Monday, September 03, 2012

A Pu-erh Beginner Syllabus

I've been trying to formalize what it is I'm trying to learn and understand about pu-erh. I'm in pursuit of intangible knowledge such as understanding what is great tea. However like in any discipline, there's a rather straight forward list of introductory topics and exercises to get a beginner grounded.   Feel free to chime in and I'll amend this list.  (I can see some Europeans shaking their heads muttering American's are so goal oriented...)

I've left out other important aspects to pu-erh - gong fu brewing, pottery, and history more for simplicity than anything-else.  

Clueless Beginner 
  • Can tell young shu from young sheng by sight and taste.
  • Tasted tea from the Six Famous Mountain regions(Yiwu, Bulang, Nannuo, Jingmai...) 
  • Tasted big factory blends, Menghai, XG, Haiwan
  • Tasted small press wild tree, wild arbor cakes
  • Experienced huigan
  • Some understanding of terms such as huigan, kuwei, shicang, wodui
Intermediate Beginner
  • Experienced and understand which teas have good huigan, huitian, hongyun
  • Tasted most famous regions and subregions and and understand their regional characteristics 
  • Have tried sufficient aged samples 
    • Can detect shicang from scent and taste.
    • Can identify the degree of wet storage from taste 
    • Can tell between aged sheng vs aged shu by taste
  • Producers
    • Know most major factories and their characteristics
    • Know characteristics of different factory recipes
    • Know most significant boutique producers and their characteristics 
  • Recognizes most Chinese characters off wrappers
  • Have read and reread every entry in chadao,, half dipper.
  • Purchasing Prowess
    • Knows how to buy good stuff and not get ripped off.
    • Know how to buy good stuff off of Taobao 
    • Can hone in on the best deal in Yunnan Sourcing's 1000 pu-erh listing in under an hour.
Advanced Beginner
  • Can taste difference between wild tree vs. plantation
  • Can differentiate single mountain characteristics in a blend 
  • Can gauge age of tea by taste
  • Know what mold is safe to drink  
  • Understand what types of cakes will age well from experience

Sigh.  Like a seasoned yixing pot, will I ever get to a stage where I can invoke huigan just by visualizing the leaves?

This stuffed pomelo purported to be from 1993 was one of my first pu-erh purchases made back in 2004.  I didn't even know such a thing as shu or sheng existed back then and I was more than happy to fork over money for the most fragrant and strange tea I had ever laid eyes on. Despite the fact that I overpaid and this isn't the best example of it's kind, this tea really brightened up a dreary winter.     


  1. Can I just suggest that you never show that list to someone starting out! Way too intimidating.... :)

    1. Dear Aewrs,

      Isn't it a good feeling to know that pu-erh holds a lifetime of learning? I take comfort in knowing I'll never reach mastery. I've burned through other food hobbies in mere months but this pu-erh is endless.


    2. Hi Hster,

      Well, I suppose I would ask: if you didn't particularly enjoy drinking pu-erh, would you still be interested in acquiring all the knowledge that you've listed in the post? I'm assuming that it only seemed interesting to start working towards a broader understanding of pu-erh once you found that you really liked drinking it.

      So I guess I'm just trying to say that, for someone starting out, who hasn't had time to get hooked on drinking the stuff, something that looks like a list of required knowledge could be off-putting.

      I like the sport cricket which I think is a bit like baseball in as much as there are lots of historical statistics, data, records, trivia, and other arcane knowledge which lots of fans enjoy accumulating over time but only because they, first and foremost, enjoy watching the sport.

  2. Nice list
    maybe you could add that a beginner should know what are the meanings of expressions such as huigan, kuwei, shicang etc.

    1. Added! Do you think a beginner should just be aware of the logical definition or have fully experienced it?

  3. "Know most boutique producers and their characteristics "

    I guess I'm still an intermediate beginner