About Pu-erh Tea
What is Pu-erh Tea?
Pu-erh tea is a traditional style of tea made in the Yunnan Province in Southwestern China. Pu-erh tea is unique because it is aged, and is often pressed into various shapes to form coins, bricks, mushroom, or other shapes. It has a long history, dating back to the Han Dynasty (25 – 225 AD) and was often used as currency. During the long travels on the backs of horses, donkeys or men along the traditional trade routes like the Tea Horse Road, the tea would be repeatedly moistened with water to keep it from becoming over dry. This practice, along with a diverse range of weather and climactic conditions during the trip, allowed the tea to continue to ferment during the long trip and it’s believed this is how the first pu-erh teas were discovered. Today, the process is carefully handled from start to finish. This aged tea is prized for its multitude of health benefits and has become a highly sought after collectible for connoisseurs around the world, especially in Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, often fetching outrageous prices.
Why is Pu-erh Tea valued for age?
As the tea ages, the natural fermentation process allows the growth of beneficial microbes in the tea. Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganism, involving the giving off of heat. Some of the more recognizable of the microbes found in Puerh include Aspergillus niger, (also found in yogurt or sour dough bread), and Penicillium (a bacteria that stops the growth of undesirable bacteria, used to make cheese). These beneficial microbes, along with a multitude of others, help to create the many health benefits of pu-erh tea that have been cherished for centuries in Chinese medicine. Modern science has found truth to the claims of aiding in weight loss, preventing heart disease and hardening of arteries, reducing high blood pressure, controlling inflammation in the body, and supporting healthy digestion.
Where does it grow?
Pu-erh tea grows amidst the Six Famous Mountains in Xishangbanna, Yunnan where there are excellent growing conditions. Each mountainous area has its own “terroir”, with unique growing and climactic conditions attributing to a unique taste profile of the tea grown there. Located on either side of the Mekong River, the tea is harvested both from wild tea trees and from cultivated plants. The teas made using leaves from the wild trees are more highly prized.
Types of Pu-erh
There are two main styles of puerh; green puerh, also called raw, or Sheng Cha, and black puerh, also called cooked, ripe, or Shou Cha. Each is carefully harvested by hand in the traditional way, plucking only the top two leaves and a bud. After the harvest, the leaves are carefully sorted, with inferior leaves being removed. The leaves are then spread in the sun to be allowed to wither gently to reduce their moisture content, and then they are pan fired to halt any further oxidation. The leaves are then rolled into long strips and left to fully dry in the sun.
Green pu-erh (Sheng Cha) is then either pressed into one of the traditional shapes, or stored as a loose tea, and is then allowed to age naturally. The environment is carefully controlled to create the most ideal levels of temperature and humidity and there must be a healthy flow of air to prevent the growth of mold and mildew. The conditions of the storage facility are paramount to the quality of the final product. Over time, the astringent characteristics of the tea mature into a smooth, complex flavor with slightly earthy aromas and tastes. The longer the tea is aged, the greater its value, and naturally aged, green pu-erh teas are considered more valuable and superior to the artificially aged, black pu-erhs.
Black pu-erh (Shou Cha) was created to meet the demands for pu-erh tea that came after the cultural revolution of China in the 1970’s, and the introduction of this tea to the world markets. In an effort to speed up the aging process, the tea masters developed a technique to mimic the characteristics of the naturally aged tea. After being processed in the traditional method, black pu-erh is then arranged in a large pile in a warm and humid area. The pile would then be misted with water, and carefully, periodically turned in a method similar to composting. The pile must be carefully monitored so that the leaves do not begin to decompose but to maintain conditions under which the growth of the beneficial microbes and bacteria are encouraged. Once deemed ready, the tea is then either stored in cloth bags as loose pu-erh or pressed into shapes. Once the processing is completed, further aging does not necessarily benefit the black pu-erh.
Pressing into Shapes
The most common forms of pressed pu-erh are the Bing Cha (disc) Tuo Cha (bowl or nest), or Zuan Cha (brick). Other common shapes are the melon, square, and mushroom. Sometimes, the tea is tightly packed into a citrus fruit or bamboo stalk to age.
When pressing into shapes, the tea is first gently steamed to make the leaves less brittle and more pliable. It’s then weighed into the proper weight for the final shape, and then usually placed into a cotton or linen bag and formed into a ball. A paper ticket that indicates the origin of the tea is usually included. The bag is twisted shut, and the coiled area of the bag is turned into itself and forms the little dimple in the disk or bowl. The tea ball is then pressed, either by hand with heavy stone cylinders, or with a mechanized press.
Once pressed into the desired shape, the tea is then removed from the cloth bag and placed on open shelves to dry naturally for a number of weeks, or until the tea master has determined that the moisture content is correct for it to be carefully wrapped in air permeable paper and stored on the shelves.
How do I brew it?
Pu-erh tea is best brewed in Chinese style, either using the Gung Fu Ceremonial style of preparing in a small, Yixing (traditional clay) teapot, or in a gaiwan (a lidded, handleless tea bowl). Without going into depth to describe these methods, here are some general guidelines for brewing pu-erh tea. After assembling your brewing utensils, cut a small amount, about the size of a quarter, of tea from the cake. The general rule is about 1 gram of tea per oz. of water, but feel free to increase or decrease amount based on personal taste. Pressed pu-erh tea can be quite hard, and the best way to break off a bit of the leaves is by using a pu-erh knife. Carefully insert the knife in a horizontal manner and gently pry some of the leaves off the pu-erh cake.
Next, put the leaves in the already rinsed and heated teapot or gaiwan. Pour some hot water onto the tea and take 3 relaxed breaths. Pour the water out. This step is called “rinsing, or washing” the leaves. Not only does it rinse away any extra dust from storage, but it awakens the leaves. Now, pour the hot water over the leaves (about 190° for green pu-erh, and about 210° for black). Allow the tea to infuse for only about 20 seconds for the first infusion, increasing the time slightly for each successive infusion. High quality pu-erh teas can be infused many times.
Pu-erh has flavors that are unique and unlike those of other, more common styles of tea. The natural fermentation process creates a depth and complexity of aromas and flavors that are sometimes an acquired taste, much like other forms of fermented foods and beverages, such as beer, kombucha, or kim chee. The rich, moist earth aroma of pu-erh tea is often reminiscent of taking a walk in the forest, and in the cup, a quality pu-erh should offer no astringency, and should have a smooth, rich, earthy flavor. With green pu-erh, the older the tea the more it will develop a smooth, sometimes sweet finish.
The wide variety of pu-erh tea available today offers the tea connoisseur an endless choice of flavor.
Modern Tea: A Fresh Look at an Ancient Beverage, Lisa Boalt Richardson, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2014
Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic, Jinghong Zhang, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2014