Purple Puer – Wild vs. Cultivated Comparison Tasting

Obtained: purchased from Yunnan Craft and Yunnan Sourcing

Intro

First things first: what is purple puer?

It’s more or less what it sounds like – puer tea leaves with a purplish tint. The purple color comes from anthocyanin, a chemical component in many purple-hued fruits and vegetables, and naturally occurs in some varieties of tea plants.

Purple tea can more or less be divided into two subgroups: seed propagated and cultivar grown.

Seed propagated tea plants vary genetically from plant to plant. Because of this variation, some plants may display leaves with hues other than green. In the case of seed propagated purple hued tea, the purple color most often appears on the young buds and disappears as the leaf grows larger. This type of purple tea is called zi ya 紫芽 (purple bud).

Purple cultivars are tea plants that have been either selected from purple seed grown plants, or bred for their purple hue. Since cultivars are propagated through cuttings, each plant is a clone of the original tea plant used to cultivate the line. Without genetic variation between plants, specific traits – in this case, a purple color – are amplified.

While there are a number of purple cultivars, Zi Juan 紫娟 (purple leaf) is perhaps the most famous and intensely purple.

In this comparison, I will explore the differences between two seed propagated “wild” zi ya purple puer teas and two purple puer made from the Zi Juan cultivar.

Meet the Teas

2018 Zi Juan (from Yunnan Craft) – tai di cha (plantation tea); picked Spring 2018 in Si Mao area and stored for a year. Loose leaf.

2019 Zi Juan (from Yunnan Craft) – tai di cha (plantation tea); picked Spring 2019 in Si Mao area. Loose leaf.

2014 Dehong yeshengcha raw puer cake (from Yunnan Sourcing) – picked Sping 2014 in Dehong area. Pressed into cakes.

2019 Purple Pig wild tree purple tea cake (from Yunnan Sourcing) – picked Sping 2019 in Dehong area. Pressed into cakes.

I specifically chose tea pairs that were picked in the same area but differed in vintage. In doing so, I hope to also explore the aging differences between Zi Juan and Zi Ya teas.

Moving on to the dry leaves.

The Zi Juan and Zi Ya teas look drastically different. Part of this difference stems from the fact that the Zi Ya teas have been pressed into cakes while the Zi Juan teas are loose leaf – leaving them with a delicate, wiry look.

In terms of sheer purple-ness, the Zi Juan teas are the clear winner. The leaves are an almost uniform deep dark grey-purple. As expected, the Zi Ya teas show much more color variation. This is likely because the bud is the only purple part of Zi Ya teas.

Due to the obvious differences between these two groups, I’m quite confident I can tell them apart in a blind tasting. The only difficult part will be figuring out the vintage – in particular, the 2018 and 2019 Zi Juan teas seem very similar.

The Test

I’ve designed this page so that you can follow along with the tasting using pictures and graphics to represent aspects of each tea. Some graphics have extra information in a drop down box underneath. You’ll have to trust my judgement when it comes to relaying this information correctly. But even with that caveat, I hope there’s enough information that you can form your own opinion.

The parameters for this tasting were:

– 2.5g of each tea in an identical 100ml porcelain tasting set. The tasting sets were marked on the bottom with the name of the tea, and the tea was placed into the corresponding set. These sets were blindly mixed and filled with water, and then marked with a letter on top. The tea liquor was poured out into a cup marked with the same letter.

– each tea steeped for six minutes with 98C reverse osmosis water with pink rock salt added.

Can you determine which teas are whick via the tasting note hints below? My guesses and the actual answers are in a couple of drop down boxes near the bottom of this page.

LIQUOR

A

purple_puer_A

Bright
orange yellow. Clear. Funky meaty umami scent.

B

purple_puer_B

Reddish orange. Rather clear. Fresh veggie scent, like cracking open a fresh green bean from the garden.

C

purple_puer_C

Strange purple red. Mostly clear. Deeper, richer vegetable scent than B. Eggplant perhaps?

D

purple_puer_D

Bright yellow. Mostly clear. Funky yesheng (wild tea) scent.

AROMA

A

jackfruit_then_smoke_aroma

Front is that funky yesheng scent, like pickled fruits, or jackfruit. Fades to a hint of smoke.

B

green_beans_then_pomelo_aroma

Fresh green beans. Later, aroma changes to bright citrus (pomelo, grapefruit).More intense than C. Yesheng aroma (I associate it with pickled fruits/veggies) faintly creeps into the aftertaste.

C

eggplant_sugarcane_aroma

Mellow vegetable taste. Eggplant with fresh sugar cane. Has the mildest hints of that yesheng taste in the aftertaste.

D

pickled_veggie_jackfruit_smoke_aroma

Strong yesheng notes – pickled veggies and funky fruits (jackfruit). Some smoke later on.

FLAVOR

A

sweet and umami

Sweet/umami.

B

sweet

Sweet.

C

sweet

Sweet.

D

sweet-sour

Sweet/sour.

TEXTURE

A

oily_texture

Oily with an umami richness.

B

soft drying texture

Soft, but with a building astringency.

C

soft suede texture

Soft with light astringency.

D

soft texture

Soft.

BODY

A

medium full body

B

medium body

C

medium body

D

medium body

BALANCE

A

Yesheng aroma is more balanced than D, but still overwhelms texture/flavor.

B

The pleasant building astringency pushes the balance a bit towards texture.

C

Quite balanced. Mellow and refined. Slightly skewed towards texture due to lightly compounding astringency.

D

Yesheng aroma overtakes most other aspects of the tea.

The Reveal

Spoiler alert! Don’t click the buttons below until you have finalized your guesses about which tea is which.

A: 2014 Dehong Yeshengcha. A rich oily texture and moderate yesheng notes. These manifest here as lightly smoky jackfruit instead of intense wild fruits.
 
B: 2019 Zi Juan. Crisp, garden fresh green bean aroma that changes quickly to a bright grapefruit/citrus note. This tea is doubtless a cousin of C with its vegetable sweetness and tannic astringency, but with much more zesty aromas.
 
C: 2018 Zi Juan. A mellow autumn vegetable seeetness. Less green, more eggplant, squash. Sweet and mild with a surprisingly purple-ish liquor. Tannic after a few sips but never overwhelmingly so.
 
D: 2019 Purple Pig wild tree. The mid-bright notes of pickled wild fruits that mark yesheng teas (at least that’s how I interpret it!) there’s not much to the texture at the moment, and whatever’s there is overpowered by that strong yesheng flavor!

A – 2014 Dehong Yeshengcha

B – 2018 Zi Juan

C – 2019 Zi Juan

D – 2019 Purple Pig wild tree

Conclusion

Cultivar matters. But does “purple”?

Those readers who have tried yesheng (“wild”) teas will likely understand what I mean when I mentioned “that yesheng taste/aroma” in my tasting notes above. It is certainly not the case that all wild tree teas taste the same, and yet there is a very distinctive flavor that seems to predominate many yesheng teas. (Maybe the blend of genetically varied trees just even out to this flavor?)

At any rate, for both Zi Ya wild purple teas (the 2014 Dehong yesheng and the 2019 Purple Pig yesheng), there was little I could definitively say tasted “purple” versus just typical yesheng flavor. I did make a note that after the 2014 Dehong had cooled to room temperature there was a fresh green bean aroma quite similar to that in the 2018 Zi Juan tea.

Purple? Wild purple tea, or Zi Ya, is typically only purple at the buds. Given that most puer is picked at a one bud/two leaves standard (and that the purple color may fade after processing), the green color of the Zi Ya teas isn’t surprising.

The Zi Juan cultivar teas, on the other hand, had hints of that yesheng aroma but were much more refined – no doubt due to the use of a single cultivar instead of a blend of strains like the Zi Ya.

Besides a hint of yesheng aroma, they shared a fresh garden vegetable scent (the smell from cracking open a fresh green bean or pea pod), sweetness, and noticeable astringency. It’s likely these aspects are characteristics of the cultivar.

But does the purple-tinted component, anythocyanin, add anything to the drinking experience?

According to this source, anthocyanin is reported to be astringent. This can perhaps account for the astringency in the intensely purple Zi Juan teas, but lack thereof in the green Zi Ya teas.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Eustacia

    How fascinating! I haven’t heard of purple puer before, but now I really want to find some. Thanks for such an informative post!

    1. formfollowstea

      Thanks for commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and hope you find some good purple tea to try in the future!

  2. Peter

    Hello

    I am interested to hear that you added pink salt. In what quantity or do you just to pop in a pinch? As I only have access to RO water I was also doing this for a while. I then read a couple of blog posts about making “fake mineral water” and one mentioned that adding salt had negative consequences for the brewed tea.

    1. formfollowstea

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for reading, and great question! I typically add enough pink salt to get the TDS of my water around 90 ppm. I’ve done this enough that I can eyeball it, but if measuring it’s < 0.1g salt per liter RO water.

      I’ve yet to upgrade to making my own mineral water, but am hoping to give it a try at some point. There really is no better way to make better tea than using better water. As far as salt having negative consequences for brewing tea, I’d take that with a grain of…salt 😉

      Before I started reviewing teas for this blog, I did a number of blind comparison tests tasting the same tea made with a variety of waters I had easily accessible to me: straight tap water, filtered tap water, straight RO water, and RO water plus pink salt at various ppm (~30, ~90, ~150). I preferred the water with salt added in all cases. Living in the US, the tap water tends to be quite hard (TDS >250 ppm, even filtered with typical carbon filters leaves TDS around 150 ppm), producing a tea with muted top notes and sometimes even forming a skim on top of the tea. Straight RO water can emphasis bright aromas but tends to give tea a thin body and off-putting metallic taste. Adding a little salt is the quickest, easiest way I’ve found to balance out my water profile without going the full way to making fake mineral water.

      It’s also easy to just add less salt if I want to emphasis aroma, or a little more if I want the tea to have denser body. But of course, this is all quite subjective and your mileage may vary. Best to test things out and see what works for you!

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