Purple Puer – Wild vs. Cultivated Comparison Tasting
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.
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.
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.
Spoiler alert! Don’t click the buttons below until you have finalized your guesses about which tea is which.
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.