What is Gushu Pu-erh?

  • Last edited: October 5, 2022
  • Time to read: 5 min.

Gushu pu-erh is a term that is frequently used by tea shops to advertise their pu-erh tea. It is highly sought-after because the general consensus is that gushu pu-erh tastes better for various reasons. Everyone wants to sell, buy and drink gushu pu-erh, but what is it exactly? This article offers a full overview of what gushu pu-erh is, why many people think it’s better than regular pu-erh, and why some people think the term is problematic.

Gushu pu-erh is pu-erh tea from ancient and semi-wild tea trees of at least 100-200 years old. Gu (古) means ancient, and shu (树) means tree. Gushu pu-erh tea is made using tea leaves from very old tea trees. No one knows for sure how old a tree should be to be classified as gushu, but the general consensus is at least 100-200 years old.

Gushu pu-erh

Gushu pu-erh tea is made using leaves that come from ancient tea trees. Gu (古) means ancient in Chinese, and Shu (树) means tree in Chinese (at least in this context). There is no real consensus on how old a tea tree needs to be in order to be seen as gushu because it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to determine the exact age of a tea tree without damaging it.

Ancient tea trees are tea trees that have survived for hundreds of years and are usually (but not always) bigger with more branches than younger tea trees. It’s difficult to give an exact number because gushu is a term that is mostly used for marketing purposes. In general, tea trees of at least 100-200 years old can be seen as gushu tea trees. Most of these ancient tea trees are found in semi-wild forests in China’s Yunnan province and border regions such as Laos and Myanmar.

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Ancient tea trees that have gone through droughts, survived abundant rainfall, wars, and sometimes even fire! They survived the tests of time and can be praised for that alone. It takes a lot for a tree to survive for over a century and not many trees succeed in doing so. That is why gushu tea trees are not as common as you might think.

Some shops sell pu-erh tea coming from 500-year-old tea trees at $0.30-0.50/g. Claims like this one are probably false because it’s simply not possible. If it seems too good to be true, it’s probably not true. This saying definitely holds up for pu-erh tea because there is a lot of fakes and scamming going on due to the rarity of gushu tea leaves.

Why is gushu pu-erh better?

Many people look for gushu pu-erh because it’s considered to be better than non-gushu tea. There are several reasons why gushu pu-erh is better and two of those reasons are discussed below.

Older trees have longer and more roots

Ancient tea trees are usually (but not always) bigger than regular tea trees, which means they also have longer roots. These bigger, longer, and deeper roots can penetrate the soil more easily to access deeper layers of the earth. These layers are full of nutrients and minerals because not many plants can access those layers.

The roots of gushu tea trees not only go deeper but there are also more roots to collect minerals and nutrients for the tea leaves. These roots collect large amounts of nutrients for the leaves, which usually improves the overall flavor, sensation, and overall experience of the tea if the environment where the tree is growing is good.

Gushu tea trees are usually less cultivated

Gushu tea trees are usually found deeper in the forest where there is less human interference. This implies that these trees are relatively unmanaged compared to plantation trees and that they can take care of themselves. Of course, gushu tea trees are not completely unmanaged, otherwise, they would not be picked at all.

The fact that gushu tea trees are found in semi-wild forests also means that they grow in a more diverse ecosystem than plantation tea trees. There are other organisms living in the same environment and they all have an effect on each other. If tea trees are less cultivated, it’s easier for nature to do its thing. This usually results in deeper, smoother, and more complex flavors.

The problem with gushu pu-erh

Gushu pu-erh tea is not all sunshine and rainbows as there are some issues with it. These problems did not exist several decades ago because gushu wasn’t really a thing worth noting back then. Factories graded their leaves based on their size, as you can see in the famous Dayi cakes from Menghai Tea Factory.

It’s only recently that gushu pu-erh became popular, which is why it drastically increased in price. Just like with almost anything, if there is big money involved, problems start to appear.

A lot more pu-erh is advertised as gushu than there are gushu tea trees

Many people want gushu pu-erh, which means that prices will go up. This is the basic idea of supply and demand. However, the supply of gushu tea is a lot lower than the demand. Prices have skyrocketed because and producers and tea shops are taking advantage of this.

Why sell regular puerh for a low price when you can sell it for a lot more if you say it’s gushu? This is how some producers think and unfortunately, this is what is happening right now. A lot more gushu pu-erh is sold than the amount that is produced every year. This is problematic because people are paying for gushu pu-erh, but they are getting something else.

You can never be sure that what you pay for is what you get, but I suggest you only buy from tea shops that you trust and that have a good reputation. If you decide to order something, let the tea do the talking and taste it. Keep in mind that it’s very difficult for a beginner to taste the difference so that is why it’s better to start out by only ordering from respected tea shops.

Only a small percentage of tea leaves in a cake is from gushu trees

Another issue with pu-erh tea being sold as gushu is the fact that only a small percentage of a tea cake comes from gushu tea trees (if any at all). It’s just not possible to press full cakes of gushu material at an affordable price because there is a limited amount of gushu leaves available.

That is why it makes more sense (from a business perspective) to blend some gushu leaves in a regular cake to get a hint of what gushu material tastes like. If you buy a gushu sheng pu-erh below $100, don’t expect it to have a high percentage of gushu leaves.

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