Pu-erh tea is a unique, aged style of fermented tea produced in China’s western Yunnan province. Home to a wide range of ethnic groups, people here have been harvesting the ancient tea trees that grow amid the jungle-like forests and on terraced gardens throughout this mountainous region for hundreds of years. Created using time honored techniques, pu-erh tea is revered for its reported health benefits of lowering cholesterol, aiding digestion, and stimulating weight loss. Unlike most tea which is prized for its freshness, pu-erh teas are often classified by connoisseurs for their vintage and age. As the teas age, the complex flavors and aromas deepen and intensify, and the teas are prized for their toasty, earthy qualities. Pu-erh teas come in both loose leaf and “pressed’ varieties. During the production process, the leaves may be pressed into cakes, or bricks, and then wrapped in paper, rinds, or bamboo and allowed to “cure” over time. It may take several years of underground storage to produce the dark, mellow flavors that are characteristic of Pu-erh tea. Pu-erhs can also be either raw green (sheng) pu-erhs, or cooked (shu) pu-erhs. The steps of processing are complex and variable, but in general, after the leaves go through their initial tea processing, they are heaped into large piles. Careful monitoring of the moisture and heat as the leaves are delicately turned ensures the fermentation process begins in the leaves. Once the leaves are deemed ready, they are pressed into any number of shapes, or pressed into fruit, bamboo, or even baskets. Raw pu-erh is then covered in paper and allowed to age, in carefully controlled climactic conditions, and the longer the better. Cooked pu-erh, after pressing, goes through an additional step of being placed in a heated chamber where the leaves are then allowed to oxidize. Cooked pu-erhs are usually ready to drink long before their raw counterparts, however age is still considered a desirable factor.
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