Ripe pu’er was developed as a way to mimic the taste of a shelf-aged raw pu’er. Shelf-aged raw pu’er teas are highly valued for their exquisitely aged and earthy flavors. Unfortunately, it takes decades or more for this process to achieve the desired flavors in a raw pu’er, and in recent years demand has far outgrown the availability of these genuinely old cakes. Ripe pu’er is the solution to this problem. It is a classic dark tea in that it follows the piling and fermentation styles developed for Tibetan tea. You could almost consider it a controlled composting, and each region has developed its own style of tea aging. These processes bring out very unique flavors that instantly remind one of the fresh earth from whence the tea came. It has a mild and very earthy flavor to it, adding to its value as a potent herbal medicine. Ripe pu’er also increases in value as it shelf ages, so you will most often see it pressed into cake form just as raw pu’er is. This helps to limit oxidation of the inner leaves and allow for a steady aging. The oldest ripe pu’er cakes are from the early 1970s. Raw pu’er producers visited with the masters of Tibetan tea in Sichuan Province and learned how to artificially, yet naturally age their leaves in a similar process. These oldest ripe pu’er cakes are nearly priceless, and they command a very high price because of the high demand for pu’er teas within China.
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.