Gushu PuErh is one of the most sought after and expensive categories of tea in the world with tea lovers globally battling to get their hands on that Gushu goodness. But, what is Gushu and is it worth the price?
What is Gushu?
Gushu PuErh tea is made from leaves growing on tea trees which are about 200 years old and above. These trees mainly grow in Yunnan province in China but there are other such wild or semi-wild trees growing in neighbouring regions and countries such as Myanmar and Laos. Some tea trees are older than a thousand years old and clearly, the older the tea trees, the more rare and expensive the tea.
In China, people generally class tea trees by quite rudimentary and basic categorisation of age:
Xiao Shu - Small tea trees
These are the babies of the PuErh world ranging from 0-50 years old and generally growing in very managed terrace garden tea plantations.
Zhong Shu - Middle tea trees
Well established trees about 50-100 years may generally be called Zhong Shu.
Da Shu - Big tea trees
These are majestic trees ranging from about 100-200 years old and are sometimes thrown into the Gushu category by less discerning farmers.
Gu Shu - Ancient tea trees
The big boys with thick trunks and long branches. These are anywhere from 200 up to over a thousand years of age and are generally in slightly off-the-beaten-track forests.
Why does age matter?
There are a bunch of suggested reasons as to why older tea trees produce better tea.
1. Older trees grow slower
As a tea ages it becomes more established and does not need to grow quickly for survival. Growth slows and this means that the leaves have time to be pumped full of the minerals drawn from the soil leading to a richer and more complex taste. Faster growing younger trees will be less rich in comparison.
2. Older trees have deeper roots
I once read that the roots of a tree are about equivalent to size and shape of the tree branches. I love looking at a tree and imagining the mirror image of underground roots burrowing through the soil. It stands to reason that older trees will have more roots, bigger roots and deeper roots. All of this means that they have access to mineral rich soil which other trees do not reach and, with their bigger root structure, they are able to draw larger amounts of minerals to feed their leaves. Again, all of this is meant to increase the richness and complexity of the tea.
3. Older trees are semi-wild
Any ancient tea trees which are still growing after hundreds of years must be growing in areas relatively undeveloped areas (we pour out a cup for all the Gushu homies that were uprooted as a victim of development). Don't forget that all of this Gushu hunting craze is relatively modern - a mere blink of a few decades in the long and undulating history of tea in China. Therefore, the protection of these trees is a very recent trend and, any which are still standing, are usually in quite remote and untouched areas. This is, unfortunately, changing, with more and more money in PuErh, we are seeing more big roads being built up to these beautiful forests and I do worry about how this will affect quality.
Do unmanaged and remote gardens make higher quality tea?
Yes and no. On one hand, higher altitudes, diverse ecosystems and a lack of excessive human agricultural activity is a good thing for the tea. On the other hand, leaving the trees to fend for themselves and compete with other plants without any management makes for a beautiful environment but can impact the quality of the tea leaves. Gushu tea trees tend to be grown in managed, semi-wild forests and this tends to produce the sweet spot of tea.
4. Older tea trees have an ancient energy
Explanations for the potency of Gushu (it can get you quite nicely high!) sometimes come from the idea that the age of this living tree imparts an ancient energy to the brews. I know, some of you are raising eyebrows and tutting as soon as we discuss the 'energetics' of things and others are all on board with this kind of discussion. How much of the 'ancient energy' comes from the physical aspects discussed above and how much may come from a non-chemical 'ancient spirit' is a question that I cannot answer. All I can say is that to dismiss the energetics of matter is unscientific and and I am open to these ideas. I would encourage all the people who have an allergic reaction to discussion of spirit and energetics to question why they have that reaction and ask themselves if this is rational response or one that comes from indoctrination.
Does age really make a difference?
All of the above theories are pointless semantics if it does not reflect reality in the tea drinking experience. Whenever a high price is justified by this kind of reasoning, we have to be careful that we are not getting sucked into hype in order to pull precious money from our pockets!
Does Gushu tea experience exceed that of younger tea trees? What is the difference in taste, texture and body sensation?
In my experience, older tea trees definitely improve the quality of the tea experience. Of course, there are going to be some fabulous younger tea tree PuErh's and some uninteresting Gushu's because there are many other factors which determine quality from terroirs to processing. But, overall, you are much more likely to find sublime PuErh if you look for older trees.
The main differences?
1. Richness and complexity
Younger tea trees have a simple, light, bright and aromatic profile with flowers and freshness. Older trees have deeper flavours with more intriguing complexities - honey, leather, jammy fruits, cream, toffee and forest floor notes are very usual. While the young trees can bring a very simple pleasure, Gushu tea is just much more of a journey and is more engaging. You may not like the flavour of some Gushu's but they definitely have a developed personality.
One farmer said that drinking a Xiao Shu (young) tea tree PuErh was like going out with a young woman - light and bright but without much unique personality; whereas a Gushu tea is like a relationship with a mature woman full of rich experience and character. Maybe the analogy is a bit simplistic but I think it gives an idea of the difference in the minds of the farmers.
2. Smoother, more physical and longer finish
Gushu tea is known for its smooth, thick liquor and, with its abundance of minerals, creates a richer physical sensation in the mouth. While young tea tree PuErh ends with a short and dry finish the moment that you swallow, Gushu tea leaves a lingering dry, juicy and tingling feeling and a sweet taste in the mouth - this is probably the factor that Gushu hunters delight in more than any other.
3. Body high
It might be psychological, but there is something about the buzz of a Gushu that sets it apart from other tea. Raw PuErh (Sheng) is always an energetic tea with a fairly high dose of caffeine, but when that tea is a Gushu, the feeling is deeper in the body with that physical tingle in the mouth spreading to the roots of the hair, down the spine and into the legs - it is an all body feeling. Then there is a floaty mindstate which I love to ride - leading to a zany creativity that I personally thrive on. Everyone has their own individual reactions to tea and you may not feel the same, but, certainly many people love the high that comes from Gushu.
What about fakery?
Yes, a lot of Gushu is fake and comes from younger tea trees. The fact that you cannot accurately determine the age of a tea tree (unless you drill in and grab some core samples for radiocarbon testing), means that everyone along the supply chain feels that they are within their rights to make estimations. Inevitably, there is a tendency to overestimate rather than underestimate the age and that leads to inflated claims by farmers and sellers. So what are you to do?
Firstly, it is important to stress that fakery is abound in all of the tea industry. From everyone claiming that their Junshan Yellow tea comes from Junshan island (which produces tiny yields) to fake PuErh factory wrappers, to Thai grown 'bug-bitten Taiwanese' Oolongs etc. For almost any tea out there, there is the possibility of hype and fakery. I am not defending this but it must be said that this is the current reality (and I do not see it changing). So, if you are obsessed with making sure that everything written about a tea is genuine before you buy, then you will be limited to a very sad and short tea drinking journey.
The truth is that no tea seller can guarantee and certify the age of the tea trees. For example, this year we sourced a Yiwu Gushu and we spent a few days with the farmers during harvesting. We slept at the farmers house, shared meals, visited the tea forests, measured the trees, helped pick and process some of the leaves. I am convinced that the trees which we selected are Gushu (although I have no hard proof) but what is stopping the farmers from switching leaves when they press our cakes? We cannot follow leaves 24 hours a day from the tree to the cakes and anyone who does will have to charge a massive premium. I always have to rely on some trust with the farmers which is why our relationships are so fundamental.
Given that there are no guarantees in tea tree ageing, some tea sellers choose not to give any information about the age of tea trees or keep the ageing description vague. I personally disagree with this approach. I prefer to give you tea lovers as much information as I have about the tea to assist in your tea journey. If this means giving you our best estimates of tea tree ages then that is what we will do. This may bring some criticism from PuErh fundamentalists but I know that, as a consumer, I would prefer to know a best guess of age even if it is possibly innacurate.
Want to taste some Gushu?
I would recommend purchasing from established sellers who have many years experience sourcing PuErh (for example, we began sourcing in 2003) and who are committed to giving you as much information as possible about their tea rather than keeping you in the dark about their sourcing.
There will be fakery and, through experience, you will learn who to trust, but the information is important to help you grow. It will assist you in understanding the sensorial differences between different mountain areas, tree ages and processing styles. The tea journey begins and ends with the senses - that is all that you should use to judge a tea (learn how to do a proper 10 step tea tasting). However, mapping these sensorial experiences to this kind of information has one purpose - to navigate you to even more delightful tea experiences.
I hope that this article has helped to show you the terrain as you explore the world of PuErh. Get out there and begin tasting some Gushu.