Pu-erh (also spelled puer, pu’er, pu'erh, puerh) may be one of the most unique and fascinating tea types – loved and collected by tea enthusiasts around the world – but also one of the least understood tea types. Some keywords and characteristics you may have heard associated with pu-erh are “earthy,” “good for digestion,” “fermented,” “aged,” or “compressed tea”.
Pu-erh is sometimes thought of as being just one variety within the broader category known as “dark” tea (heicha) in China, which is characterized by post-production fermentation and is not to be confused with the oxidized tea we know as “black tea” (see "ALL ABOUT BLACK TEA" for further explanation on naming). However, there are blurred lines and debates about whether all types of pu-erh fall under this category. Since pu-erh has such a rich history in and of itself, we will focus on pu-erh in this lesson and touch on the broader “dark” tea category in later lessons.
Here are a few quick insights on pu-erh:
- Pu-erh is fermented tea produced in Yunnan province, China from a big leaf (Da Ye) variety of the Camellia sinensis tree.
- Pu-erh is named after the city of Pu-erh in southwestern Yunnan that became a famous trading center and primary source of tea along ancient trade routes between China and its neighboring areas.
- Pu-erh is traditionally compressed into a solid form and may be found in a variety of shapes and sizes, from circular discs, to mushroom shapes, to rectangular bricks, to mini single-serving balls.
- There are two main types of pu-erh resulting from different production methods – raw/green (sheng) and ripe (shu/shou). Raw pu-erh has been produced for thousands of years and is allowed to age naturally, while ripe pu-erh was developed in the 1970s using a special "wet piling" fermentation process that creates a dark, earthy flavor profile within only a few months, as opposed to several years.
- Finely made and properly stored raw pu-erh gets better with age and increases in value, too. After years in the right environmental conditions, it generally develops a more complex, earthy and smooth flavor due to microbial activity.
- Pu-erh has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and is known for its health benefits, including the potential to lower bad cholesterol, help prevent diabetes, promote digestion, and help lose weight.
Brewing pu-erh tea (photo credit: Teabook) and pu-erh cakes for sale (photo credit: Ellen Mack/Flickr Vision via Getty Images)
PU-ERH TEA ORIGINS
Pu-erh has a deep-rooted significance in China’s history and culture, and its development and production dates back thousands of years.
During the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), a famous statesman and strategist named Zhuge Liang, encouraged the cultivation of tea to bring income and development to southwestern Yunnan. There are still tea trees in Yunnan that are reported to be nearly 3,000 years old!
Trade centers grew and trade routes developed in order to connect the ancient cultures of present day Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan. The most famous trade route is known as the Tea and Horse Road. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), tea became an important drink in Tibetans’ daily lives – their demand for it was so high that they traded strong warhorses to the Song Imperial Court in exchange for tea. The Song used these warhorses in military operations along its frontiers, and throughout the next several hundred years, the Chinese courts were able to use tea trade as a means of exercising political control over Tibetan leaders.
For centuries, pu-erh tea continued to be produced the same way that it had been when it was traded on the Tea and Horse Road. Tea was harvested throughout Yunnan, laid in the sun to dry, moistened with water to prevent the leaves from breaking, and packed into bamboo baskets to be transported to processing factories (near Pu-erh and Simao). Yunnan was a remote region and the tea usually needed to go through a long journey to reach its destination. It could be on the back of a person or pack animal for up to 2 weeks, exposed to varying humidity levels and temperatures.
At the factory, the leaves were re-hydrated with steam and pressed into a variety of shapes, because compressed blocks or cakes were easier to pack for transporting and easier to wash if they got dirty on the trail. The bricks were moistened again to prepare them for the long journey to Tibet or beyond, which could take up to a year. By the time they reached their destinations, the teas from Yunnan were mellow, aged and oxidized – characteristic of what we now know as pu-erh teas.
In response to growing demand, tea producers were trying to find ways to speed up the “aging” process of the raw pu-erh. In the early 1970s the Yunnan Kunming Tea Company developed a process (called wo dui) to treat the leaves in a way that got rid of the bitterness of the tea in only a few months (as opposed to decades). The tea that resulted was referred to as “shou” or ripe tea. It wasn’t the same as naturally aged pu-erh, but was still very pleasing to many tea drinkers.
PU-ERH TEA TODAY
Today, pu-erh still plays a large role in Chinese culture – it is served to guests as a form of hospitality, cakes are given as gifts on special occasions, such as weddings, or handed down through generations, and vintage pu-erh is collected and sometimes chipped away at on rare occasions. Like fine wine, champagne or liquors, pu-erh has established brands and labels that are highly revered – certain pu-erh cakes have been auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars. Some are so unique and rare they are almost priceless. For this reason, buying high quality pu-erh and aging it properly can be a form of long-term financial investment!
Outside of Asia, pu-erh is still a niche market within a niche market, although its popularity is growing. We hope that with proper education and easier access, more people will come to appreciate and seek out fine pu-erh, and that restaurants will develop vintage tea menus on par with their wine lists! ☺
HOW PU-ERH TEA IS MADE
All types of pu-erh start out as mao cha (“rough tea”) – basic preparation is done to raw leaf material and then it is transported as mao cha to Pu-erh to then be sold to tea processors.
The flow of pu-erh tea processing goes something like this:
The tea leaves is plucked by hand and packed into bamboo baskets, and then spread out to wither in a well-ventilated room to reduce moisture content, making the leaf more pliable.
The leaves are usually pan fired in a large wok. This needs to be done with great skill and experience to ensure that none of the leaves touch the hot surface for too long.
The leaves are kneaded and rolled by hand to gently bruise them and break the cell walls in the leaf.
The leaves are spread out to dry in the sun, bringing down the moisture content
The leaves are rolled again and sorted into several grades based on leaf size and appearance.
Now the mao cha is ready to be transported to Pu-erh and surrounding areas, to be sold to tea producers where it will receive its final processing.
Left to right: Pu-erh bar (Tea People); mand arin orange stuffed with pu-erh (white2tea); 2003 aged raw pu-erh brick (Yunnan Sourcing)
CLASSIFYING PU-ERH TEA
There are many sub-categories of pu-erh and ways to classify it, including the production method (ripe or raw), the cultivation method of the leaves, and the shape of the end product.
- Sheng (raw): Whether in loose or compressed form, it can be enjoyed young in the “green” stage, or allowed to age. This type of pu-erh matures significantly with age, changing from light, green, vegetal and astringent, to smooth, dark, earthy and complex over the years. Aged raw pu-erh is the rarest and most highly sought-after type of pu-erh.
- Shou/shu (ripe): Most dark, earthy pu-erh available at affordable prices on the market today are ripe, and they may be either loose or compressed. The enhanced aging process that was discovered in the 1970s gives it flavors commonly described as earthy, woodsy, or musty. Ripe pu-erh is sometimes referred to as a “coffee lover's tea” because of the rich, dark brew.
- Ancient / antique / old growth trees: 100+ years old. These trees grow up to 90 ft high in dense mountain forests. Their leaves are hand-harvested by ethnic minority groups – many of whom have been making tea from these same trees for generations.
- Old trees: 30-100 years old. May grow up to 30 ft high and are generally easier to access than ancient forest trees
- New cultivated bushes: less than 30 years old. Usually planted close together to support higher yields and to meet the growing demand for pu-erh tea.
- Bing (beeng) cha: A circular stone-pressed cake/disk. This is the standard shape since the Qing dynasty. Each cake weighed 357 grams, and 7 cakes would be bound together in stacks and wrapped in bamboo.
- Tuocha: Bird’s nest or dome shape. The indentation aided the drying process so the tea could avoid degradation.
- Mushroom: Looks like a mushroom, with an indentation similar to that of a tuocha shape.
- Rectangular or Square Bricks: Efficient because they could be packed well for shipping and transportation.
- Special shapes: Custom shapes can be made for special occasions. For example, as a tribute to the Chinese emperor, pu-erh was pressed into a Golden Melon (or Pumpkin) shape – this shape is now a symbol of wealth.
- Stuffed: You may find loose pu-erh stuffed inside various things, such as bamboo stalks, pomelo or even mandarin orange rinds.
Pictured: mini tuochas (photo cred. Wu Wei Tea Temple) and pu-erh bing chas bound in bamboo
CAFFEINE CONTENT IN PU-ERH TEA
The level of caffeine in your cup of pu-erh is determined by a number of factors, including the raw leaf material, the processing method, the age, and your steeping method. In general, aging breaks down caffeine (hence the more mellow taste), so you’ll get less caffeine from a very aged raw pu-erh than you will from a younger one. (However, aging pu-erh can lead to a more pronounced cha qi, which is a feeling that's hard to describe, sometimes characterized by a state of bliss or a "soft" energy.) In general, pu-erh caffeine levels will range from 10-70mg/cup. Many people enjoy pu-erh after dinner and are still able to sleep well, but if you’re new to pu-erh you might want to try drinking it earlier in the day to start off, to see the type of effect it has on you. Read more about caffeine in tea here.
PU-ERH TEA AND HEALTH
There is no doubt that pu-erh has been consumed as a healthful beverage – sometimes even for medicinal purposes – for thousands of years in Asia. In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is thought to “warm the spleen and stomach” and help with “blood cleansing” and digestion, and is therefore consumed after heavy meals or used as a hangover cure or preventative measure. Nowadays, many people around the world are picking up on the fact that it could provide them numerous health benefits. Based on our experience and research from various sources, here are some common beliefs regarding the benefits that pu-erh can provide:
- High levels of polyphenols & antioxidants promote cell health
- Studies indicate pu-erh could be the only tea that lowers bad cholesterol (LDL) while increasing good cholesterol (HDL)
- Microbial aging can result in the production of lovastatin, a natural statin (statins are used medicinally to lower bad cholesterol)
- May reduce blood sugar and help prevent diabetes
- Promotes digestion, metabolism and elimination of toxins
While these statements are not conclusive, more and more research is being done on pu-erh tea, with promising results. We recommend not using pu-erh to treat any health conditions, but rather adding it as a complement to a healthy diet and lifestyle.
You may find pu-erh to be very soothing on your stomach after a heavy meal – it is believed that pu-erh is best enjoyed after eating, as opposed to before, so that it can go to work helping to metabolize the food in your system.
TASTING PU-ERH TEA
Pu-erh encompasses a wide range of flavor profiles, depending on a number of factors including the processing style, terroir and age. Fresh raw pu-erh might be more vegetal and smoky with gentle bitterness and pungency – some are delicious to drink when young, but some can be too bitter and need years of age to mature into smoother, sweeter, richer flavors. Here are some examples of words that may be used to describe each category:
Tasting a low-quality pu-erh or one that hasn’t been stored properly can ruin your first impression of pu-erh, so if is your first time, be sure to get it from a trusted source and maybe try a few different types to see which one you prefer!
BUYING AND STORING PU-ERH TEA
In the name or description of a pu-erh tea that you’d like to buy, you’ll typically come across the type of pu-erh, and there may also be a year – especially if it’s aged. Here is some general terminology to be aware of so you know what you’re purchasing:
- Mao Cha: Loose leaf sheng (raw/green) pu-erh
- Sheng Cha: Raw pu-erh (typically compressed)
- Shou/Shu Cha: Also known as "ripe" pu-erh. Mao cha that has gone through a post-production fermentation piling process (can be loose or compressed)
- Aged Sheng Cha: Naturally aged raw pu-erh, usually for at least 10 years
Left to right: Ripe/Shou, Aged Raw/Sheng, Fresh Raw/Sheng. Photo credit: Vicky Wasik, original article: Why Tea Addicts Go Crazy for Pu-Erh by Max Falkowitz
Ripe pu-erh is the most accessible and popular type of pu-erh here in the U.S., and also generally the least expensive. However, some manufacturers choose to use low-quality leaf material to create this kind, so it’s important to buy from a trusted source and, if possible, to try a sample before you buy.
Once you buy your pu-erh, you should store it in a dark, cool, odor-free, dry area that is not exposed to large temperature variations. These are pretty typical storage guidelines for any tea, and they make sense for short-term pu-erh storage. Ripe pu-erh will keep well for years, but the flavor will not develop as much as raw. However, if you have bought raw pu-erh with the intent to age it, you should speak with an expert about proper care – while it’s still a low maintenance job, you should go about it properly if you’re investing time and money.
PREPARING PU-ERH TEA
If it’s your first time preparing pu-erh tea, it may seem a little intimidating – especially if you’re using a compressed cake form. If you’re using the compressed form, you’ll need to pry off a few grams of leaf material with a dull knife or a special pu-erh knife (you can find these from specialty pu-erh retailers or online tea shops). If using loose leaf, all you need to do is measure out the tea depending on what style of brewing you intend to use.
Before steeping your pu-erh, it is often recommended that you “rinse” the leaves by pouring near-boiling water over them and quickly discarding the water. This is to remove any dust or particles that have accumulated if it’s been aging, and also to “awaken” the leaves and prepare them for a better infusion.
Pu-erh is traditionally best enjoyed gongfu-style with a small clay teapot or a gaiwan, with multiple short steeps. However, it’s perfectly fine to brew pu-erh how you're used to preparing tea (with a larger brewing vessel and a longer steep). Here are a few general brewing guidelines for pu-erh:
HOW TO BREW PU-ERH TEA
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
- Water Kettle or Pot to Heat Water
- Tea Leaves / Sachets / Bags
- Teapot with Filter / Teacup / Personal Mug and Filter
- Gongfu accessories if applicable (tea tray, serving pitcher)
STEP ONE: HEAT THE WATER
- For ripe or very aged pu-erh: 212℉ // Boil
- For young raw pu-erh: 190℉ // Under a boil
Pro Tip: Use filtered water for the best tasting cup!
STEP TWO: MEASURE THE TEA
- Western style: About 2 grams (1-2 tsp) of leaf per 8 oz. (1 cup) of water
- Gongfu style: About 3-4 grams (2-3 tsp) of leaf per 4-6 oz. of water
STEP THREE: STEEP THE TEA
- 3-5 minutes for ripe pu-erh - it usually won’t turn bitter if you let it steep too long. Some people even prefer 7-10min brews for a thick coffee-like cup.
- For raw pu-erh, it is recommended to brew gongfu style or with very short steeps. Always check with your tea vendor for brewing guidelines specific to your tea. Otherwise, try starting with a 15 sec brew and continue to re-steep the leaves, adding 5 sec to each subsequent infusion.
Pro Tip: Cover your tea while it steeps to keep all the heat and aroma in the steeping vessel.
Pro Tip: Re-steep the same leaves a few times to get the most out of your pu-erh drinking experience!
Additions: Pu-erh is traditionally enjoyed alone, with no additions. However, feel free to add milk or sweetener if you enjoy it better that way! (In fact, Tibetans have been adding grass-fed butter and Himalayan salt to their pu-erh to make “yak butter tea” for centuries to provide them with healthy fats and sustain them in harsh climates!)
STEP FOUR: ENJOY :)
We recommend making a batch of these Orange Glazed Puerh Donuts for a unique treat!
Check out this short video on how to prepare pu-erh tea:
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Written By: Melanie Mock