Pu-erh Tea 101: Beginner’s Guide
Pu-erh tea, known as “black tea” in the Far East part of the world, originates from the Yunnan province of China and is post-fermented. Do you want to know more? Pu-erh tea 101: beginner’s guide.
Table of Contents
Definitions of “True tea”
Not all the tea we know is true tea. Let’s clarify the difference between true teas and herbal teas.
“True teas” are made using leaves from the tea plant known as Camellia sinensis. Teas made from any other plants are not technically true teas.
5 types of true teas
In fact, herbal teas aren’t actually real teas. Instead, herbal teas are infusions. They are made either from steeping spices, herbs, and roots in hot water. These ingredients can also be combined with true teas at which point they’re known as flavored teas.
What makes it pu-erh tea?
Pu-erh (Pu’er) tea is an aged, partially fermented tea that is similar to black tea in character. Although there are other types of fermented tea like kombucha, pu-erh tea is different because the leaves themselves are fermented rather than the brewed tea.
Pu’er is a “slow” beverage, intended to be sipped, aged and savored like fine wine. It’s like a fine wine, pu’er has established brands, labels, and revered productions for the iconic status. To be considered true pu’er, the leaves must be grown in Yunnan Province, dried in the sun, come from the plant Camellia sinensis var. assamica, and allowed to ferment over weeks, months, years, or even decades.
Pu-erh teas brew up a brown-black color and have a full body with a rich and earthy taste. Revered in Asia for its health benefits, pu-erh teas are actually post-oxidized.
Available in a variety of forms: tea blocks, melons, mushrooms, tea bags, loose-leaf teas and pearls.
It is routinely compressed into cakes (“bings”), and wrapped in paper printed with the name of the tea. A cake of pu’er continues to change as it ages, and bits of tea are broken or chipped off – often with a small knife to brew.
It is often more expensive than other “true” teas. The prices vary greatly depending on:
1) Where the leaves were grown
Forest tea is more prized than terrace tea. Some pu’er can be had for just a few dollars per kg, while a few of the more prized producing villages, such as Lao Banzhang, sell maocha (the raw material used to make pu’er) for about $725 per kg.
Well-aged pu-erhs now rank among the most valuable teas in the world, and fresh batches of high quality “maocha” (unfinished tea) are considered long-term investments by collectors. In 2005, 500 g of a 64-year old “vintage” sold for nearly $150k.
The astonishing cost led to a pu’er bubble, with an increase in price between 1999 and 2007 of pu’er forest tea (da shu cha), which is grown in Bulang and Hani in Yunnan, and is thought to taste better. The bubble popped in 2007, when widespread counterfeit pu’er was discovered, and prices then stabilized.
Types of Pu-erh tea
- Raw pu-erh tea: more expensive than ripe. made by harvesting tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant and immediately subjecting the leaves to high temperatures. The heat destroys the enzymes that typically oxidize when exposed to oxygen. This process results in a tea that is technically a green tea varietal. To make raw pu-erh, the steps to make ripe pu-erh are reversed. The fresh tea leaves are pressed first, and then fermented – usually for years.
- Ripe pu-erh tea: the least expensive variety. This tea is made by fermenting the loose leaves for several months and then pressing them into shape.
- Aged pu-erh tea: post-fermented and aged like fine wine to develop more robust flavor profiles. These tea leaves are allowed to age anywhere from 10 to 15 years. The highest quality aged pu-erh teas can be aged for up to 50 years. As the tea leaves age, they are exposed to naturally occurring oxidation, which is why pu-erh teas are considered post-fermented teas or post-oxidized teas.
Pu-erh tea origins
Pu-erh originated in the city of Pu-erh in the Yunnan province of China, and is still primarily produced in the same region today. However, other provinces including Hunan and Guangdong provinces also produced similar aged-teas.
In fact, pu’er is named after a Yunnan town that was a center for trade in the early 17th century, and it’s also one of the few teas that the Chinese government has designated as a protected-origin product. Like Champagne, only teas produced in Yunnan province can officially be called “pu-erh”.
Where to produce
All “pu-erh” tea must come from the southwest region of Yunnan, China. Tea from other provinces can’t be called “pu-erh”.
Pu-erh tea processing
Pu-erh tea varieties
pu-erh tea is derived from the leaves and stems of the Camellia sinensis plant. It’s made from the leaves of a tree known as the “wild old tree,” which grows in the region.
How Pu-erh tea is made
Pu-erh is initially processed in a way similar to green tea. Leaves are harvested, steamed or pan-fired to halt oxidation, and then shaped and dried. After the leaves dry, they then undergo a fermentation process.
In fact, black and oolong teas oxidize when they are exposed to air. Most teas, unlike pu’erh, don’t undergo fermentation with bacteria and yeasts. That fermentation can produce a wide array of complex flavors – from the poorly processed and moldy to a palate so desirable that some pu’erh has commanded a higher price per gram than silver.
2 pu-erh tea categories
Sheng pu-erh: a simple non-oxidized tea whose finished product will change naturally over time. Sheng (raw) is compressed or left loose and aged, fermenting naturally over time. It’s more a traditional method, where tea leaves are aged using a longer and more gradual process.
Shou pu-erh: it starts out as a sheng puer, but goes through one more deliberate and accelerated “post fermentation” process to speed up this change into a matter of weeks as opposed to years. It’s a modern, accelerated fermentation method.
Both types of pu-erh are often aged for several years, as the rich and earthy flavors of the tea often improve over time. The pu-erh teas we carry are aged for about three years.
Flavors & Colors
Despite the dark color of pu-erh tea, flavors in this category differ dramatically from other dark styles, like black tea. This is because while black teas leaves darken through oxidation (an enzymatic reaction), pu-erh becomes dark through microbial fermentation.
Rather than being bruised, allowed to oxidize, and then roasted to remove all moisture, pu-erh teas are given a light roast before being heaped or compressed to produce microbial activity within the leaves. Over time, this fermentation creates a unique pungent, ‘earthy’ or ‘funky” taste and breaks down naturally bitter compounds (“tannins”) within the leaf, making it easy to brew without bitterness.
Before aging begins, most pu-erh tea leaves have very high levels of tannins. As with well-aged wines, tannins soften and fade over time in these teas, leaving flavor that is bold, but lacking any trace of the acidity or dryness that tannins produce in other styles. Generally, these aspects are recognized as a component of ‘strong’ tea flavor.
However, the flavors vary tremendously depending of:
- Aging: The flavors can improve over time, and is highly valued.
Young raw pu-erh is aged for less than two or three years. It tends to share some flavor characteristics with green tea in that it tastes fairly fresh and grassy. Depending on where it was grown, it may be on the sweeter or more bitter side.
Aged raw pu-erh is darker than its young raw counterpart. Its flavors tend to be earthy, woodsy, and perhaps a bit fruity closer to black tea in composition.
- Storage conditions: for example, temperature and humidity) can produce even more diverse layers of flavor.
- the variety
- harvest date
- harvesting: A single harvest, separated for aging in contrasting environments, can develop wholly distinct flavor characteristics.
Common notes: Woody mushroom, scotch, sweet hay, leather, dried cherries and stone fruit, and herbal flavor notes like camphor and aloe.
Pu-erh is often infused with other flavors such as chocolate (cocoa powder) and chrysanthemum flower. These additions can make pu-erh tea taste much better.
- Raw pu-erh tea is a bit lighter
- Aged pu-erh teas tend to have a dark reddish color
- The dark teas they get, the more popular they get
Buying & storing Pu-erh tea
Pu-erh tea is a fermented product that continues to improve in quality as it ages, so if properly stored, it lasts nearly indefinitely.
Keep pu-erh tea cakes in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. If it looks or smells off, or there’s visible mold growing on it, you should toss it.
Preparing Pu-erh tea
What you need
- Pu-erh tea: a single cake or 3–4 g of loose leaf tea per cup you make
- Boiling water
- A teapot with a strainer
- Options: cream, milk, or sweetener
- Place the pu-erh tea cake or loose leaves in the teapot and add just enough boiling water to cover the leaves (15 to 60 seconds), then discard the water. Repeat this step once more, making sure to discard the water. This “rinse” helps ensure a high quality tea.
- Fill the teapot with boiling water and allow the tea to steep for 2 minutes. Based on your taste preferences, you can steep for a longer or shorter period.
- Pour the tea into teacups and add extras as desired.
Caffeine content in Pu-erh tea
Pu-erh teas are fairly high in caffeine, containing about the same amount as black tea (half that of a cup of coffee.).
Most people can safely drink up to 3 cups (710 ml) of pu-erh tea per day, unless they’re also consuming large quantities of other caffeinated beverages.
Benefits of Pu-erh tea
Pu-erh isn’t as well-researched as other “true” teas, but there’s still plenty of evidence to suggest it may have several positive effects:
- help support mental alertness
Thanks to the caffeine in the tea.
- high in antioxidant properties
- may support heart health
- may help support healthy skin
- may promote weight loss
Pu-erh tea is fermented, so it can also introduce healthy probiotics or beneficial gut bacteria into your body. These probiotics may help improve your blood sugar control, which plays a key role in weight management and hunger.
- improves cholesterol
Several animal studies have observed that supplementing with pu-erh tea extracts benefit blood fat levels. Pu-erh tea extracts may help reduce cholesterol levels in two ways. 1) pu-erh tea increases how much dietary-fat-bound bile acid is excreted in the feces, thus keeping the fat from being absorbed into your bloodstream. 2) pu-erh tea also decreases fat accumulation. Together, these effects can decrease heart disease risk. However, animal studies don’t prove that drinking pu-erh tea will have the same effects in humans.
- fights against cancer
In test-tube studies, pu-erh tea extracts have killed breast cancer, oral cancer, and colon cancer cells. Despite it, pu-erh tea should not be used as a cancer treatment since these studies used highly concentrated extracts directly to cancer cells, which is not how drinking pu-erh tea would interact with cancer cells in your body. More research is needed to understand how drinking pu-erh tea would affect cancer cells.
- May boost liver health
Because it can help decrease fat accumulation, pu-erh tea may help prevent or reverse nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. However, this has only been noted in animal research so far. Another animal study also found that pu-erh tea extract may protect the liver from damage caused by the chemotherapy drug cisplatin.
Conclusion: Try pu-erh tea! Try young to aged ones - you might like it.
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