Pu-erh (pronounced poo-arrrrrrrrrrrrr) tea is probably the least known type of tea to the everyday person. Not all that long ago (just a couple years now), my brother living in China sent me an email asking about the kinds of tea I liked and what he had available to him. He mentioned pu-erh tea in this email and I had no idea whatsoever what he was talking about.
My first stop, naturally, was Wikipedia. They do have a pretty decent page on this tea type, but it didn’t really answer most of my questions. For one thing, I still mentally pronounced it more like the word “pure” than “poo” and “arrrrrrrrrrr”. It mentioned that pu-erh tea is pretty frequently pressed, but I didn’t really understand what that meant without ever having seen a pressed tea before. The only thing I really retained from the Wikipedia page was that it was fermented in some way, shape, or form.
I guess that since I wasn’t familiar with how tea was made up to this point, this didn’t make much impact on me. In fact, at the time I still sort of assumed that each tea type came from a different plant. Now that I know more, I just enjoy understanding what these differences really mean for the tea.
To begin with, instead of the oxidation that the other tea types undergo, pu-erh tea really is actually fermented. The real difference is that oxidation is a chemical process and fermentation involves microbes (like you’ll find in cheese or yogurt). I remember one day at work, I was preparing some pu-erh tea from a compressed brick. A coworker asked what it was and I explained that it’s a type of tea, but it’s fermented. His immediate response was, “Oh. So how much alcohol is in it?”
I was in a bit of shock at that assumption at first, but when I think about it more, it really is a (potentially) natural place to go with this. If you think of the fermentation in the sense of cheese and yogurt, it seems normal for it not to be alcoholic (which it totally isn’t, by the way). But if you think of it in terms of the fermentation involved in creating beer, wine, and liquor… well, it’s a different approach entirely. Considering I live in Chico, the hometown of Sierra Nevada Brewery, it’s understandable someone would make the beer and wine fermentation connection first.
As for the microbes, just as yogurt is supposed to be good for the stomach and as a digestive aid, so is pu-erh said to have similar effects. I have not yet read any scientific evidence of this related to pu-erh, but I haven’t really tried to date, anyway. Maybe someday I’ll write up a full post on the topic!
In any case, pu-erh tea is produced solely in China, in Yunnan province. It gains its name from the town that has been known for centuries to have an avid market for this type of tea. The primary are in Yunnan is in the south west area in and around XiShuangBanNa. My brother and I had the opportunity to spend a few days in this area and even went to Menghai, famous for its pu-erh factories. It was Spring Festival, so they were closed, but it was an amazing experience nonetheless!
Before I get into how pu-erh is made (briefly), I just want to talk a little about how it’s stored and prepared. There is the occasional pu-erh tea that is loose leaf, but most of it is packed and sold in a compressed form. You essentially just break off part of it and brew it like other loose leaf teas. Pretty cool, if you ask me!
Pu-erh teas are made in two main forms, raw (also referred to as sheng, green, or uncooked) and cooked (also referred to as shou or ripened). The raw pu-erh is the form that has been around the longest. It is a kind of tea that can age, just like with fine wine, liquors, or cigars. It it prepared roughly like a green tea, but is exposed to a certain amount of water or humidity and is then aged for years. It is a kind of living tea that will grow sweeter, mellower, and smoother in flavor the longer it is aged. Some of the older aged pu-erh teas can be aged for up to 50 years before it is brought to market. These finer teas can get extremely expensive!
It wasn’t until recent years that shou pu-erh teas were conceived of and created. It is an attempt to bring all of the benefits of aging the tea for potentially decades into a much shorter time frame. By creating optimal conditions for fermentation and introducing some of the microbes from ancient pu-erh to the tea leaves as they ferment, the effect of mellowing out the tea can be achieved in closer to just a few months. The leaves will periodically be moved around and sort of “stirred” to keep things even when producing shou pu-erh.
The main difference between the two is that, while the cooked/shou pu-erh will still have a longer lifespan that most loose leaf teas, its flavors will not continue to change and flourish. The raw/sheng pu-erh will forever be changing and growing deeper and more complex.
All pu-erh will have a pretty amazing earthy richness that I personally find fantastic. Even though I do not enjoy the flavor of coffee, this is the first tea I will recommend to a staunch coffee drinker. It is rich and hearty and can be brewed very dark without fear of that bitterness and burnt flavor you can get by over-brewing other types of tea.
I’m aware that I have only just scratched the surface when it comes to pu-erh. And trust me when I say I’ll be writing more about this most intriguing of tea types in the future. But for now, I must cut it off and say have an excellent day and don’t forget to take your Ritalin!
1 The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J Heiss.
2 The New Tea Companion by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson
All photos by Briana Morrison
With the obvious exception of the one of me in China… Clearly taken using a basic point-and-click.