This is a collection of my advice and recommendations for people who are new to pu'er tea and would like some advice on how and what to sample.
Disclaimer: I have no business relationship with any vendors listed below. Herein, I recommend teas I have tried and believe are educational for a beginner. This is not meant as an endorsement for the vendor or for any particular tea's ageability; nor is it a lack of endorsement by omission for vendors not listed.
My Best Advice
- Buy samples before you buy whole cakes. Pu'er comes in cakes that are anywhere from 50g to 500g or larger. That is a lot of tea to own and dislike; try a sample first, if possible. FYI, purchases of inferior (or faked) teas are called, with a dose of sarcasm and affection, "tuition."
- Try at least one sample of the three main types of pu'er: cooked/ripe (shu), raw (sheng), and old (15+ years) aged raw. This should help you find which type or types fit your taste.
- Try aged sheng pu'er before you start collecting young sheng pu'er. Buying a sample or two of aged raw pu'er informs you of what young raw pu'er will turn into after it ages. It also informs your palate of what shu pu'er attempts to emulate. If you dislike aged pu'er, you won't want to build a huge collection of young raw pu'er for aging, but buy only in smaller quantities and skew toward teas you enjoy drinking young.
- Sample both "factory" and "boutique" productions of pu'er. Large factories like Menghai, Xiaguan, Mengku, and Haiwan make pu'er differently than smaller batch boutique producers. The factories tend to make teas with from younger plantation bushes, sometimes focused on a region or blended from different regions. These tend to be more bitter and astringent. Boutique producers usually source sweeter-tasting leaves from older trees from a single mountain/region, although some boutique producers are recognizing the benefits of blending regions.
- Try major factory cooked pu'er first. My own preference is for large factory brands, because of the way cooked/ripe/shu pu'er is processed. Factories perform a controlled composting of the tea leaves. This requires more skill, knowledge, and cleanliness than I have found most small factories to have.
Sample Recommendations (U.S. Vendors)
These are teas I've tried and think make decent genre examples for those who want to explore pu'er. This is not an exhaustive list, and any pu'er is better than none. Better yet if you can meet people to try tea in person or trade samples with folks you meet online. I don't include China-based English-language sites, nor do I include Chinese/Taiwanese auction sites, because that would make this list endless. Whether or not you follow the recommendations below, do also visit online forums and see what people are reviewing and suggest you sample. You'll get a broader opinion.
Old Aged Raw/ShengMore old aged raw pu'ers have come to market recently. I've also noticed that people are starting to call 10-year-old dry stored tea "aged" (tea at that age is not, in my opinion, aged enough to drink now), so I am using the redundant but seemingly necessary term of "old aged" tea to clarify that I mean teas that have transformed enough to gain the earthiness that old pu'er is most known for. In my opinion, that's 15 if not 20 years or more of aging in humid storage conditions.
- 1985 Loose Menghai 8582 - I don't know how Tim (the proprietor) knows this tea is from exactly 1985, but it is good nonetheless.
- 1990s Yiwu Spring Tips - A good example of a tea with an earthy, woody aged flavor and still some room to change over time. 10g sample available.
- 1990s Hong Yin Tie Bing - This tea went through old-school "ground storage" (aka wet storage), so it's earthy and mild, with no bitterness. It's aired out enough that there's not any storage smell. However, it probably won't continue to develop too much in the future. It's ready now. It does well "grandpa style." 10g sample available.
Young Raw/Sheng, Plantation
General advice: try a sample from a cake, not a tuo or brick. A brand's cakes tend to have the highest quality leaves, followed by tuo, then bricks, last.
- Recent years' Dayi and Xiaguan teas. Puerhshop.com has some on sample.
- Yunnansourcing.us also has samples of teas from large factories like Xiaguan and Mengku, but you have to dig to find which ones still offer samples.
Young Raw/Sheng, Single-origin or Boutique
- Yunnansourcing.us has Scott Wilson's boutique productions under the brand Yun Zhi Yuan, and there are samples aplenty.
- Yang Qing Hao, Xi Zi Hao, and other brands of boutique pu'er are sometimes made available via group buys in various online tea forums.