Pu-Erh Tea: Contrasting Shou vs. Sheng
Many of you have heard of the differences between Shou Pu-erh & Sheng Pu-erh, but I’m sure some of you either didn’t know that there are two distinct categories within this realm of aged tea or are still uncertain what differentiates them.
Since ancient times, the people in Yunnan have known that tea grown in their region stores quite well. The tea process there has been known to include a step not seen in most other tea-producing areas, this being storage.
All tea from all areas is, of course, stored. What distinguishes Pu-erh Tea’s storage as PROCESS is that it can take place over many decades.
The steps taken in Pu-erh Tea storage determine at least as much about the tea’s quality as the growing and crafting - if not more! This is not going to be a thorough dissertation on these two categories of Pu-erh Tea, although we thought a brief overview of what we call “drinkable” pu-erh might be helpful.
All Pu-erh, Sheng and Shou, goes through these initial steps: harvest, withering, firing, rolling, and sun-drying.
Sheng Tea is kept loose leaf as raw material to be blended, bricked, caked, or otherwise pressed.
Tea slated for Shou production is then taken and piled, moistened and covered to promote “maturing” for about 50-60 days.
Why would this be done?
The Sheng tea will need to sit for quite a long time (sometimes many decades) until it comes to “maturity” or “drinkability.”
During the cultural revolution, tea was no longer produced for storage. Because of this lapse in production, in the 1970’s there were drinkers ready to consume, and producers ready to manufacture, but nobody had any mature tea ready for drinking.
This lack of drinkable tea led some ingenious people to crack the code for a quick-maturing method. Thus we witness the birth of the Shou Pu-erh category.
Shou is an accelerated process of tea piles fermenting themselves quickly with internal heat. Because of this, some of the subtleties and delicacy of flavor and aroma as well as the profound and expansive energy are thought to be compromised. This might be true if you compare Shou and Sheng, but consider them as two profoundly different creatures and they stand on their own as beautifully that.
The amount of time and care that a “clean” mature Sheng has received is the beginning of understanding their prestige. There is plenty of overly moldy wet-storage Sheng around, at relatively low price point, but a sweet and clean drier-storage Sheng is guaranteed to be a masterpiece released from under some doting tea master’s wing.
The freshness and aliveness, the truly effervescent playfulness of Sheng teas combine with a grounded consciousness expansion that cannot be accurately described.
So why are the price points of ripe, well-aged Sheng so high?
Rarity is one reason. The reality that we have about 40 years of marketable production to work with (and they were slow to start) of a tea that is being consumed by millions of people. There just isn’t that much mature Sheng available.
Another is time. Mature Sheng teas are often carefully monitored, and their storage conditions adjusted to bring about particular characteristics. This process takes as many as 20-30 (or more) years by a tea master.
A note on young green Sheng Pu-erh: For years we watched peoples’ bodies reacting to these young teas. We tended to see our customers have uncomfortable and intense experiences (of course there can be exceptions). This shifted us to suggest young green Sheng as tea investments for the future instead. I might write more about this sometime, as there could be much more to say on this controversial topic.
A note on moldy tea: of course part of what makes our beloved pu-erh what it is are the unique blend of molds and yeasts growing in it. The topic of “moldy tea” in this letter is referring to the effects of what the tea becomes long-term in a stagnant humid environment. The taste of many overly-wet storage teas can be fascinating, but once again, we choose not to promote these teas because of the uncomfortable/harmful effects in peoples’ bodies.