Ripe puer tea is fairly new compared to raw puer tea, and has only been around for a few decades. Therefore it’s commonly claimed that raw puer is the “real, authentic puer tea” and ripe is just an artificial attempt at skipping the aging process of raw puer. Nowadays, ripe puer is by far more popular (and less expensive) than raw. It also has the advantage of being “ready” to drink, while many would consider a young raw to be too astringent to enjoy fresh. My first puer was a ripe one from Mark T Wendell tea company, and it was only 8 years later that I tried my first raw. And I preferred the ripe.
Since ripe puer is more common, and easier to drink, shouldn’t it be considered the dominant form of puer? I think this parallels the coffee world, where dark roast coffee is much more common than light roast, but people who are coffee enthusiasts commonly focus on light and medium roasts. The variation in ripe puer seems to be more narrow than in the countless villages and mountains of raw puer, which are most clearly exhibited in their uncomposted form. But wait a second, what about yancha? Those are all roasted, but could be considered the peak of all tea by some connoisseurs. So then, just because all ripe puer is wet-pile fermented, does this have to mean that it’s less characterful than non-wet-piled puer?
What does the wet pile process do?
From what I understand, when loose puer is wet-piled, it’s moistened and it heats up a lot. During the 1-2 months (usually) that it spends in the pile, various molds and other microorganisms digest the green parts of the leaves and turn them brown. The bitter and astringent compounds are transformed into less bitter and much less astringent other compounds, and the leaves develop a sweet and earthy aroma. The caffeine is reduced and turned into… something. Also, the energy of the tea overall becomes more grounding and less stimulating, but there’s still caffeine in there. The light floral and other top notes are darkened and toned down by the intense microbial fermentation.
Basically, when you wet pile puer, you’re left with less variation and subtlety between different original raw material than it originally had. Let me qualify this: there is still variation – but the range of flavor and sensation for a ripe compared to a raw is narrower. Ripe puer tends to focus on the earthy, deep fruit, and bready (if you’re lucky) tastes and smells, and nearly never on florals. A young raw puer can feature both specific floral and vegetal tastes and at the same time, deep petroleum and mineral notes. And an aged raw puer can keep some of those higher notes, while incorporating deep fruity and earthy flavors and aromas, like the 2004 biyun hao manzhuan I recently reviewed here.
So, since ripe puer, though delicious, has a narrower profile than raw, but is more accessible and ready-to-drink, I think the best way to look at it would be like with dark and light roasts of coffee. Ripe puer is a comfortable, relaxing and simple brew but with an engaging profile when well-crafted. Raw puer is commonly a more challenging tea with a wider range of flavors and aromas, both within a single session and between tea from different ages and areas. Whether one is “more puer” than another is up to you and what you enjoy.