Poo – what?
Proper, authentic pu-erh tea (pronounced “poo-air”) comes only from the Yunnan province in China. Although it is also produced in parts of Taiwan, the tea purists insist on the genuine Yunnan provenance. Pu-erh shares same origins and parent plant Camellia Sinensis with oolong, black, and green teas, but that’s where the similarity and any collective parentage end.
Why is it special?
While oolong tea is slightly fermented, black tea completely fermented, green tea not fermented at all, pu-erh tea haughtily looks back over its shoulder at its younger cousins and gets special treatment by being post-fermented.
Fermented vs. oxidized tea
Sometimes, all types of black tea are generally dubbed fermented, even though not all of them live up to the name. In the industry jargon, the two terms oxidized and fermented are being used as synonyms and unfairly so. Oxidation is a purely chemical process: the tea leaves interact with oxygen and turn “black”. Fermentation, on the other hand, assumes involvement of living bacteria. Compare this to utilizing the ferments in yogurt or leavened bread production. Pu-erh tea is the only type of tea that is not only oxidized but actually fermented, inhabited with healthy microflora. Thanks to hard work of the bacteria, aged pu-erh tea would evolve with time like a fine wine.
Sounds like an odd thing to do to tea…
This aging process is unique among all teas, but not unknown in epicurean gastronomy. It can be linked to vintage wine or aged cheese in the way that the products only get better with age, rather than going stale like yesterday’s bread.
So, how is Pu-Erh tea made?
Let’s compare the gestation of pu-erh to that of mainstream teas to help you understand where it sits on the tea spectrum.
- White tea leaves are simply cut and dried – no further processing required
- Black tea leaves are cut and then left to oxidize until they turn black
- Green tea leaves are cut, withered, and then steamed or pan-fired to halt oxidation
- Oolong tea leaves sit between black tea and green tea with the oxidation stopped halfway before they turn black
- Then, there’s pu-erh. In fact, there are two types of pu-erh. These are the twins that happened to get different upbringing.
The first type, Sheng – row, green pu-erh. It starts out as a slightly oxidized tea that is then getting moistened and compressed into bricks or cakes, preserving natural bacteria inside. This is your young Sheng Pu-erh. It might be sharp, astringent, and bitter, but some connoisseurs prefer it this way and it is available for sale at this stage. To bring it to maturity, Sheng would be stored in the proper environment for years and decades while it is getting oxidized and fermented (“ripened”). The longer this process lasts, the more complex, mellow, and smooth the taste becomes. The result is the aged or ripe Sheng Pu-erh, the most respected of all Pu-erh family.
The other type is Shou – ripe, black pu-erh. It is also oxidized and fermented, with a “bootcamp” approach. To speed up the processing, dry tea leaves are piled up in warm and humid conditions. Moisture is constantly added to encourage effective “composting”. The time of ripening gets down dramatically (from decades to months), so does the price of the final product… as well as the complexity of its flavors. Make no mistake, Shou Pu-erh is a wonderful tea with luscious body and soothing, earthy aromas. It is just thicker, darker, and more straightforward than its sophisticated twin sibling, aged Sheng Pu-erh.
How does a Pu-erh tea taste like?
Pu-erh is not everyone’s cup of tea. Like a moldy cheese, it requires an acquainted palate. First time drinkers complain about its “musty” or “moldy” taste. That’s not a far cry from reality, since throughout the fermentation process living bacteria interact with the tea leaves. As a result, pu-erh acquires this kind of an earthy flavor. If your preference is for fresh, floral, and herbaceous notes, you’d better look elsewhere.
Don’t get discouraged though.
Seasoned pu-erh drinkers consider pu-erh tea as “very complex and layered in flavor”, “smooth”, “velvety with no acidity or astringency whatsoever”, “full-bodied, earthy”. You might pick up “notes of moss”, “wood”, “autumn leaves” to its flavor.
Beyond the unusual taste: health benefits of Pu-Ehr tea
Like many other teas, pu-erh tea has been touted as medicinal. Besides that pu-erh contains healthy bacteria, which are good for your digestive system, it is also high in antioxidants. Pu-erh lovers cite improvements in a range of conditions from lowing cholesterol to better mental acuity. Plus, pu-ehr is useful in fighting the belly fat, detoxing and aiding digestion, reducing stress and curing a hangover.
Who makes the best Pu-Erh tea?
There is a difference between factory produced pu-erh and tea from boutique suppliers. Factories tend to make pu-erh from younger tea bushes. The tea could be flat in flavor and even bitter. Smaller producers nurture the tea plants from generation to generation. Some of those trees have been growing for tens and hundreds of years on the mountain ranges of Yunnan. As a result, the teas come out sweeter and smoother, with layered complex flavors.
Is there an expiration date to Pu-Erh tea?
Don’t worry about the production or sell-by dates on the packaging (it’s likely to be in Chinese anyway). With pu-erh – the diva of teas –
age is just a number, darling.