Small-Batch Shu Processing – Part 1

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Oddly, the tea that inspired me to write about this may or may not have actually been post-fermented as a small-sized lot.  I just reviewed the first Russian-origin shu “pu’er-like tea” version that I’ve tried, which was pretty good.  Since it was a test batch it probably was fermented as a smaller amount, but I’m not sure of that production quantity.  It wasn’t exactly the same character as the most standard Yunnan shu, but since those vary it could still overlap.  It was lighter, with an odd mineral / stone taste that probably would fade over another year of rest time, probably from processing transition (wòduī processing effect).  But it was sweet and complex, reasonably well-balanced, with a good bit of dark rye bread and cocoa flavor.

That’s a good lead-in for talking about non-standard shu types, since that essentially had to be a variety-Sinensis-based shu, with a completely different terroir background than Yunnan.  But I want to cover more on specific processing approach differences instead.

A Thai producer, Tea Side, first brought this subject to my attention awhile back:

As they say, Chinese technology doesn’t assume producing ripe pu-erh out of less than 3 tons of material. Allegedly, a smaller amount of material will not heat up to the desired temperature and, in general, the fermentation process will go wrong…

That time, I thought the vertical pressure of the big mass is important. But then on photos, I saw the tea spread out over a large area in an only one-meter thick layer. To make a one-meter high heap, 3 tons are not required. Moreover, as you know, Liu Bao cha has been done for hundreds of years and its taste is very close to ripe pu-erh. To make it Chinese use just 20-30 kilos of raw materials, but fermentation takes at least one and a half years.

That is how the idea to make ripe pu-erh tea in a basket was born…

I’ve heard of two other independent sources making basket-approach shu: Moychay (that first reference), and one discussed by So Han Fan of the Tea House Ghost Youtube channel and Guan Yin Austin-based shop fame (which was replaced with a West China Teahouse business).  At a guess, this practice didn’t evolve within the last decade.  I’m not disputing that the Tea Side vendor didn’t sort out processing independently, only clarifying that the idea was not a unique discovery; since at least one of those other sources predated it.  His results are good (reviewed here), and that article is worth a read.

In looking for a reference to So Han’s process and outcome, I noticed that the Steep Stories blog reviewed a few versions only a few months ago – interesting.  So Han posts in TChing, with an overview of sheng and shu background here, but I wanted to cite that basket fermentation theme instead.

Small-Batch Shu Processing - Part 1

I’ll keep this general as a summary of hearsay input, because long and detailed citations don’t work in short posts.  Per my recollection, they were selling very-small-batch-processed shu, created in such a way that it wasn’t even turned (mixed), allowed to ferment with varying degrees of air contact across small piles.  This allowed different parts of the mix to have different characters.  The marketing spin took an unusual turn in that case, with different parts of the piles named separately (the part I didn’t find a reference to).

The Moychay owner, Sergey Shevelev, has described an experimentation process essentially identical to that covered in that Tea Side blog, about making batches of shu in baskets.  The “secret” is trial and error: Keep making different batches until it works, then adjust for further improvement.  It would be almost impossible to do that without exploring the original larger-scale processing first, to work without those details as a starting point (as referenced in this video).  Just trying a broad range of unique versions could be helpful, as are sold on that Moychay site.  It wouldn’t help that shu often tends to need a year or so of rest to really be at its best, with some versions clearing up a bit in character over the next year or two.

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