Traditional Pu-erh teas are allowed to ferment slowly over a period of 10 – 50 years. As the teas age the flavor improves. Because of the long aging process, this type of Pu-erh called Sheng or raw Pu-erh can be quite costly. In the 1970s a new variety of Pu-erh called Shou or cooked Pu-erh was developed. The Shou variety is rapidly fermented over the course of 1½ to 2 months. It is less expensive than the Sheng variety. Because it has been fermented rapidly, it is meant to be enjoyed immediately and need not be aged.
Withering: Traditionally, after picking, the tea leaves are laid out in the sun to wither. Alternately, they may be withered on racks in a heated room.
Heating: The withered leaves are then heated in round-bottomed pans for a few minutes. They may also be heated a second time after rolling.
Rolling: The leaves are rolled to help expose the flavorful and aromatic oils within as well as give them shape. This may be done by hand on bamboo mats or by machine. The leaves may be rolled a second time after a second heating.
Drying: The tea leaves are then dried either by machine or by placing the leaves in the sun.
If a Pu-erh tea is to be the raw Sheng variety, the leaves may now be sorted and compressed into cakes. The compression traditionally is done by steaming the leaves to make them pliable, wrapping them in cloth and pressing them under a stone weight. This process may also be done by machine. The cakes are then left to ferment.
If a Pu-erh tea is to be the cooked Shou variety, the leaves will now be rapidly fermented. They are first moistened and covered with cloth, then exposed to heat and high humidity. This will last for 1½ to 2 months, and the leaves will be turned during the process. After fermentation, the leaves are sorted to remove any unfermented pieces. Finally, they will be compressed into cakes. In the case of our Pu-erh Tuo Cha, the cakes are shaped like little bird’s nests.