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Mysterious, magical, grand cru from Asia…Pu erh Tea

Posted on Dec 29, 2015

Aging Pu erh tea is like laying down a vintage bottle of wine, champagne or malt whisky and is part of everyday life in China.

Strange you may think. Why you may ask?

In the western world we've been brought up to believe that most tea doesn't age well but turns stale and dull. The Chinese have proved otherwise. With the right tea and the right environment you get a drink that is exceptionally unique, a beverage that slips down the throat like a malt whisky, easing body and calming the mind. But Pu erh is not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet it is lusted after by its many fans who settle down for their tea drinking sessions and get intoxicated by the heady flavours and aromas.

Pu erh is processed in a special way and is from the Yunnan province of China. where it has been produced for thousands of years. In China there are those who buy kilos of Pu erh at a time, to brew, and to discuss during their tea parties, the best blends, the best growing regions and the best storage methods. Then there are those who drink the tea to gain social standing among the Chinese elite, such is its highly regarded status. It is one of the few teas that has been designated as origin protected by the Chinese government. Pu erh is a relatively new discovery in the west but is a growing niche market and does have some fans.

What is this phenomenon called Pu erh?

To earn the privilege of being called Pu erh, it must be made from the large leaves of the camellia sinensis (Dayeh) tree and be grown in the Yunnan province. Its history is closely related to the tea trade between China and other countries and it is named after the town where it was originally sold, Puerh City.  It was originally compressed by hand into cake like shapes for easier transit and acquired its dark colour and flavour due to natural fermentation in transit. It can take up to 15 years for a raw (unfermented) Pu erh to reach the dark colour and flavour desired by its drinkers. In 1970 the fermentation process, called Shou, was developed to speed up the fermentation process which led to investors gambling and speculating on the tea’s market. In the 1990’s and 2000’s lots of fake Pu erh was made from leaves outside the Yunnan and prices went sky high. Collectors started to hoard their aged puerh’s and the quality of Pu erh fell as production was increased to meet demand. The bubble finally burst and production is more or less back to normal.

There are two types of Pu erh tea, sheng (raw) and shou (processed). Raw Pu erh is made from the large tea leaves and undergoes minimal processing but careful ageing under strict conditions. There is also a young raw (2-3) years old which does not have the characteristics or a mature puerh but is more like a green tea, tasting floral and grassy. The shou, processed Pu erh, uses heat and moisture and the addition of beneficial bacteria to ripen the tea leaves and can take a year to process. Some are also aged to give a greater depth of flavour.

Pu erh can be bought in all shapes and sizes and differs from other tea as it is usually compressed into bowls (tuo cha ) or cakes (bing cha). You can also buy Pu erh in loose leaf form which may be packed into bamboo stalks.

So what does this magical, mysterious tea taste like and why is it so coveted in China?

Good quality puerh has a deep, rich, earthy flavour.  A bad quality Pu erh can taste muddy or mouldy. Aging the tea, like a fine wine, changes the flavours from smoky, harsh and bitter to mellow, smooth and sweet.  And as with all teas there are regional variations in taste and characteristics of individual puerh’s.

Pu erh tea also offers exceptional health benefits and has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine for cleansing the blood and aiding digestion. In China and Hong Kong Pu erh is often taken after heavy meals like dim sum, as an after dinner digestif. And it can be used to prevent or cure a hangover.  Some studies have shown that Pu erh may lower bad cholesterol and raise the level of good cholesterol, lower blood pressure and increase the metabolism.  And because it contains L theanine it can induce sleep and is used to treat insomnia.

Even though it may still be the next big ‘thing’ in tea in the west, it already has an incredible following of tea addicts in Asia, and has a niche market here in the west. Pu erh has a unique character, mature, deep and sophisticated, full of complex flavours and, like a good wine, gets better with age.   

Mysterious, magical, grand cru from Asia…Pu erh Tea