Puerh region guide
Puerh is an attention grabbing genre of tea. Puerh is the easiest tea to obsess over: there are many regions, its aging potentially gives way to various storage styles, the taste is alluring and it steeps the longest of any type of tea.
I set out to write a guide about Puerh and its regions: how they taste, age and their special qualities to help draw a bigger picture of this type of tea. Of course, this is extremely tricky for multiple reasons.
In attempting to highlight regional and highly specific townships and their respective identifying flavors and qualities it must be said how slippery and tricky this is.
Puerh is often faked. Tea of another region or town, village and sometimes even country is marked as some of the big names in Yunnan. It is easy to slip in another tea and there are very little regulations as of now. Fake tea does not even mean bad but it does make defining a region, mountain or towns flavor harder to do. ‘Puerh’ from Laos or Burma will have very similar production and growing techniques and the human made border does not impose itself on the outcome of your cup of tea. This does make this guide very tricky: famous villages - places that we especially want to define - is most often faked.
Even in a world where all tea marked as Banzhang tea truly came from Banzhang various productions might not all be similar. There are various growing conditions, processing techniques depending on the person, age of the tree, varietals within the assamica family and so on.
The more famous an area’s tea the harder it is to get that tea into your cup. What might make it in can potentially be of poor quality. This makes it hard to define some of the places in this guide and draw more generalizations as I am working from a smaller pool of my own knowledge as well as the internets.
This guide tries to be upfront that the qualities of each region are fluctuating and not nearly universal as one would hope. Quality will fluctuate between tea grown feet from each other and harvested by the same person. The guide is being written anyways to try and wrangle in a highly interesting subject and share some passionate knowledge and years of tasting.
This guide will be ongoing and constantly updated as more information is learned and insights discovered.
This guide is also helpful to breakdown the three major Puerh growing regions of Yunnan: Xishuangbanna, Lincang and Puerh. Puerh used to be Simao but was renamed Puerh in 2007 by the government to promote the as-of-then-quickly-becoming-fashionable Puerh tea - I will refer to the region as Puerh throughout.
Here is a handy guide for a lot of the places in Yunnan on Google Maps which has circulated in the tea world for a while and originally comes from The Essence of Tea’s owner, David.
In Xishuangbanna - the southernmost region - there is Menghai and Mengla. Menghai and Mengla are highly regarded and have some of the most famous mountains/towns in Yunnan
Menghai is characterized by an aggressive flavor with notable huigan (the return of sweetness up the throat following a bitter flavor) when young and a deep mushroom and wild forest sensibility when aged - while retaining and increasing in huigan from its young age. Besides Bada, it is fair to say that a majority of tea from Menghai will age very well - strength is a decent (not surefire) way to tell if a puerh will age well.
Bulang is home to many famous villages. Bulang is the southernmost mountain in Menghai. Sometimes you see puerh simply labelled as being from Bulang and will share many of the characteristics listed below. Bulang tea additionally will come from smaller and less known pockets of areas than the few listed below. Generally Bulang is fruity, bitter and then sweet like honey usually after swallowing (referred to as huigan). Frequently jammy.
Laobanzhang is the most famous of the famous villages. No one writing this has probably come very close to tasting it and the fleeting moments where maybe it truly was from this village or some was mixed was borne of brief and fleeting circumstances. This tea when young is highly bitter, with flavors of fresh flowers, tropical fruits and watermelon. The texture will be viscous and catch in the throat - almost resisting swallowing. The qi will be penetrating - simultaneously feeling like a sedative and upper. Highly regarded for aging well.
Lao means old, so Xinbanzhang is the new Banzhang. How much this is marketing - trying to cash in on a proximity to the famous village - is harder to say. The flavors will be similar but you aren’t going to find many specifically labelled tea from this area. Fruit is the emphasis again: mango, papaya and similar tropical flavors. People selling the finalized puerh are either going to push the Laobanzhang or might decide on a vaguer descriptor like Bulang.
Lao Man’e is famously some of the most bitter puerh you can drink. Tea from here can also be extremely delicious with strong watermelon flavors, strawberry, lemon peel and a heavy honey taste. The bitterness is usually described as medicinally - very penetrating, mouth puckering while simultaneously relaxing if you are in the mood. The tea is often dense, creamy and oily. High caffeine content seems common and might lead to a sensation of numbing and/or buzzing in the face. Primarily western facing vendors sometimes label their Lao Man’e as being from bitter trees, sweet trees, or a blend. This is probably to put up front the intensity of this area’s puerh and goes to show how material can be affected within a small space.
Aged Lao Man’e is often rich: notes of chocolate, banana, and molasses cookie - think of a good aged rum.
Despite being close to famous villages like Lao Banzhang, Banpen is not talked about much nor sold on its own. A typical fruity, wildflowers taste with lots of caffeine. Much of this tea will go to tea factories also.
A little more mild than the previously listed tea. Hekai will still be bitter, very spicy, creamy and have a honey sweetness. Spice will be reminiscent of savory cooking herbs like clove and star anise to night time flowers like chrysanthemum and chamomile.
Bada is an outlying mountain in the west of Menghai. It is known to have a plantation owned by the Menghai Tea Factory - who produce puerh with aggressive character typically intended to age. Bada is not seen much outside of the Menghai Tea Factory’s blend (and it is up to guessing to know how much may be in a recipe or not) and alone it is grassy and bitter but will age smooth and woody, if not insipid. Like a lot of Menghai tea there will be some flavors of citrus and other fruits.
Pasha is another area which has a major tea factory - Haiwan - with plantations in the area. Haiwan Tea Factory is considerably smaller than Menghai and Pasha is less famous than many of the surrounding areas. Young this tea has a bitter flavor, notable oily texture and lots of wildflowers like a nice honey. Aged tea from this area can veer into dry fruits, spices like cardamon, and savory herbs.
Mengsong produces well balanced tea: fruity, flowery, sweet offset with astringency. Lots of citrus and mint while being sweeter and less bitter than surrounding areas.
Naka is a famous village in Mengsong. This tea has a reputation as a heavy hitter, slightly different than more southern mountains and towns in Bulang. Often coniferous, chocolatey and densely thick. A heavy hitter in both bitterness, flavor and body feeling. Multiple productions in the west have earned a reputation for having psychosomatic effects similar to being stoned - mostly found in aged tea.
Nannuo will have a strong fragrance of herbs, florals and sticky rice. Usually a malty and cereal-like base. Well renowned villages include Bama and Banpozhai.
Six Famous Mountains
The Six Famous Mountains in Yiwu (there is a specific mountain named Yiwu to make things a little confusing) have long produced famous puerh. So famous, that most of these areas made tribute tea for the Emperor of China. Teas from this area are typically sweet and soft. They are often regarded for their deep strength which leads to potentially well aged tea, despite their soft character.
Youle is the furthest west mountain putting it in the closest proximity of Menghai than the other five. This does affect the teas character: it is stronger and more astringent than the others.
Fruity and dense, maple syrup balanced with dry florals like chrysanthemum.
Typically fruity with pineapple and papaya.
Deeply sweet like molasses. Overall a deep tasting Yiwu tea. Wood, earth, soil with long lasting floral notes. A lot happening at the bottom of the registry here, like the bass instruments in an orchestra. Intensely fruity and typically light to medium astringency.
Strong sugar flavors. A classic puerh profile. Sweet and grassy when young, these teas will be pleasing, last for many steeps and age will into aromatic woods and deeply honeyed fruit.
Gua Feng Zhai
A recurring theme of Yiwu teas is a sense of being surrounded by a dense forest. They taste herbaceous, mushroomy and something that is hard to put into words - misty, ethereal. Generally, this sensation comes up in many high quality puerh examples and is probably a marker of older trees. But Yiwu consistently give these feelings better than other areas and Gua Feng Zhai in particular is a good example of this. From most vendors, this is very expensive, premium tea and a good vendor will have something legitimate or most likely close by from old trees, at the least.
Usually complex. Honey, fruits, flowers and deep camphor/various sweet greens. Never tasted this tea with age nor read or heard about it.
Wangong rose in popularity in the west very quickly earlier this decade. Tastes like orchids and bananas. Very sweet, very smooth. Definitely good to age.
Luo Shui Dong
Sweet, pleasant and very round. Reportedly good to age.
Focus on texture, with a heavy, syrupy body. Tastes like raisins and other dried fruit along with aromatic wood. Ages very well.
Full of small leaf variety trees. Sometimes small leaf varieties are associated with wild tea; teas that have been left to grow without human intervention. Not all wild trees are small leaf and vice versa but the above distinction is generally stated. Some associate small leaf trees with a calming and pleasing mental state. Also, Yibang will have non-small leaf varieties too.
Typically these teas register in the higher range. Bright florals, pure white sugar like sheet cake frosting and light apricot flavors.
Usually thick in a buttery way. Usually sweet, with flavors of sweet grass. Overall light but a good example will be long lasting in flavor and ageability.
Lincang is the northernmost region of the three common Puerh growing regions. It is definitely a very fun one. Lincang puerh often presents a broad spectrum of flavor. Some can remind me of a Rosé wine: flavors of lime and stone fruit with a bracing minerality. Some teas will be gloopy and sweet. A descriptor often thrown around is dense.
Xiaguan Tea Factory gets much of its material from here. Other than Xiaguan, there are not many examples of old Lincang specific cakes. We can presume from the well known example of aged Xiaguan tea that a lot of this areas tea will age will.
Lincang is a very popular source for many puerh vendors in the west. Lincang has been slower to see the puerh boom that Xishuangbanna was the epicenter of. Because of this, the price is lower while the quality is arguably equal.
Mengku will often err on the rose sides of things. Very interesting acidity and minerality dance around when tasting. Will be densely sweet like brown sugar without being cloying. Usually a very floral tea with flavors like rosemary and lavender.
Translating to Ice Island, Bingdao has it near Laobanzhang and Guafengzhai levels of popularity. Maybe Ice Island invokes this, but Bingdao teas are often cooling. Sweet and gloopy with characteristics described above. Lots of dried fruit and floral notes to balance everything out. Will definitely age well.
Bangdong is both a village and a county. Thick, jammy and very sweet. More astringent than bitter (astringent is more texture versus bitter as a flavor). These teas often have a cooling, camphorous aftertaste.
Rich with tropical fruits. Very noticeably bitter at first quickly shifting to sweet with a cooling aftertaste.
Heavy, refined teas. Strong, head rush of energy. Dark brown sugar flavor like maple syrup or caramel.
Lots of mushroom and vanilla wood based flavors. Often tea from here is made into black tea.
Typically straightforward and sweet. Lemon and pure, white sugar like castor are very common flavors.
Stronger tasting than the broader Yongde county, Mangfei (a city) is typically great tea.
With strong energy, this sweet tea is sure to stun. Oily, rich and fruity Daxueshan teas can definitely age.
Yun, Linxiang, Gengma, Zhenkang
Unfortunately, there is very little information on these counties and their puerh tea. I am inclined to say that there is puerh coming from here seeing how they all neighbor puerh growing counties. But who is to say how much big factories tea like Xiaguan and Shuangjiang Mengku get tea from these counties.
Maybe there just is not much to be said about puerh from here, or these counties really do not farm puerh. But if there is puerh I am sure it is noteworthy and worthy of entries in this guide. If so, this shows the limits of puerh knowledge, especially in the west. Keeping in mind that the puerh craze was slower to start in Lincang than in Xishuangbanna these regions are most likely still being ‘discovered’ by hobbyists.
Hopefully these regions could be expanded on.
Also hard to find information on. I do recall seeing a few different examples of ripe puerh that claimed to be from here though. Maybe that suggests that there is a lot blending going on in this region and the name is not being called out just because it is not known, but its a portion of your Bingdao cake for instance.