Puerh Tea: Shou versus Sheng

What Differentiates the Two Main Types of Puerh Tea?

Puerh tea
Tea Tea/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

If you've ever drunk puerh tea in the West, it was probably shou puerh tea. Known for its dark, rich flavor and its health benefits, shou tea is a fermented type of tea produced from large-leaf tea plants in Yunnan, China.

Puerh tea can be confusing. It's considered to be a type of tea, but really, it's two types of tea: sheng and shou. So what's the difference?

Shou tea is differentiated from sheng puerh in that it is fermented before it is packaged, compressed or sold for consumption.

(You can learn about the fermentation process in "Shou Tea Production", below.) Sheng tea is drunk either 'young' or 'aged', and it ferments naturally over time (given the right conditions... see "Aging Sheng Puerh" below for more info).

The whole sheng-shou thing can be extra confusing because there are a lot of synonyms for each out there. Here are a few:

Shou Puerh Synonyms

  • shou tea
  • ripe tea
  • cooked puerh
  • ripened puerh
  • finished puerh
  • shou pu-erh
  • shou pu'er
  • shou puer
  • shou pu er

Sheng Puerh Synonyms

  • sheng tea
  • unripe tea
  • raw tea
  • mao cha
  • unripened puerh
  • aged puerh (if aged)
  • young puerh (if not aged)
  • sheng pu-erh
  • seng pu'er
  • sheng puer
  • sheng pu er

A bit overwhelming, no? But don't worry--most of the names will make sense quickly as you continue exploring this fascinating tea category.

Sheng Tea Production

Sheng tea production is pretty straightforward. Workers harvest leaves from large-leaf Assamica tea trees. The leaves are lightly steamed and then (usually) pressed into bing cha (frisbee-like, disc-shaped "cakes" of tea) and wrapped with rice paper.

(Sometimes they're left loose or pressed into other shapes as well. The same holds true for shou tea.) And that's it for production. Aside from the terroir, all that really matters for the final product is...

Aging Sheng Puerh

Sheng tea has been intentionally aged and fermented for thousands of years.

Many Westerners claim that this began as an 'accident' when teas were being transported from Yunnan to Tibet along the Tea-Horse Road, an old trading route that got the teas alternately hot and cold, wet and dry, leading to fermentation. However, some scholars now say that this is not true, and that shamanic practices and communication with the plants led to intentional fermentation outside of any commercial endeavors.

Either way, sheng tea is best aged when it is fermented by surroundings that are sometimes hot and humid, sometimes cold and damp, and sometimes (though not often) a little drier. Beneficial bacteria, yeasts, and molds thrive in these conditions, often making a great aged tea. These conditions include the climates in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and much of the rest of Southeast Asia. It does not include most of the Western world, and it definitely does not include an air-conditioned/heated apartment. If you want to drink an aged shou puerh in the West, then you want to buy an aged shou puerh from the East, and you probably don't want to try to age it at home.

It used to be that 'aged shou' was tea that was aged 100 years or more. Then, puerh got to be more popular, and 50 years became 'old tea'.

Then 20 years. Then 10. These days, I've even seen three-year-old teas marketed as 'aged'. Crazy!

Most sheng teas go through an awkward phase (equivalent to our teenage years) from about age seven through age 16 or so (depending on how quickly they ferment). They're usually best enjoyed well before or after this stage.

Shou Tea Production

Hei cha and shou tea are both produced by harvesting tea leaves, putting them into a pile (often in a closed or semi-enclosed space), keeping them moist and hot for an extended period of time (say, 60 days) to encourage beneficial bacteria, yeasts and molds to grow, and 'turning' (using a pitchfork-like tool to mix) the pile often. What distinguishes shou from hei cha is that shou tea is made from large-leaf (Assamica) tea trees in Yunnan.

For the first three decades of shou production, most shou teas were partially fermented with this process, then allowed to 'ripen' further with additional aging (usually in a hot, humid climate such as that of Hong Kong or Taiwan).

However, following along with a huge spike in the puerh buying market (known as the "puerh bubble"), producers began to ferment their puerh teas more fully (making them more immediately salable and drinkable) in the early 2000s.

Sheng Puerh's Origins

If current knowledge of tea's biological, cultural and agricultural origins are to be believed, then sheng tea is likely the first tea ever brewed and drunk by people. Sheng tea hails from jungle-like forests in the Yunnan region (which now encompasses the Yunnan province of China, as well as several neighboring regions, such as northern Thailand). Although tea has long been said to be about 2000 years old (in accordance with its origin myth associated with the mythical emperor Shen Nong), a recent discovery of far more ancient caves depicting tea cultivation and production now lead scholars to believe that tea is more like 10,000 years old. That makes sheng tea a truly ancient brew!

Shou Tea's Origins

Like all puerh tea, shou tea was first produced (and is still primarily produced) in Yunnan Unlike sheng puerh, shou is a very young tea, historically speaking. In fact, it wasn't invented until the 1970s.

Shou tea was originally created to mimic the taste, color, and aroma of an aged sheng puerh. Its formulation was based on a type of fermented tea that had long been produced in provinces nearby Yunnan. This type of tea is known as black tea (hei cha, not to be confused with what we in the West call "black tea" and what is called hong cha, or "red tea", in China).

Flavored Puerh Teas

In recent years, more Western tea companies have begun offering more puerh teas on their menus and websites. Some of these (like Adagio's Yunnan Golden Pu Er) are unflavored but unremarkable. Some (like some of the shou teas from Teance and sheng teas from Hou De) are far better and are aimed at a connoisseur client base. And others (such as Rishi Tea's Organic Ancient Puerh Ginger) are flavored, intending to lend the earthy shou tea a little popular appeal with the addition of citrus, flowers and other flavors.

Sheng teas are almost never flavored, but with shou teas, it's becoming surprisingly common.

Some flavored shou teas draw inspiration from Traditional Chinese Medicine, which uses certain edible flowers (such as chrysanthemum), dried fruits (such as jujubes) and spices (such as ginger) for health benefits rather than for flavor. Others are flavored purely for flavor's sake--I've even seen shou puerhs in flavors like "Strawberry-Mint" before. Um, yum? (Or not.)