Understanding Pu-erh Tea Taste by Over-steeping | TEA SIDE
03 Jun 2019

One shouldn't be afraid to over-steep good tea

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Here is another interesting article about understanding Pu-erh from our friend and colleague Anastasiya Ofitserova, who lives in Guangzhou.

A couple of years ago, a fellow tea connoisseur who has already been taking a serious and profound interest in tea for many years, shared such a piece of “Chinese” wisdom with me: “If you want to sell tea, make a soft brew; if you want to buy tea, make a strong brew; if you want to treat your friends to a cup of tea, make a regular brew.” At that moment, it became the crystallization of understanding the approach to tea trade exactly from this angle: how to sell any tea and to buy the best one. And while the former is still not a very interesting task for me, the latter continues to be relevant. I found material about pu-erh on this subject a short time ago, which I am going to retell here with some additions and explanations.

Mao cha (young loose pu-erh tea) from 500-year-old trees of Thaialand

To find out if a pu-erh is good or bad, you have to let it steep.

To find out if a pu-erh is good or bad, you have to let it steep. There exists a special term for this brewing method in China, 闷 (“men”), which means ”to let it steep in a teapot” in the context of tea drinking. Normally, we brew tea based on our own taste: making it softer or stronger, pouring in water and then pouring it out it at once or letting the tea steep longer. We have our own habits, and if we don’t set any special tasks for the tea party but drink it just so, perhaps even rather absent-mindedly, our hands may act according to their habitual tried-and-tested algorithm that corresponds with our gustatory habits. But what if we need to check the tea, to find out what its true properties are? A Beijing merchant I know uses such tea simmering sometimes after a series of quick passes. Quite often he brews two similar teas in this way, one of them from his own line, to showcase and/or to visually compare the properties of two teas. He tastes the infusion after different periods of steeping because one of the teas may make a good showing in five minutes and the other one in ten minutes.

Steeping pu-erh tea for long time while tasting

Over-steeping works like a magnifying glass. That is why it is frequently used while tea-tasting.

Tea must be steeped for more than 30 seconds; it has to be a minute, three minutes, or maybe even longer because the long steeping shows all the flaws of the tea. Or maybe not only the flaws but also its nature. It works like a magnifying glass revealing the tea’s peculiarities, advantages, and drawbacks profoundly and fully. What should we pay attention to when steeping the tea for a long time?

The color of the infusion

It is an important indicator reflecting the richness of the tea composition. It is not only the color that matters but also the brightness, shine, and pureness. If the infusion is semi-transparent it means that the substances did not get into the infusion fully (sufficiently). Turbidity is a sign of low quality or insufficient aging and drying after going through the humid stack. It is important to remember that the infusion color is strongly dependent on the quality of water, therefore such experiments should be carried out using well-tried water with stable chemical composition. Turbidity is also different from the presence of fluff in the infusion, which may be perceived in that way too.

Over-steeped pu-erh tea’s infusion

The color of the infusion is an important indicator reflecting the richness of the tea composition.

The infusion color is influenced by the following: flavonols, anthocyanins, polyphenol oxidation products, pectins, and aminoacids. So, for example, theaflavins produce yellowish-orange colors and are responsible for the brightness, but they oxidize easily and turn into thearubigins (this is in the red color palette), and thearubigins, when oxidized even more, turn into theobromines (brown shades Water-soluble pectin, also responsible for the color saturation of the infusion). Some amino acids have an impact on the brightness and shine of the infusion.

The flavor

Long steeping makes it easier to determine the flavor type. While some volatile and more pleasant notes of the flavor disappear when the tea is being steamed, other notes are revealed, giving a fuller idea of the tea’s nature. For pu-erh, “bad” flavor shades would be the notes of smoke, mold, acid, or sour/fermented notes, and all that is denoted with the word 臭 (Chou) meaning “stinky, funky, foul-smelling, rotten” in Chinese (though it is a positive characteristic for some foods and dishes, for tea it isn’t).

As for smoky notes in the tea’s flavor, it is important to understand that a distinction should be made between them as well because there are light, natural and pleasant smoky notes, as well as heavy, unnatural and repugnant ones; generally, the dislike of the smoke flavor is peculiar to the Chinese perception of tea, even in those cases when it is a natural result of tea processing (this is the reason why China has so few lovers of Yang Xun Xiao Zhong, the traditional smoked red tea from Fujian). A smell of caramel or a fruity-floral smell may be indicative of certain variations from the norm during the withering process when the leaf begins to turn red and it isn’t actually traditional for a pu-erh. When describing tastes and flavors, the difference of perception should be taken into account; in this text it is most probably about the flavor shades peculiar to red teas.

Steeping tea in tea-tasting cup. Young pu-erh from Thailand.

Long steeping makes it easier to determine the flavor type.

To sum it up, we can say that steeping helps us feel the concealed layer of the flavor and withdraw from the volatile components that are felt in the first turn and often have an impact on the perception of a tea as a whole. The “visceral” perception of a flavor may become the key criterion when it is read out by the body first of all, and the body decides whether the flavor is right for a certain product. Such things are difficult to explain, they are rather a result of practical experience.

The taste

Long steeping also makes it easier to “read out” the flaws of taste. It stands to reason that a strong infusion will seem bitter and probably unpleasant, especially if you aren’t accustomed to tastes of such saturation. But bitterness must not become the focus of attention, a strong infusion will give you a clear idea of the taste, whether it is pure or not, of the quality of the reappearing sweetness, its stability and intensity, as well as of the presence and pronouncement of acerbity. The purity of taste is defined by the presence of an off-flavor: if the taste is made of multiple shades (and normally it is), this doesn’t yet mean that the tea has an off-flavor; an off-flavor is something that stands apart from the general impression and is perceived as something excessive or even alien. An off-flavor stands out of the taste as if someone suddenly begins to play the drum or trumpet right in the middle of a composition for a string quartet, even though it might be a pleasant-sounding and even interesting combination.

Tasting over-steeped pu-erh tea infusion

Long steeping also makes it easier to “read out” the flaws of taste.

In terms of bitterness and acerbity, the acridity criterion has to be applied: if an unpleasant acrid sensation of bitterness develops in the mouth after taking a sip, making your jaws ache, such tea isn’t good enough.

The sensations in the mouth/the body of the tea

Pay attention to how the tea envelopes the oral cavity, to the degree of viscosity, the smoothness, whether the tea moisturizes your month (that is, whether it stimulates fluid secretion) or makes it dry, the consistency of gustatory sensations (their continuity and integrity). It is important to note what sensations you feel in your throat, how the taste fills the oral cavity, what you feel on your cheeks and tongue. High-quality tea will be smooth enough; it will moisturize your mouth and produce a wholesome impression. In general, as they say in China, “it is safe to let good tea steep” (hǎo chá bù pà mèn, 好茶不怕悶). Steeping is an easy and quick way to determine the true quality of the tea, “let the tea stew, and there will be not a single flaw that doesn’t get revealed.”

Anastasiya Ofitserova

You can buy both types of pu-erhs, raw and ripe, in our web-store >>

Over-steeping for tea-tasting thai pu-erh's

“It is safe to let good tea steep” (hǎo chá bù pà mèn, 好茶不怕悶).


I’d like to mention yet another important aspect of the quality of pu-erh that hasn’t been brought up here. This is your condition after drinking the tea, or the tea’s impact on the body (cha qi, 茶氣).

Long steeping is not the best way to assess the Cha Qi because firstly, oversteeped tea is normally discarded once the testing is done. And secondly, the tea’s strength and nuances of its impact will be revealed harmoniously and fully only when the infusion density is increased and decreased gradually and smoothly. That is, in case of a full-fledged tea party (and not a test one).

It may happen that the tea leaf doesn’t have the most pleasant taste due to a special sort, but has an amazingly strong impact on the body, which may be called therapeutic. For instance, this is the case with bitter sorts of pu-erh from old trees. After you have known such tea for quite a long time, you will begin to notice that it is the sort you choose to brew more and more often.

Valerii Levitanus

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