Pu’er: “Raw” or “Cooked”?
What is a “raw” puer?
Puer (formally Pu'er) teas that have not undergone a proper post-fermentation process are now labelled as "raw" puer. The word "raw" is a transliteration of the Chinese word for "sheng". As an adjustive, the word means not cooked, not ripened, or alive. The word was initially used in the expression "shengcha" to refer to the dried tea leaves that were meant to go through further processing, such as steaming for compressing or post-fermentation for darkening.
Shengcha, maocha and crude tea
In the work flow of tea processing, all pre-finished leaves are referred to as maocha. Maocha is sometimes translated as crude tea, same idea as the word crude in crude oil. However, this is a conceptually misleading translation, so let's stick to the expression maocha in this site. Maocha and shengcha are two terms for nearly the same thing. The difference is that maocha is defining the tea from the tea processing perspective, while shengcha from a consuming perspective. There is also a subtle difference: shengcha can be sorted and properly dried while maocha mostly isn't.
ALL varieties of traditionally produced teas undergo a state of being maocha. A maocha is usually consumed in the production area to save finishing work. The direct, pre-finished taste of maocha has substantial influence in the present styles of a few tea varieties, notably shengcha puer and green style anxi oolongs such as tieguanyin, the "rawness" of which had not been in the retail market three decades ago. These two "raw" teas are, however, a world apart, but we'll focus in puer in this feature. <read: Tieguanyin>
And "qing" cha?
In the case of puer, the term "qing cha" was also used for what is shengcha. The word "qing" is used very frequently in the Chinese tea trade referring to the "rawness" of the tea. For example, leaves plucked from the tea bushes are called "cha qing"; wilting of the tealeaves is called "shai qing"; when a tea is not properly processed and tastes raspy with grass taste, it is "chou qing" — "the stink of raw grass"; etc. That is why "shengcha" discuses are sometimes referred to as "qing" bing(1).
In Chinese, the term "qing" refers also to a colour that most would think of green. However, it is important to understand that genuine "qing cha" puer is NOT a green tea. Coincidently, oolongs are sometimes referred to as "qing" cha, but this similarity of the name for the two different tea categories is beyond the scope of this feature, so we shall leave it till another day.
So what really is a puer tea?
Let's come back to the "raw" tea we've been discussing. This shengcha puer is meant to undergo either a "post-fermentation" or a "natural post-fermentation" before it is consumed. That is why it is "raw", so to speak. <continue on next page>
1. Bing is the pinyin romanization for the Chinese word for things that are discus shape. A cookie, a peta bread, a pizza, a discus etc are all "bing". Very often one may see the English term "cake tea" or "tea cake" to refer to a discus of compressed tea. The Chinese word for "cake" is romanized as "gao", referring to steamed or baked goods that are soft, spongy, moist, jelly or mousse like. A discus of tea in Chinese is a "cha bing". Therefore, the often misused term of cake tea or tea cake is not employed in this site, and the term tea discus is in place. The English term tea cake also has its own meaning so the confusion should not be in existence in the first place. <read: Compressed tea>
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