Same material, different processing – tasting sheng and shou puer

Intro

Most readers of this blog are likely familiar with the broad difference between the sheng and shou processing styles. Put (over)simply, sheng puer is processed like a green tea but without de-activating all the enzymes within the leaves. These enzymes, along with bacteria/fungi remaining on the outside of the leaves, allow sheng puer to oxidize/ferment over time.

Shou puer is the product of an artificial process meant to mimic the taste of aged sheng puer. This is accomplished by wet piling and inoculation of the tea leaves with fungi cultures.

This unique process creates a drastic change in the base leaf material – what might once have been a vegetal, green taste in fresh sheng puer could become earthy, woody, even medicinal as shou. And that’s exactly why the ability to compare the same material as sheng and shou puer is so exciting.

The Challenge

In this blind tasting of two sheng and two shou puer teas, the challenge is to match each sheng to the shou made from the same material.

In doing so, I hope to answer this question: Are there notable characteristics in the sheng (aromas, textures, flavors) that persist even after being processed as shou?

I’ve represented my tasting notes from this blind comparison graphically and hidden the answers near the bottom of the page so that you can make your own conclusions about which tea is which. Certainly, nothing beats trying and tasting for yourself, but I’d like to think this is the next best thing!

Meet the Teas

All four teas are from Teaside, a vendor specialized in Thai teas. As such, while the teas are not technically “puer” (puer being a regional appellation applied only teas of the type from Yunnan Province, China), I will follow the vendor’s lead and refer to them as such. (Saying “puer-like” gets old after awhile.)

2013 Myanmar Purple Leaf Sheng Puer: Spring harvest, old trees.

      —“Idle Buffalo” Shou Puer: Fermented in Nov. 2018, made from the above sheng puer.

2018 Thai Sheng Puer: Spring harvest, old trees.

      —“Raspberry Black Pine” Shou Puer: Fermented in Sept. 2018, made from the above sheng puer.

Let’s inspect the dry leaves:

The most obvious difference between the leaves lies in the distinction between sheng and shou puer. The top row of teas (sheng) have larger, more intact leaves with more variation in colors than their shou counterparts.

Of the two sheng teas, the 2013 is notably darker (probably indicating age) and appears to be mostly a single large leaf pick. The 2018 sheng is variegated with a standardized one bud two leaves pick. The scent of the 2013 tea is dry hay/autumn leaves, whereas that of the 2018 is fruity with some spice notes.

The difference in appearance between the shou teas lies in color and shape. The Idle Buffalo shou appears much darker. The pieces of leaf are much larger than those of the Raspberry Black Pine shou, reflecting differences in the base material. It’s possible that the older, larger leaves of the 2013 sheng are tougher than the tender buds of the 2018 sheng and thus maintain their integrity better during the shou fermentation process.

At this point, I’m unsure that I will be able to match the profile of each shou to its corresponding sheng during a blind taste test. But it wouldn’t be called a “challenge” if it were easy! Read on for my tasting notes from the session.

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 match the sheng and shou teas made from the same material 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

LiquorA

Yellow gold. Light and buttery scent. 

B

LiquorB

Darkest of all. Can’t see the bottom of the cup. Sweet rich scent.

C

LiquorC

Dark red/purple. Brighter, light scent.

D

LiquorD
Copper orange.  Only tea that’s slightly hazy. Deep, rich scent.

AROMA

A

metallic_pineapple_aroma

All aromas are very forward in the mouth. First is a bright metallic note, followed by an aftertaste of tropical fruit/pineapple.

B

metallic_and_pineapple_aroma

Very bright notes for a shou. Faint metallic notes with a pineapple aroma underneath.

C

brown_sugar_then_blackberries_aroma

Brown sugar with a light blackberry note in the aftertaste.

D

dry_wood_then_vanilla_aroma

Dry wood followed by a faint vanilla-like aroma.

FLAVOR

A

sweet and bitter flavor

Sweet with a hint of bitterness underneath.

B

sweet

Sweet.

C

sweet

Sweet.

D

umami_and_sweet

Umami upfront with sweetness underneath.

TEXTURE

A

metallic watery texture

Metallic; a bit watery.

B

metallic watery texture

Hints of metallic texture; mostly watery.

C

watery texture

Watery.

D

oily watery texture

Oily but also a bit watery.

BODY

A

medium light body

B

light body

C

medium light body

D

medium light body

BALANCE

A

The metallic texture overtakes the nuances of aroma/flavor.

B

The metallic note comes through strongly in this tea, but is tempered a bit by the sweet flavor.

C

Rather light tea in all regards. Leans a bit more towards flavor.

D

More balanced than the others. Just slightly tends towards flavor/aroma.

The Reveal

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

A: 2018 Thai sheng. This tea has a powerful profile that reminds me of the taste left in the mouth after eating pineapple – a bitter/sweetness tinged with a metallic note.
 
B: Raspberry Black Pine Shou (made from 2018 Thai sheng). This shou also has a bright pineapple-esque fruity sweetness with a hint of the same metallic texture that was in tea A. Hence why I think this shou was made from tea A.
 
C: Idle Buffalo Shou (made from 2013 Myanmar sheng). This tea boasts a brown sugar sweetness with a light mouthfeel. Hints of fruitiness in the early aftertaste remind me of tea B, but with more balance.
 
D: 2013 Myanmar purple leaf sheng. The gentle umami wood notes tell me that this tea is the more aged sheng of the two. The overall weight of the tea in the mouth is quite light and it lacks the metallic notes of tea A and B, leading me to believe that tea C is the shou made from this material.
A: 2018 Thai sheng.
 
B: Raspberry Black Pine Shou (made from 2018 Thai sheng).
 
C: Idle Buffalo Shou (made from 2013 Myanmar sheng).
 
D: 2013 Myanmar sheng.

Conclusion

In response to the question I posed before beginning this tasting (are there characteristics in the sheng that persist after being processed as shou?), the answer appears to be a resounding yes and no.

It seems possible to pick out some notes from the base material after it’s processed into shou, but there’s no guarantee that the notes will transfer, either.

As an example of the former, the strong metallic texture of the 2018 Thai sheng also appeared in the shou made from it, though it was weaker. On the other hand, the soft earthy umami of the 2013 Myanmar sheng was nowhere to be found in the shou it became! Instead, new fruity notes appear against a deeper profile. If I had drank these out of context, I never would have guessed that both teas were made from the same base material.

Were you able to pair up the sheng and shou teas? Have you done a similar tasting of sheng and shou made from the same material, and if so were you able to pick out commonalities? Let me know in the comments!

Leave a Reply