Tea World! Tea World! Pu-erhty Time! Excellent!

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Pu-erh tea (alternately pronounced poo-arrrrrr like a pirate or poo-air, depending on region) is probably the least known to the everyday person. Not all that long ago (just a few 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 pu-erh, 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 “arrrrr”. It mentioned that pu-erh tea is frequently pressed, but I didn’t really understand what that meant without having seen a pressed tea before. The only thing I retained from the Wikipedia page was that it was fermented in some way, shape, or form.

So, What? It’s an Alcoholic Tea?

Not at all! Let me explain. Instead of the oxidation process that other tea types undergo, pu-erh tea really is fermented. The main difference is that oxidation is a chemical process and fermentation involves microbes (like you’ll find in cheese or yogurt).

As for the microbes, just as yogurt is good for the stomach as a digestive aid, so is pu-erh said to have similar benefits. I haven’t found any scientific evidence of this, but that’s probably because most scientific research into tea focuses on green tea and I haven’t found any studies on pu-erh yet.

PuErh_0354webHow It’s Made

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 also exposed to a certain amount of water or humidity and is then aged for months to years. It is a living tea that will grow sweeter, mellower, and smoother in flavor the longer it is aged. Some of the older aged pu-erh teas are aged for up to 50 years before it’s 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 the tea can be achieved in just a few months. The leaves will periodically be “stirred” to keep an even distribution of the microbes, humidity, etc.

The main distinction between the two forms is that, while the cooked shou pu-erh will still have a longer lifespan than most loose leaf teas, its flavors will not continue to change and flourish. The flavors of the raw sheng pu-erh will forever change and grow deeper and more complex.

Each form of pu-erh is generally pressed into bricks (as you’ll see in the above image) and you use a small, sharp knife to loosen a bit off to brew like other loose leaf teas. The biggest difference is that you can re-brew a pu-erh tea many times over, depending on how long each infusion lasts.

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How it Tastes

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!

Sources
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
3 http://www.teaclass.com/

Photos by Briana Morrison

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Comments

  1. Sheng sounds (and looks) like the kind of thing you would buy on a street corner from a guy called little Mike, but I would love to try it. I have found a little shop in Belgium that stocks it in several flavours, including orange 🙂

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