Pu-erh tea is loved by many people because of its unique characteristics. Deep, dark, and earthy flavors are sought out by connoisseurs. Unfortunately, not all pu-erh is like this and you might have had pu-erh tea that tastes and smells like fish. If this was your first experience with pu-erh tea, you might be scared to try it again. It’s important to be aware of the fishy taste and smell in pu-erh tea so this article discusses what it is and how to avoid it.
Some pu-erh tea tastes and smells fishy because of trimethylamine, which is an organic chemical compound known for its fishy smell. During the artificial fermentation process of shou pu-erh, this compound is formed inside the piles and gives shou pu-erh this typical fishy taste and aroma.
Production of shou pu-erh
In the 1960s and 1970s, tea factories in Yunnan wanted to recreate the effect time has on sheng pu-erh and they created a new subtype of tea: shou pu-erh. Pu-erh was getting more popular but it takes around 70 years for sheng pu-erh to reach full maturity. They did not want to wait that long so the big tea factories (Kunming Tea factory and Menghai Tea factory) started experimenting.
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In an attempt to create the typical taste of aged sheng pu-erh tea, producers started to artificially ferment tea leaves (wò dūi or 渥堆 in Chinese) after they were sun-dried. This meant that they would make piles of tea leaves in a temperature and humidity controlled environment in an attempt to age the leaves. The piles of tea are regularly turned and sometimes they use a thermal blanket to increase temperatures so fermentation occurs even faster.
This process resulted in cooked pu-erh and created a new subtype of tea. Artificial fermentation is the main difference between sheng and shou pu-erh and explains why it’s almost never sheng pu-erh that smells and/or tastes fishy. If we are talking about fishy pu-erh, we are usually talking about shou pu-erh.
The microbial activity during artificial fermentation is the reason why shou pu-erh can have a fishy smell and/or taste. During this fermentation process, more bacteria are created than originally intended and one of those unwanted compounds is trimethylamine. Trimethylamine is an organic compound that is known for its fishy smell.
Reasons why pu-erh smells and tastes fishy
If you are new to pu-erh tea and you are unlucky to try pu-erh that smells and/or tastes like fish, you might never want to try it again. That would be a shame because shou pu-erh is earthy, deep, warming, and has notes of wet forest to it. But how is it possible that these delicious flavors are replaced by a nasty fishiness?
Bad sanitary conditions during fermentation
At the start of the artificial fermentation, a bacterial sample from earlier batches is usually added to the piles to kickstart the fermentation process. Once artificial fermentation is happening, it’s important that no undesired bacteria get mixed in the piles of tea. If the fermentation is done in poor sanitary conditions, unwanted bacteria such as trimethylamine can greatly affect the tea and even ruin it.
Because pu-erh tea’s popularity shot through the roof, many smaller and often unsanitary factories tried their hand at producing shou pu-erh. This resulted in nasty situations where artificial fermentation took place with low-quality and fishy pu-erh tea as a result.
Low quality material or processing
In some cases, the tea leaves themselves are low quality and come from bad environments before even starting the fermentation process. If the bacteria on the leaves before processing are bad, how can the final result turn into something good?
Bacteria and microbial activity is important when creating shou puerh and is the element that has to be right. If any unwanted bacteria are mixed in with the leaves/piles, this can ruin the whole batch of tea.
If processing is done poorly and the master who is overseeing the whole process doesn’t know what he is doing, the tea will most likely be ruined.
Shou pu-erh is too fresh
The wet piling process can be compared to composting, so it’s evident that this will create some unwanted odors and flavors. However, these odors and flavors will disappear after a while in proper storage conditions. After wet piling, trimethylamine will always be present in the tea in varying degrees.
That is why fresh shou pu-erh is usually not sold right after production. It’s a wise choice of the producer to store it for a while until the fishy smell and taste have disappeared. If the material is good and the fermentation is done properly, the fishy smell and taste will disappear naturally after storing and providing enough airflow.
How to avoid fishy pu-erh
Now you know why some pu-erh smells and tastes fishy, it’s important to know how you can avoid drinking it in the first place. If you have tasted fishy pu-erh, you know that it’s better to avoid it all costs.
Buy from trusted vendors
Buying from trusted tea shops can be a good start because those shops have built a reputation and are less likely to sell low-quality shou pu-erh tea. This also implies that you shouldn’t go for really cheap shou pu-erh. It usually means that the tea leaves are of low quality or the production process was done poorly.
The saying that if it’s too good to be true, it’s most likely false is something that holds up for tea, especially pu-erh tea. Keep that in mind because there is a lot of fake pu-erh of very low quality.
Try samples first
If you know where to buy shou pu-erh, it’s best to try some samples first. It’s possible that a respectable tea shop is selling shou pu-erh that has a fishy smell and taste. I have experienced this in the past and it was from a very respectable tea shop.
The shou pu-erh was from the same year so it was too fresh to not have a fishy smell and taste. That’s why it’s always better to try samples first. If your shou pu-erh does taste and/or smell fishy, it’s best to store it in a place where it has enough airflow. If you’re lucky, the fishiness might disappear after a while.