In recent years, teas made from the centuries old arbor tea trees (or ancient tea trees) have become highly sought after and are sold at high prices. Tea consumers not only value the organic nature of these teas, they also enjoy the flavor complexity and the energy (qi) offered by them. However, the supply of leaves from the old trees is limited, far less than the demand. To increase supply, a common practice of tea manufacturers is to mix the leaves from the old trees with leaves from the young trees or from the bushes but label them as if the tea is from the old trees. Therefore, the ability to judge the quality of the leaves' source is an important skill to have when buying Pu-erh tea.
In Mengsung, we had a session with Mr. Liu, a local tea manufacturer, to learn clues of how to tell the difference between leaves from the old trees, young trees or mass production hedges. We were instructed to gather leaves from the old trees, young trees and bushes for his inspection. Below are several of the most telling clues. (This section applies to raw Pu-erh only.)
Leaves from the old trees have:
• More prominent side veins.
• More down (silver furs) on the stem and on the bud.
• When you rub the leaves with your fingers, they smell fragrant and floral.
• The leaves are less glossy.
• The stem is more bendable and flexible.
Leaves from the young trees or bushes have:
• Less prominent side veins
• Less hairy down on the stem and on the bud.
• When you rub the leaves with your fingers, the leaves smell grassy.
• The leaves are glossier.
• The stem is stiffer.
Most of us do not buy the fresh leaves and thus would not have the opportunity to judge their type. However, you may apply some of the same clues when you examine the dry tea leaves or the wet leaves.
After you finish brewing the tea, look at the appearance and smell the aroma of the wet leaves.
The wet leaves from the old trees have these characteristics:
• They smell pure, fragrant and delightful.
• The wet leaves are plump and supple.
• The stem is flexible.
The wet leaves from the young trees or bushes share the following characteristics:
• They smell mixed or grassy.
• The leaves and stem are thinner and less flexible. There is a stiff feeling when touched.
Judging the leaf source of Pu-erh tea requires experience and a determination often may not be conclusive. As indicated earlier, many teas that claim to be from ancient trees are mixed with leaves from bushes. Teas made from truly ancient trees are hard to come by and require a trusted producer to employ very strict quality control in their production.
This is not to imply that all Pu-erh tea made from the bushes are inferior teas. However, teas made from bushes do not call for the high prices as do teas made from the old trees. Therefore, knowing the above-described characteristics will hopefully enable consumers to avoid over-paying for their tea purchases.