Continuing on my current curiosity regarding ripe pu’er, here is a piece published last month (April 2018) discussing fermentation levels. As usual, some liberties were taken in translation, but I do my best to remain as true to original content as possible when translating over.
Different levels of fermentation: What’s the difference?
We all know that ripe pu’er tea undergoes wet-piling fermentation, but different levels of fermentation are not the same; Every degree of fermentation holds it’s own unique qualities. So what are those differences and how do they present themselves in teas? Let’s take a look.
To an older generation of fermentation masters, tea below 70% fermentation doesn’t even fit into the definition of ripe tea. Teas fermented over 90% belong within the domain of heavy fermentation levels, so by these numbers, to these masters, 70% fermentation counts as the starting point for light fermentation. Light fermentation produces a comparatively lighter color: a more brownish hue in leaves, resembling in many ways the leaves of a raw tea that has been aged 10 or so years. The fermentation taste is lighter, the tea still carries some bitterness with it, and it is absent of the more familiar mellow and smooth notes of a more heavily fermented ripe tea. This lighter level of fermentation compares well to a not-yet-fully ripened apple in that it still has some raw bitterness and youthful green quality but will preserve through it’s aging a more characteristic flavor and fragrance.
There are relatively few lightly fermented ripes on the market – basically, most of these productions are trying to capture a higher-end collector niche. Some companies used to push some teas around 50% fermentation, but there are some controversies about the flavor being somewhat unusual.
Achieving 90% and higher degree of fermentation is where teas become recognized as heavily fermented. The simplest way to understand heavy fermentation is to consider the teas in this category as fully ripened. Essentially, there is very little substance left that can transform through aging. Leaves are generally a very dark black or brown color, and carbonization of the material is very apparent. Heavy fermentation generously ramps up a tea’s level of sweetness. Teas are generally very viscous and thick, but they often lose some of the liveliness of lower fermentation levels and may carry some charcoal-like flavor. Because of this, their drinkability and smoothness are lacking. Early on, loose leaf ripes often used heavy fermentation to pursue an advantage in texture and taste, but these teas have very little left to offer in terms of room to age, and very few people choose these teas now.
Moderate fermentation is currently the most commonly accepted ideal fermentation method. It allows teas to achieve the sweetness and thickness of a more heavily fermented tea but doesn’t have to sacrifice the liveliness and huigan commonly associated with lighter fermentation. Moderate fermentation aims to simultaneously possess unadulterated aged-fragrance while avoiding the shortcomings of heavy and light fermented ripes; however, there are very few individuals who hold the golden ticket that is a competent understanding of refined moderate fermentation in the palm of their hand. This mastery over the fermentation craft is possessed by but a handful of masters, due to the required years of experience needed to truly gain proficiency.
What decides the aging value of ripe teas?
Lightly fermented ripes are ideal for collecting and storing, while heavily fermented teas are ideal for immediate drinking, right? This may not always be the case! There are multiple factors that consider the actual aging-potential and value of a given tea. One certainly is the level of fermentation, but other factors to consider are the original quality of materials used, as well as the storage the tea will be subject to following production.
How is high grade ripe tea refined?
First, material must be strictly selected, considering even the earlier steps of a maocha’s production. One must demand high-standards in the processing of material, sha-qing and rolling process, followed by precise control of fermentation. There must also be ingenuity and craftsmanship in the planning of controlling blending and the environment of the tea. Final steps of pressing and connecting through to packaging must also be meticulous. Only through making sure that all steps are interlocked diligently, with the attitude of improvement at heart, can fine quality ripes be found.
There was a section of this article discussing probiotic/health benefits of ripe pu’er. I left it out as I felt it didn’t hold much relevance to the main ideas of the article.