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Ripe pu-erh tea (or shou pu'er) is the go-to introductory aged tea for many tea drinkers. However, even those who have been enjoying pu-erh for years do not realize that there are two types of pu-erh teas: raw and ripe. We explain the 5 key differences between the two pu-erh teas in 3 minutes in this article.
Producing both ripe and raw pu-erh (or sheng pu’er) begins with the same set of steps: the leaves are harvested, withered, pan-fried or steamed, rolled, sun-dried, and aged. The type of aging process employed determines whether the pu-erh is considered raw or ripe. Raw pu-erh is simply pressed into tea cakes, then aged in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. Raw pu-erh can be aged upwards of 50 years or more. Younger raw pu-erh is aged anywhere from a few months to a few years, whereas aged pu-erh is generally aged anywhere from a decade to upwards of 50 years or more.
Unlike raw pu-erh, ripe pu-erh goes through an accelerated aging process. In this process called wet-piling, the loose tea leaves are piled and sprayed with water then left to ferment in a hot (around 150℉ or 65℃), humid space for 2-7 weeks. The exact length of time depends on the preferences of the producer. Afterward, the tea is pressed into tea cakes and dried. This process mimics the aging and fermentation processes of raw pu-erh, but over a much shorter period.
The production of raw pu-erh dates back to the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). Merchants would pack tea into compressed bricks to make them easier to transport. Due to the long distances and difficult terrain, it would often be months and sometimes years before the tea reached its destination. People began to notice that as the tea aged, it became smoother, richer, and significantly less bitter. The resulting tea became highly sought after and eventually was reserved only for royalty.
In comparison, the creation of ripe pu-erh is a recent phenomenon. When the demand for pu-erh in Hong Kong peaked in the 1950s, farmers began to experiment with accelerating the aging process to meet the demand. By the 1970s, farmers perfected this accelerated aging process and ripe pu-erh was born.
3. Range of flavors
Raw pu-erh has a wider range of flavors than ripe pu-erh. Young raw pu-erh has grassy, bittersweet, and floral characteristics. As the microbial fermentation progress and the raw pu-erh ages, its flavor profile changes drastically. It loses bitterness, develops body, and increases in complexity. The resulting aged raw pu-erh is smooth and earthy.
Ripe pu-erh is generally closer to aged raw pu-erh in flavor because it goes through the accelerated aging process. However, the range of flavor offered by ripe pu-erh is narrower than raw pu-erh.
4. Aging Potential
High-quality pu-erh teas develop flavor and complexity over time; however, they do not age forever. After a certain point, the flavor development will begin to plateau. For example, raw pu-erh has an aging potential of 40-60 years. In contrast, ripe pu-erh has an aging potential of about 20 years because it has already undergone the accelerated aging process.
Although the type of pu-erh is not the only factor determining the price, ripe pu-erh is generally the less expensive option. Ripe pu-erh and young raw pu-erh take less time to produce, whereas aged raw pu-erh can take over a decade to age.
Keep in mind that the specific terroir, age of tea tree, vintage, and storage conditions matter more when it comes to pu-erh price.
Compare Raw vs Ripe Pu-erh for yourself
With our Taste of First Step tea sampler, you will be able to compare young raw pu-erh, aged raw pu-erh, and ripe pu-erh. Try them for yourself to taste the differences and find your favorite tea.
Mansa Tea is a handcrafted aged tea company that specializes in aged teas, tea experiences, and education for modern connoisseurs. We aim to elevate tea experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury hotels so that tea enthusiasts can taste aged tea at its peak as part of their fine dining experience.
This article is just one part of the Mansa Tea Education blog series. Subscribe to our newsletter to become a tea connoisseur.