Pu-erh Tea, or Pu’er tea, is a type of aged or fermented tea made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, just like black and green tea. It is a speciality of the Chinese province of Yunnan, where it is known as “black tea”, and where what we in the West usually call black tea is called “red tea”.
Although the basic method of darkening green tea leaves in order to compress and trade it has been taking place in China for centuries, it was largely unknown outside of that region until the 1990s.
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Production of Pu-erh tea
Pu-erh’s production is a complicated process which involves the fermentation and oxidation of raw tea leaves after they have been initially withered, rolled and dried in a manner similar to the production of green tea. However, Pu-erh is always produced from broader leaf varieties of Camellia sinensis and the leaves are plucked as a “bud” of three or four leaves rather than the one or two leaf plucking used for green tea. Therefore, there are older leaves in the mix and this contributes to Pu-erh’s flavour.
At this stage, the tea is called mao cha or “rough tea”. The final, or finishing, stage of the production of Pu-erh tea depends on which type of Pu-erh is to be produced.
There are two main varieties of Pu-erh tea: Sheng cha or “raw tea “, and Shou cha or “ripe tea”, sometimes called “cooked tea” in English.
Sheng cha or “raw” Pu-erh tea
The mao cha from the first stage is now allowed to age, sometimes for as much as twenty or thirty years. This involves applying carefully controlled amounts of heat and moisture which makes the leaves ferment very gradually. Often the leaves are pressed into “cakes” before the start of fermentation in order to slow the ageing process. The fermentation occurs through the action of naturally occurring yeasts, moulds and bacteria present of the leaves.
Sometimes other organic materials such as bamboo or grapefruit rinds are added which impart a particular flavour. The long production time involved makes Sheng cha highly prized and often very expensive.
Shou cha or “ripe” or “cooked” Pu-erh tea
Rising demand for Pu-erh lead to the development of this accelerated process by two factories in the 1970s. The aim is to artificially simulate aged tea making it much more affordable. The rough mao cha leaves are piled up, dampened and turned, in a manner not dissimilar from making compost, but the process needs to be highly controlled otherwise the leaves simply decompose and do turn into compost, which is not fit for human consumption.
This process is much quicker than making Sheng cha, typically taking only between 45 and 60 days to complete.
The flavours of Pu-erh tea
Good quality, fine, well-aged Sheng cha has a complex, deep and rich flavour, a much more rounded and full flavour than black or green tea. It can be reminiscent of mushrooms or have a slightly earthy quality. It is prized as an aid to digestion and therefore is often drunk after a heavy meal. Poorer quality Pu-erh will have a muddier taste, sometimes even a mouldy quality which is quite unpleasant.
Pu-erh is a strong, punchy tea which is not to everyone’s taste and it is easy to be put off by the unwitting consumption of a poor quality experience
If you are trying Pu-erh for the first time and intend to drink it on its own as a beverage, go for the most expensive Sheng cha that you can afford. Don’t over steep it (see the “How to make” section which follows) or it will be overpowering.
If the flavour on its own doesn’t appeal to you, try a blend such as ginger, vanilla or mint Pu-erh. Once you’ve acquired a taste for it you might want to switch to a more affordable ripe Pu-erh instead.
If you are planning on cooking with Pu-erh, choose a good ripe Pu-erh and save the raw Pu-erh for drinking alone. The earthy flavour of Pu-erh goes especially well with mushrooms and any dish that contains other fermented products such as soy sauce or even tofu. It is also an excellent balance to dishes that are high in fat, such as duck, lamb or pork dishes.
It is also worth noting that ripe Pu-erh has much higher levels of caffeine but lower levels of antioxidants than traditional Sheng Pu-erh so if you are trying Pu-erh for its health benefits, it is best to choose the Sheng variety.
Good quality Pu-erh tea can be difficult to find therefore we recommend purchasing from a specialist in fine Chinese teas such as TeaVivre who offer a huge range of raw and ripened Pu-erh teas as well as Pu-erh in the form of tea bags, or another trustworthy merchant such as Art of Tea.
Brewing Pu-erh tea
Pu-erh is sold usually sold as a compressed block or “cake” of tea rather than loose leaves. These may be in the shape of a brick, disc, nest or a variety of other shapes, or compressed into the hollow centre of bamboo, or into the hollowed-out peel of a citrus fruit. These outer casings should be discarded before consumption and the unused tea stored in an airtight container in a cool place and out of direct light, ideally in a glass or metal container rather than a plastic one.
In order to turn the compressed tea into a beverage, take a blunt knife, such as a butter knife to remove about a teaspoon full of compressed leaves. The leaves then need to be prepared for brewing by rinsing them: pour boiling water over them – you can either do this in a teapot and discard the water immediately, or place the leaves in a sieve and pour over a teapot quantity of water, making sure that all the leaves are wettened.
Just as with black tea, the water for brewing should be as close to boiling point as possible for the brewing stage: a slightly lower temperature will result in a weaker flavour, but you might find you prefer this, especially if you are new to Pu-erh. Let it steep for three to five minutes and serve.
Have you tried Pu-erh tea? What did you think? Let me know in the comments box below.