What is Pu-erh?
Pu’erh (pronounced “poo-erh”) is one of the most unusual teas you will ever find. It differs in processing, storage and taste from any other tea on earth. Pu-erh has a connoisseur following like few other teas, because of its rarity and unique characteristics.
Like wine, pu-erh tea leaves improve with age. A 357 gram of 1950’s Red Chop Pu-erh tea disk now sells for over $10 000 . It is perhaps because of this singular feature, the capacity to improve with age that quality Pu-erh is in short supply and is coveted and hoarded by tea connoisseurs in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, so much so that relatively little is left for shipment to tea lovers in the West.
How did Pu-erh Originate?
Pu-er takes it name from and is only produced in the town Pu-er in the Yunnan province of southern China, similar to champagne getting its name from the champagne region in france. It is one of the oldest forms of tea.
According to historical accounts. Sometime during the Tang dynasty (AD 618 – 907) merchants began packing the large tea leaves into compressed bricks, these bricks of tea were easier to transport by pack animal than cumbersome loose leaf tea. The long distances and difficult terrain meant that it would be months and sometimes years before the tea would reach its final destination whether that be Tibet or Peking. During these delivery periods, something miraculous occurred. The tea changed, the color of the tea transformed from green to amber and eventually dark teak and the taste changed, the taste became livelier, richer, fruitier and smoother. Its medicinal qualities improved. During its months of travel the tea underwent an aging and fermentation process. The resulting tea, known to the Chinese as Pu-erh became highly sought after, first by royalty, high officials and the literati and later tea connoisseurs
Another account is that traders would barter for tea in the markets and Pu-erh county and then hire caravans to carry the tea back to their respective homes. Pu-erh was transported by mules and horses in long caravans along established routes that became known as the Tea Horse Roads. The increasing demand for a tea that could be easily transported and did not spoil on long journeys sent suppliers on a frenzy to come up with ways to preserve teas, It was found that with fermentation of the leaves, the tea not only kept fresh but it actually improved with age.
People soon discovered that pu-erh also helped with digestion, provided other nutrients to their diet, and because it was so affordable, it quickly became a popular household amenity. Pu-erh tea was highly prized and it became a powerful tool for bartering amongst traveling merchants
Pu-erhs lack the astringency (from the polyphenols) that black tea has but make up for it in body and depth. It has an earthy, woodsy aroma, like a damp forest after rain, with flavors reminiscent of mushrooms, earthy herbs, leather and hay. Its not unusual to pick up notes of tobacco, musty antique store, barnyard… all things which may not sound very “tea like” but when you experience the very smooth and refreshing softness of pu-erh, it will make sense on your palate.
It is typically made with the larger leafed assamica variety of the Camellia sinensis. It is the only tea that is actually fermented and not just oxidized. In the tea trade the terms “fermentation” and “oxidation” have been used interchangeably because the Chinese historically only used one word to refer to both processes.
Fermentation, which involves microbes and not a purely chemical reaction like oxidation, occurs in the creation of wine, cheese yogurt, ;leavened bread, compost, Kombucha and pu-erh and NO other tea.
There are two types of Pu-erh.
Raw (Sheng) Pu-erh – which is processed similar to green tea and is sometimes pressed into various shapes (often a “toucha” or “bird’s nest”). Processing takes the form of plucking, withering, rolling, re-wetting the leaves, pan frying. After this a rough “green tea” results,which is then carefully stored and aged for future consumption. The process takes several years as very “young” pu-erhs cas be quite astringent. Agin refines the tea, bringing out its flavors unlike any other variety. Pu-erh is a living tea, much like wine. Carefully aged pu-erhs are some of the most expensive teas on earth.
Ripened (Shou) Pu-erh (developed by the Kunming Tea Factory in 1973) undergoes a faster, deeper aging process that consists of piling it together and adding moisture to encourage oxidation and fermentation, taking about 3 months. This makes it significantly less expensive than raw pu-erh. Once finished, the dark or ripened pu-erh will taste similar to green pu-erh that has been aged for 15 – 20 years but not exactly the same. The color is deeper and the body more thick and full. Well cared for, old pu-erh will have a flavor with many many layers and a soothing fresh earthy aroma.
Ideal storage for pu’erh is a temperature, controlled environment. It should not be too dry, or the tea will dry out and the aging will stop (the microbes will die). It should also not be too humid and hot. A wine cellar for large collections or a cigar humidor for smaller collections will work well.
While sheng pu’erh has the ability to improve with age, shou pu’erh (the ripe variety) will not age further. Essentially, all of the aging that will happen occurred in those first several months when the leaves were piled together. However, shou pu’erh will store and keep well for years; the flavor just won’t evolve further.
Post-fermentation by aging breaks down the caffeine levels in pu-erh, meaning that the caffeine content naturally diminishes the older it gets. Very old pu-erh may only have trace amounts of caffeine by the time it is consumed in comparison to younger pu-erh.
The actual caffeine content per cup of pu-erh tea varies depending on how long it has been steeped. The longer the steep time, the more caffeine.
Brewing / Preparing green tea
Pu-erh is is most often steeped in either a yixing teapot or a gaiwan tea bowl and is very forgiving to infuse. It can be steeped for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, it won’t get bitter or too strong. The flavour just becomes :lighter” or “heavier” with the depth and quality remaining consistent. Pu-erhs are also good for multiple infusions.
An alternative method for brewing Pu-erh is to fill your choice of teaware with about 1 Tbsp tea leaves per 230ml water, and ‘awaken’ them by quickly rinsing with hot water at about 97 degree celsius. Immediately flush out the water and re-steep. Pu-erh is brewed gongfu style, meaning that the tea leaves are only immersed in hot water for a short time before the tea is poured into another container. The best Pu-erh teas can be steeped up to 10-12 times before beginning to lose their flavor.
Pu-erh tea is best enjoyed when slurped. This allows for exposure to air, which will activate the diverse flavors while providing greater contact with our taste buds.
The polyphenols that are prized components of other teas are largely absent in pu’erhs (polyphenols, in addition to health benefits, are what give tea its mouthfeel and astringency). That said, pu’erhs have been consumed for centuries for medicinal reasons. They are processed using healthy microbes and microflora. While this may seem disconcerting at first, it is these same healthy bacteria that are found in yogurt and that are required in our digestive systems to ensure proper function.
The flavor of pu’erh is just as unique as its processing. What pu’erh may lack in astringency (from the polyphenols), it makes up for in body and depth. It has an earthy, woodsy aroma, like a damp forest after the rain, with flavors reminiscent of mushrooms, earthy herbs, leather, hay. It’s not unusual at all to pick up notes of tobacco, musty antique store, barnyard – all things which may not sound very “tea like” (if anything, certain distilled liquors are described like that!), but when you experience the very smooth and refreshing softness of pu’erh, it makes sense to your palate