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Classification of Pu'er

Release date:2014-10-16

Aside from vintage year, Pu’er tea can be classified in a variety of ways: by shape, processing method, region, cultivation, grade, and season.


Pu’er is compressed into a variety of shapes. Other lesser seen forms include, stacked "melon pagodas", pillars, calabashes, yuanbao, and small bricks (2-5cm in width). Pu’er is also compressed into the hollow centers of bamboo stems or packed and bound into a ball inside the peel of various citrus.

Process and oxidation

Although Pu’er teas are often collectively classified in Western and East Asian tea markets as post-fermentation or black teas, respectively, Pu’er teas in actuality can be placed in three types of processing methods, namely: green tea, fermented tea, and secondary-oxidation/fermentation tea.

Pu’er can be green teas if they are lightly processed before being pressed into cakes. Such Pu’er is referred to as maocha if unpressed and as "green/raw Pu’er" if pressed. While not always palatable, they are relatively cheap and are known to age well for up to 20 or 30 years. Pu’er can also be a fermented tea if it undergoes slow processing with fermenting microbes for up to a year. This Pu’er is referred to as "ripened/cooked Pu’er", and has a mellow flavour and is readily drinkable. Aged Pu’ers are secondary-oxidation and post-fermentation teas. If aged from green Pu’er, the aged tea will be mellow in taste but still clean in flavour.

According to the production process, four main types of Pu’er are commonly available on the market:

·                     Maocha: Green Pu’er leaves that are sold in loose form. The raw material for making pressed Pu’ers. Badly processed maocha will result in an inferior pu-erh.

·                     Green/raw Pu’er: Pressed maocha that has not undergone additional processing. Quality green Pu’er is highly sought by collectors.

·                     Ripened/cooked Pu’er: Pressed maocha that has undergone fermentation in the ripening process for up to a year. Badly fermented maocha will create a muddy tea with fishy and sour flavours indicative of inferior aged Pu’ers.

·                     Aged raw Pu’er: A tea that has undergone a slow secondary oxidation and a certain degree of microbial fermentation. Although all types of Pu’er can be aged, it is typically the pressed raw Pu’ers that are most highly regarded, since aged maocha and ripened Pu’er both lack a "clean" and "assertive" taste.



Yunnan province produces the vast majority of Pu’er tea. Indeed, the province is the source of the tea's name, Pu'er Hani and Yi Autonomous County. Pu’er is produced in almost every county and prefecture in the province, but the most famous Pu’er areas are known as the Six Famous Tea Mountains (Chinese: ; pinyin: liù dà chá shān)

Six famous tea mountains

The six famous tea mountains are a group of mountains in Xishuangbanna that are renowned for their climates and environments, which not only provide excellent growing conditions for Pu’er, but also produce unique taste profiles (akin to terroir inwine) in the produced Pu’er tea. Over the course of history, the designated mountains for the tea mountains have either been changed or listed differently.

In the Qing dynasty government records for Pu’er (普洱府志), the oldest historically designated mountains were said to be named after six commemorative items that were left in the mountains by Zhuge Liang, and using the Chinese characters of the native language of the region. These mountains are all located northeast of the Lancang River (Mekong) in relatively close proximity to one another. The mountains' names, in the Standard Mandarin character pronunciation are:

1.       Gedeng (): The term for "leatherstirrup" (, pinyin: mǎdèng)

2.       Mansa (): The term for "seed sowing bag" (, pinyin: sǎdài)

3.       Mangzhi (): The term for "coppercauldron" (, pinyin: tóngmǔ) 1

4.       Manzhuan (): The term for ironbrick" (, pinyin: tiězhuān)

5.       Yibang(): The term for "wooden clapper" (, pinyin: mùbāng)

6.       Yōulè (): The term meaning "copper gong" (, pinyin: tóngluó)

Southwest of the river there are also six famous tea mountains that are lesser known from ancient times due to their isolation by the river. They are:

1.       Mengsong Shān (勐宋山):

2.       Menghai Shān (勐海山):

3.       Jingmai Shān (景迈山):

4.       Nánnuò Shān (): a varietal of tea grows here called zĭjuān (, literally "purple lady") whose buds and bud leaves have a purple hue.

5.       Bada Shān (巴达山):

6.       Yōulè Shān ():

For various reasons, by the end of the Qing dynasty or beginning of the ROC period, tea production in these mountains dropped drastically, either due to large forest fires, over-harvesting, prohibitive imperial taxes, or general neglect. To revitalize tea production in the area, the Chinese government in 1962 selected a new group of six famous tea mountains that were named based on the more important tea producing mountains at the time, including Youle mountain from the original six.

Other areas of Yunnan

Many other areas of Yunnan also produce pu-erh tea. Yunnan prefectures that are major producers of Pu’er include Lincang, Dehong, Simao, Xishuangbanna, andWenshan. Other tea mountains famous in Yunnan include among others:

·                     Bāngwēi Shān ()

·                     Bānzhāng Shān (): noted for producing powerful and complex teas that are bitter with a sweet aftertaste

·                     Yìwǔ Shān () : perhaps the most popular tea mountain amongst collectors.

·                     Bada Shān(巴達山):

·                     Wuliang Shān:

·                     Ailuo Shān:

·                     Jinggu Shān:

·                     Baoshan Shān:

·                     Yushou Shān:

Region is but one factor in assessing a Pu’er tea, and Pu’er from any region of Yunnan is as prized as any from the six famous tea mountains if it meets other criteria, such as being wild growth, hand-processed tea.

Other provinces

While Yunnan produces the majority of pu-erh, other regions of China, including Hunanand Guangdong, have also produced the tea. The Guangyun Gong cake, for example, featured a blend of Yunnan and Guangdong máochá, and the most recent production of these cakes contains mostly from the latter.

Other regions

In addition to China, border regions touching Yunnan in Vietnam, Laos, and Burmaare also known to produce Pu’er tea, though little of this makes its way to the Chinese or international markets.


Perhaps equally or even more important than region or even grade in classifying Pu’erh is the method of cultivation. Pu’er tea can come from three different cultivation methods:

·                     Plantation bushes (guànmù, ): Cultivated tea bushes, from the seeds or cuttings of wild tea trees and planted in relatively low altitudes and flatter terrain. The tea produced from these plants are considered inferior due to the used of pesticides and chemical fertilizer in cultivation, and the lack of pleasant flavours, and the presence of harsh bitterness and astringency from the tea.

·                     "Wild arbor" trees: Most producers claim that their Pu’er is from wild trees, but most use leaves from older plantations that were cultivated in previous generations that have gone feral due to the lack of care. These trees produce teas of better flavour due to the higher levels of secondary metabolite produced in the tea tree. As well, the trees are typically cared for using organic practices, which includes the scheduled pruning of the trees in a manner similar to pollarding. Despite the good quality of their produced teas, "wild arbor" trees are not as prized as the truly wild trees.

·                     Wild trees (gŭshù, ; literally "old tree"): Teas from old wild trees, grown without human intervention, are the highest valued Pu’er teas. Such teas are valued for having deeper and more complex flavors, often with camphor or "mint" notes, said to be imparted by the many camphor trees that grow in the same environment as the wild tea trees. Young raw Pu’er teas produced from the leaf tips of these trees also lack overwhelming astringency and bitterness often attributed to young Pu’er.

Determining whether or not a tea is wild is a challenging task, made more difficult through the inconsistent and unclear terminology and labeling in Chinese. Terms likeyěshēng (; literally "wild" or "uncultivated"), qiáomù (; literally "tall tree"),yěshēng qiáomù (; literally "uncultivated trees"), and gǔshù are found on the labels of cakes of both wild and "wild arbor" variety, and on blended cakes, which contain leaves from tea plants of various cultivations. These inconsistent and often misleading labels can easily confuse uninitiated tea buyers regardless of their grasp of the Chinese language. As well, the lack of specific information about tea leaf sources in the printed wrappers and identifiers that come with the pu-erh cake makes identification of the tea a difficult task. Pu’er journals and similar annual guides such as The Profound World of Chi Tse, Pu’er Yearbook, and Pu’er Teapot Magazinecontain credible sources for leaf information. Tea factories are generally honest about their leaf sources, but someone without access to tea factory or other information is often at the mercy of the middlemen or an unscrupulous vendor. Many Pu’er aficionados seek out and maintain relationships with vendors who they feel they can trust to help mitigate the issue of finding the "truth" of the leaves.

Sadly, even in the best of circumstances, when a journal, factory information, and trustworthy vendor all align to assure a tea's genuinely wild leaf, fakes fill the market and make the issue even more complicated. Because collectors often doubt the reliability of written information, some believe certain physical aspects of the leaf can point to its cultivation. For example, drinkers cite the evidence of a truly wild old tree in a menthol effect ("camphor" in tea specialist terminology) supposedly caused by the Camphor laurel trees that grow amongst wild tea trees in Yunnan's tea forests. As well, the presence of thick veins and sawtooth-edged on the leaves along with camphor flavor elements and taken as signifiers of wild tea.


Pu’er can be sorted into ten or more grades. Generally, grades are determined by leaf size and quality, with higher numbered grades meaning older/larger, broken, or less tender leaves. Grading is rarely consistent between factories, and first grade tea leaves may not necessarily produce first grade cakes. Different grades have different flavors, and many bricks feature a blend of several grades chosen to balance flavors and strength.


Harvest season also plays an important role in the flavor of Pu’er. Spring tea is the most highly valued, followed by fall tea, and finally summer tea. Only rarely is Pu’er produced in winter months, and often this is what is called "early spring" tea, as harvest and production follows the weather pattern rather than strict monthly guidelines.