weighing roughly 1/6 ounce (5 g).
Pu er teas are also made into various custom shapes (Buddha, pig and the like) to honor specific events, and they can also be left loose.