Sheng vs. Shou Pu’erh

Out of all the types of tea that exist out there, pu’erh is generally one that I discuss the least on One More Steep with yellow tea being, by far, the most rarely discussed if only because of the rarity of the tea itself. But pu’erh is also a tea that I grew up drinking a lot. It’s a staple at dimsum restaurants and a fantastic tea for long tea drinking sessions because a good pu’erh typically resteeps incredibly well.

Pu’erh is one of those teas that seems mysterious to a lot of tea drinker that don’t dabble into more Chinese teas. If your tea cabinet consists primarily of Earl Grey, chamomile, and peppermint, pu’erh probably isn’t one of those teas that is lurking in the cabinet if only because it’s not your jam. In Chinese, pu’erh tea is also called hei cha (literal translation: dark or black tea), which is very different from what western culture calls black tea (which, in Chinese, is called hong cha; with the literal translation of “red tea”).

Pu’erh is a fermented tea – either through time or through a sped-up process – that uses micro-organisms to contribute to the process and the flavour. There’s two primary categories that I will discuss: sheng pu’erh and shou pu’erh. Please keep in mind that I am not an expert on pu’erh tea, and nor do I pretend to be one, and I will be discussing the basics of both sheng and shou pu’erh, as well as similarities of both.

You will also find pu’erh being written as pu’er, pu-erh, pu-er, puerh and puer on the internet. Just to add to any confusion you might have had about this category of tea. For consistency’s sake, you will see that I use pu’erh on One More Steep.

Sheng pu’erh has many other names, as does shou pu’erh.

Sheng pu’erh is also referred to as raw or unripe pu’erh/tea, aged or young pu’erh (depending on the age). Sheng pu’erh is  allowed to age naturally, and ferment. Sheng pu’erh can be harvested, lightly steamed, pressed into shape (discs, balls, bricks) or left loose – and then left to age intentionally. Typically sheng pu’erh is allowed to age for, at minimum, 10-plus years before they are steeped. The process of producing sheng pu’erh (primarily the time), makes it the more expensive of the two types of pu’erh.

There are a lot of factors that go into producing a good sheng pu’erh and I’m not able to educate you on it (because it’s simply not in my wheelhouse), but intentionally allowing a tea to age also means keeping an eye on things like moisture/humidity that the tea is exposed to – because you want to age the tea… and not grow a pile of mold.

Shou pu’erh on the other hand is a ripe or cooked pu’erh/tea. The production method of shou pu’erh involves creating a large pile of leaves, and intentionally keeping the leaves moist and warm to encourage beneficial bacteria and molds to grow, and then turning the leaves to encourage even fermentation (much like you would turn a compost bin). Once properly ‘cooked’, the leaves can be pressed into shape like sheng pu’erh, but the tea itself is ready-to-drink and no further aging is required.

Shou pu’erh is the “young” version of pu’erh, with the development of the processing method coming into play in the 1970’s with the growing popularity and demand for pu’erh tea. After all, it’s a long time to get a sheng pu’erh to a drinkable state if you’re patiently waiting for the tea to age and ferment. Shou pu’erh fills in that demand by making pu’erh more accessible (less expensive!) in comparison to a slowly aged sheng pu’erh.

As a whole, pu’erh is less accessible in North American markets, but the typical North American tea drinker is also not the primary demographic that consumes pu’erh tea. I find that shopping in person for pu’erh tea is limited to Chinese/Asian grocery stores, and specialty tea shops. If you’re lucky to live in an area with a Chinatown, finding a tea shop that features pu’erh might be within your grasp. If you’re not, then online shopping is always an option! Try to look for online stores that offer samplers or smaller amounts of pu’erh – you don’t want to be venturing into purchasing a whole 500g brick for your first pu’erh adventure.

Pu’erh is fantastic tea to steep – typically a pu’erh is unadulterated, so you don’t have added ingredients or flavourings, making it a great tea to resteep. A pu’erh is a great way to practice gongfu steeping and also grandpa steeping. If you have the option of pu’erh tea at a dimsum restaurant, I’d highly recommend it (that would be usually a grandpa style of steeping tea).

As a whole, pu’erh is often a very rich, dark colour when you steep the leaves. The flavour is honestly very difficult to describe unless you have the tea available to you because there are so many factors that influence the flavour. How long the tea has been aged, how well it was kept (was there too much moisture or humidty, or not enough?). I typically find that pu’erh has a very earthy aroma and flavour to it though, which is likely due to the fermentation process with the microbes.

Two bricks of sheng pu’erh are unlikely to be identical because there’s just so many factors that go into the flavour of the tea during the fermentation process. Shou pu’erh, on the other hand, is more likely to have a consistent flavour because of the process in which it’s made (quicker, not relying on decades of time and changes in conditions). That said, I personally find that sheng pu’erh can be much more complex in flavour because of the time allowance to grow that depth of flavour.

Both sheng and shou pu’erh can be a great tea to enjoy if you’re looking to expand your tea-drinking horizons. Have you tried it before? Do you enjoy pu’erh regularly?

Learn to Steep: Gongfu Style

What is gongfu steeping? Gongfu, also known as kungfu, literally translates to “effort” or “skill” – and it is a steeping method that comes from Ming Dynasty, China.

Gongfu steeping involves a gaiwan, or a similarly sized teapot – which typically holds approximately 100-150mL. A gaiwan is a porcelain vessel that translates to “lidded bowl” – and consists of a saucer, bowl, and lid. The big difference between gongfu steeping and a western style of steeping is the size of a vessel (I have teapots that can hold up to 1L!), the ratio of tea leaves to water, and the length of time for a steep.

A gongfu steeping session begins with warming up the bowl with some heated water, so the porcelain retains heat better. Then you pour the water out, add tea leaves in (~5g of tea leaves), and then add water into the bowl. You’ll want to put in more tea leaves that you’d expect – there’s room for the tea to expand in the bowl!

The type of tea leaves to steeped gongfu vary – I use my gaiwan to steep green, white, and oolong teas – and I stick with traditional/straight teas (no blends!).

Each steep in gongfu steeping is short – think 5 to 10 seconds. Basically, as soon as you’ve poured water over your leaves, you should be thinking about pouring the tea back out. Because of the multiple short steeps, you’ll be able to get many steeps out of the same leaves – upwards of 10-20 resteeps of the same leaves.

And with each steep, the leaves will open up even more.

You can drink directly out of a gaiwan, by using the lid to keep the tea leaves in the bowl. But for gongfu, you’ll pick up the bowl (with the lid) and quickly pour the tea into a cup or a (small) pitcher to share the tea from.

In some tea sets, this is referred to as a fairness pitcher and you should be able to fill multiple (small) tea cups from it. Chinese tea cups are significantly smaller than mugs or tea cups, they can hold about 25-50mL each.

Depending on your practice, you might spill some tea. If you’re going to pour the tea, commit! And hope for the best. I do keep a tea towel within hand’s reach when I’m practicing gongfu steeping. It’s a process that takes some practice, especially with holding the gaiwan, so I’d recommend practicing the hold when it’s empty (so you don’t spill hot tea on your fingers).

What’s your preferred style for steeping your tea?

Learn to Steep: Grandpa Style

Grandpa style of tea steeping is one of the easiest methods, and also the least immersed in a sense of ceremony – a fantastic point that makes it truly accessible for basically everyone… provided your tea can hold up to the method. One could consider the grandpa style of steeping tea to be one of the purest methods of tea steeping, because it really doesn’t require you to do a lot. And if you’ve been drinking tea for a while, you may have already done this method of tea steeping and didn’t even realize it had any sort of name. I’ve definitely steeped my tea this way before and experienced tea steeped this way for literally decades, thanks to going out for weekend dimsum growing up.

Arguably the easiest way to make tea, grandpa style is also the simplest. In a large cup, add some tea leaves (preferably whole leaf tea), add water, and drink. No infusers, not strainers, no methods of pouring the tea out into another vessel within 15-30 seconds. When your cup is running low, you top up the water and then continue to drink. This method of tea steeping works the best for whole leaf tea because you have the best chance of not swallowing the leaves if they’re full and intact versus the dusty tea bits that come out of a tea bag. You could also use a tea pot, add some leaves, and pour in water and keep refilling the pot whenever it gets low in volume.

While you could use this steeping method with any tea, grandpa style of tea steeping really lends itself well with whole leaf teas, particularly those without flavourings or blended ingredients, and also ideally works the best for teas such as pu’erh, oolongs, green and white teas (basically, most Chinese teas will work great with this method, as has been my experience when in restaurants). My preference when doing the grandpa style is to drink oolongs or white tea (silver needle never lets me down), and I actually utilized this steeping method a lot when I was most recently in school again (2019-2021), because it’s really the laziest steeping method that ever did exist and just fit well with my study method. I could study, drink tea, and not have to fuss about it too much.

“Grandpa style” tea steeping is a phrase coined by Lawrence Zhang (marshaln), which very closely mimics the style of tea steeping that I’ve seen my parents do at home basically all of my life. The tea leaves get left in the strainer in the tea pot at home. The tea leaves get left in the tea pot at the dimsum restaurant. It’s very much the Chinese way of steeping tea, and something that I find myself gravitating towards when not steeping a blended tea or a tea for a review (because I like to follow the steeping instructions).