What Makes Shu Pu-er Different from Sheng Pu-er Tea?

What Makes Shu Pu-er Different from Sheng Pu-er Tea?

Robert Stocker

Pu-er tea is one of the oldest and most beloved types of tea in China, and it has been enjoyed for centuries. In recent years, pu-er tea has gained popularity in the West, and many people are discovering its unique flavor and health benefits. One key factor in determining the quality of pu-er tea is the distinction between shu (ripe) and sheng (raw) pu-er. In this blog post, we will take a closer look at what makes shu and sheng pu-er tea different from each other. 

The Origin of Pu-er Tea

map of the Horse Tea Road Pu-er tea originates in the mountains near Pu'er city (formerly Simao) in Yunnan province of China. During early imperial China, Pu'er became an important trade center for tea, with the Horse Tea Road running right by the tea market on the way to the high Himalayas. Bricks or cakes of compressed Sheng (raw) tea wrapped in bamboo (later mulberry paper) were carried by porters on foot, as the road was too steep for pack animals. The journey was long and arduous, and the tea would begin to ferment within the humid wrappings, so that by the time it arrived it had an entirely different character from the green tea that started the trip. This eventually became a selling point and by the late 19th century Pu-er tea had become popular throughout China. Restaurants in Hong Kong, in particular, stored hundreds of cakes of Sheng tea for use as meal accompaniments. In the mid-to-late 20th century, collectors in China and elsewhere began to seek out these stored cakes and the monetary value of well-aged cakes increased precipitously. In the 1980s, this led to attempts to create a tea with the characteristics of aged Sheng tea without having to spend decades in the process, and thus Shu Pu-er was born.

The Difference in Processing

Pu-er tea is the collective name for both sheng (or "raw") and shu (“ripe” or "cooked") tea. The major difference between these two types of tea lies in the processing of the leaves. Pu-er tea is known for its distinct earthy flavor and its ability to age like a fine wine.

Sheng pu-er is made from sun-dried Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica (native to Yunnan - sometimes with Camellia Taliensis "wild tea" as an additive or as an entire batch) leaves that have been minimally processed as green tea. This gives the tea a robust flavor. The leaves are then aged in open conditions for anywhere from a few months to several years in order to allow the flavors to mellow and develop.

Shu pu-er is initially made in the same way but undergoes an additional accelerated aging process called “wet piling” (Chinese 渥堆 wòduī), where the tea leaves are placed in a pile that is regularly sprayed with water and turned over to speed up the aging process. Microbiota are introduced to the piles from earlier batches made in the same factory, ensuring that the same fermented qualities are present in the new tea. Similar to distillers or brewers, the tea factories use proprietary recipes for the mixtures of mold and bacteria that make the desired end product. The result is a tea with a deeper color and a more pronounced earthy aroma and flavor.

The Difference in Taste

One of the key differences between shu (cooked) and sheng (raw) pu-er tea is in their flavor profiles. Shu pu-er tea is known for its earthy, woody and mellow flavors, while sheng pu-er tea is known for its sweet, fruity and complex notes.

Shu pu-er tea typically has a smooth, mellow taste with hints of earthiness, smokiness and woodiness. This type of pu-er is generally considered to be less bitter than other types of tea and is often referred to as having a "sweet finish". Sheng pu-er tea, on the other hand, tends to have a more pungent flavor profile with strong hints of sweetness, fruitiness and complexity. Depending on the age of the tea, it can range from sweet to astringent.

In general, shu pu-er tea is considered to be milder than sheng pu-er tea, making it a great choice for those who are just starting out with pu-er. However, both types of pu-er teas offer unique flavor profiles that can be enjoyed by all.

The Difference in Appearance

The most obvious difference between shu and sheng pu-er tea is its appearance. Shu tea, also known as cooked or ripe tea, has a deep brown color. On the other hand, sheng tea, also known as raw tea, is much lighter in color. Each is typically found compressed into cakes or bricks but can sometimes be found in loose leaves.

Shu tea has a smoother texture than sheng tea because it has been processed more extensively. The taste of shu tea is also more mellow and can be enjoyed without the bitter aftertaste that sometimes comes with sheng tea. Shu tea also tends to have a stronger aroma than sheng tea because the leaves are exposed to higher temperatures during the production process.

When selecting a pu-er tea, it's important to take into account both the visual appearance and taste. It's also important to remember that both shu and sheng pu-er tea are special in their own ways and have unique qualities that make them stand out from other types of teas.

The Difference in Ageing Potential

When it comes to ageing potential, pu-er tea is known for its unique ability to improve with age, just like a fine wine. However, the ageing potential of shu (or cooked) pu-er tea and sheng (or raw) pu-er tea differs dramatically.

Shu pu-er teas are aged more quickly and will typically reach their peak within one to three years. Their flavor will develop in complexity and the bitterness will dissipate as they age. After three years, the flavor will begin to "even out" and older shu teas will taste much the same as younger ones.

On the other hand, sheng pu-er teas take much longer to reach their peak. While some sheng pu-er teas can be drunk right away, they’re usually best after five to ten years of aging. The longer these teas are aged, the smoother and sweeter they become, developing deeper, richer flavors. Sheng pu-er teas can be stored for decades and still be enjoyed.

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