Raw Pu’er differs from ripe pu’er because it is not fermented. Raw pu’er is closer to a white or green tea in that it is sun dried and dehydrated almost immediately to keep a fresher, more invigorating aroma and flavor. Though, it is still often classified as a dark tea. You can still taste the raw essence of the tea plant in a raw pu’er. It can sometimes have a bitter taste, depending on the method of infusion, but it should have a floral scent and initial flavor and then finish with a sweet aftertaste. Raw pu’er, when stored correctly, goes through a shelf aging process. This is why it is often tightly pressed into cakes and always designated with a year of production. This pressed cake style maximizes the success of the shelf aging by decreasing the oxygen reaching the inner leaves. It’s also convenient. The older the cake, the more valuable it becomes. The oldest cakes available on the market are worth thousands, sometimes tens of thousands. Ripe pu’er is a style of quickly aging the tea so that it mimics one of these most valuable aged raw pu’er cakes.
Pu’er teas come from the Himalayan foothills in Yunnan Province, in the far south of China. This semi-tropical region is famous for its strong minority cultures as well as its stunning mountains, rivers, valleys, and even wild elephants. Pu’er tea is valued for both its medicinal properties as well as its earthy and floral flavors. The most highly valued pu’er teas come from old-growth trees in the high mountains in the far south of the province. The weather at these high altitudes is ideal from producing very strong, tall, and healthy trees. Most are hundreds of years old, and several are thousands of years old, still producing harvested tea leaves! Tea has set itself apart from other herbal medicines in its ability to help heal and protect the body. It is said that the older the tree, the stronger and healthier the tree. And since the Yunnan people value tea for its ability to nourish the body with its vitality and energy; the older the tree, the more potent its medicinal properties. And since tea is an evergreen, they use the oldest leaves. Most tea regions prefer the fine buds and a softer flavor, but Yunnan has set itself apart in this regard.
The capital city, Kunming, is the heart of the pu’er trade, with tea shops and markets offering all that Yunnan has to offer. If you want to really get a sense of what pu’er is and why it’s so highly valued, you have to trek out to the more isolated regions of the province. Pu’er is produced all the way from the touristy Dali lakeside in the central region to the rugged Xishuangbanna mountains in the south.