Spent leaves of badly stored ripened pu-erh. Note the crumbling leaf faces that are barely held together by leaf veins
Quality of the tea can be determined through inspecting the dried leaves, the tea liquor, or the spent tea leaves. The "true" quality of a specific batch of pu-erh can ultimately only be revealed when the tea is brewed and tasted.
Although, not concrete and sometimes dependent on preference, there are several general indicators of quality:
- Dried tea: There should be a lack of twigs, extraneous matter and white or dark mold spots on the surface of the compressed pu-erh. The leaves should ideally be whole, visually distinct, and not appear muddy. The leaves may be dry and fragile, but not powdery. Good tea should be quite fragrant, even when dry. Good pressed pu-erh often have a matte sheen on the surface of the cake, though this is not necessarily a sole indicator of quality
- Liquor: The tea liquor of both raw and ripe pu-erh should never appear cloudy. Well-aged raw pu-erh and well-crafted ripe pu-erh tea may produce a dark reddish liquor, reminiscent of a dried jujube, but in either case the liquor should not be opaque, "muddy," or black in colour. The flavours of pu-erh liquors should persist and be revealed throughout separate or subsequent infusions, and never abruptly disappear, since this could be the sign of added flavorants.
- Young raw puerh: The ideal liquors should be aromatic with a light but distinct odours of camphor, rich herbal notes like Chinese medicine, fragrance floral notes, hints of dried fruit aromas such as preserved plums, and should exhibit only some grassy notes to the likes of fresh sencha. Young raw pu-erh may sometimes be quite bitter and astringent, but should also exhibit a pleasant mouthfeel and "sweet" aftertaste, referred to as gān (甘) and húigān(回甘).
- Aged raw puerh: Aged pu-erh should never smell moldy, musty, or strongly fungal, though some pu-erh drinkers consider these smells to be unoffensive or even enjoyable. The smell of aged pu-erh may vary, with an "aged" but not "stuffy" odour. The taste of aged raw pu-erh or ripe pu-erh should be smooth, with slight hints of bitterness, and lack a biting astringency or any off-sour tastes. The element of taste is an important indicator of aged pu-erh quality, the texture should be rich and thick and should have very distinct gān (甘) and húigān(回甘) on the tongue and cheeks, which together induces salivation and leaves a "feeling" in the back of the throat.
- Spent tea: Whole leaves and leaf bud systems should be easily seen and picked out of the wet spent tea, with a limited amount of broken fragments. Twigs, and the fruits of the tea plant should not be found in the spent tea leaves, however animal (and human) hair, strings, rice grains and chaff may occasionally be included in the tea. The leaves should not crumble when rubbed, and with ripened pu-erh, it should not resemble compost. Aged raw puerh should have leaves that unfurl when brewed while leaves of most ripened puerh will generally remain closed.
In Cantonese culture, pu-erh is known as po-lay (or bo-lay) tea. Among the Cantonese long settled in California, it is called bo-nay or po-nay tea. It is often drunk during dim sum meals, as it is believed to help with digestion. It is not uncommon to add dried osmanthus flowers, pomelo rinds, or chrysanthemum flowers into brewing pu-erh tea in order to add a light, fresh fragrance to the tea liquor. Pu-erh with chrysanthemum is the most common pairing, and referred as guk pou or guk bou (菊普; pinyin: jú pǔ). Pu-erh is considered to have some medicinal qualities.
Sometimes wolfberries are brewed with the tea, plumpening in the process.