Pu-erh tea comes from the Yunnan province of China and is characteristically different in flavour, due to undergoing ageing or fermentation. Just like wine, pu-erh is thought to get better with age!
Poo-uh, Puuu-or, Pu-ure. There are just too many wrong ways for us to pronounce this tea. Hopefully, I'm not alone in having to look this word up multiple times and check the correct pronunciation!
PU-ERH = PU-AIR
Pu-erh comes in two forms; loose tea leaves or compressed cakes and bricks, but no matter the form, all pu-erh can be categorised into either raw or ripe.
Also known as: Green, Sheng or Un-Cooked.
General characteristics: Yellowish or green leaves, fresh floral aroma, rich aftertaste, and golden or amber steeped liquid.
Raw pu-erh doesn’t have much of a process; it's wilted and dried, before being either packed for fresh consumption or stored to age the flavour.
Also known as: Black, Shu, Shou or Cooked.
General Characteristics: Deep red or brown leaves, deep woody aroma, strong and sweet flavour.
Ripe pu-erh, rather than being stored to create flavour, goes through a piling process to instigate fermentation.
There is existing disagreement on when pu-erh was first created. Some sources suggest thousands of years ago, as early as the 7th century. Yet, even though tea drinking has occurred for thousands of years, other sources will suggest that pu-erh itself is less than 1000 years old.
One thing that most sources do agree on: Pu-erh was traded. Exportation wasn’t the globalised operation it is today and so tea was transported using animals on overland trade routes. Travelling great distances took a hell of a long time and, as you can image, carrying large amounts of fragile tea would have been a nightmare. To simplify things, tea was compressed into blocks, which not only made it easier to store, transport and move around, but also kept the tea leaves a little fresher. Despite lasting freshness, the tea still underwent a natural fermentation process, darkening and becoming richer throughout the journey, creating pu-erh.
Fast forward a few hundred years to China in the 1970’s, pu-erh was as popular as ever and the tea industry had been nationalised, factors that lead to the pu-erh industry seeking techniques to maximise outputs. This created a sped up fermentation process, thus ripe pu-erh was born. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s that a coding system was implemented. For the first time, pu-erh could be accurately tracked in terms of age and processing. Although this is an industry measure for the management and maintenance of consistent quality, it has become a way for tea drinkers to identify quality pu-erh and collectable vintages.
In the early 2000’s, pu-erh drinking in Asia reached a new level of consumption. The popularity of it had grown so much that demands could not legitimately be met. This led to inflated prices and a saturation of "knock-offs". These cheap imitations were either poorly processed, blended with other teas or, most shockingly, completely manufactured from non-tea ingredients and chemicals. By 2012 the pu-erh market equalised, with more affordable quality pu-erh tea, and fewer knockoffs… because no one wants to drink bad tea… right?
Look at this super great diagram from Hojo Tea!
Picking – One bud and 3-4 leaves are plucked. The 3rd and 4th leaves are higher in polyphenols and minerals, which is suggested to provide the classic floral/fruity flavour of pu-erh.
Pan-Frying – Although other tea, such as some green teas, are also pan-fried, pu-erh is done so at a much lower heat. Thus, the naturally occurring enzymes in tea leaves are not deactivated, allowing the leaves to ferment in a particular way.
Drying – Again, sun drying allows the leaves to retain the natural enzyme required for fermentation and ageing.
Fermentation – To create ripe pu-erh, the tea leaves must ferment. They are laid out, sprayed with water and then covered to create a humid environment that is ideal for bacteria. This process can take several weeks to complete.
Packing - As mentioned earlier, pu-erh can be packed in many ways. It is available in loose leaf form but popular, vintage and collectable pu-erh is usually sold as a tea cake (Beeng Cha) or brick (Juan Cha).
A Good or Bad Pu-erh?
As in the 70’s, there are still some poorly maintained and processed pu-erh on the market, so be aware of the following characteristics.
Earthy, Mouldy or Fishy Flavour - These are words often used to describe pu-erh, but this is NOT how pu-erh should taste. Improper fermentation can cause an imbalance of bacteria. Aside from being unpleasant to drink, this also carries health risks, due to the kind of bacteria that can manifest. As an indicator, pu-erh should verge on being sweet and fruity.
Low Price - If it seems to good to be true, then it probably is. Be wary of cheap pu-erh, it is generally more expensive than other tea.
Smokiness - This seems to be common with raw pu-erh, but if either aroma or flavour has a presence of smoke, something is amiss. This can be caused by bad storage conditions, allowing the tea to absorb its environment. However, it can also be an indication of overheated or burnt leaves caused by fan drying, instead of sun drying.
Storage Storing pu-erh, once you have bought it, is just as important as the industrial process. In the right conditions, you can age pu-erh for an indeterminate amount of time.
Tips for retaining quality
- Store in unglazed clay containers. These are light proof, minimise temperature fluctuations and allow the tea to breathe. Alternatively, a cardboard box can be used.
- Store in a cool, dry place. Keep away from humid environments, such as the kitchen, where the leaves can absorb smells from the air and/or become damp.
- If you have a cake or brick, use a knife to cut away the leaves. This reduces the surface area and retains maximum freshness. For the same reason, if you plan on ageing the tea, don't unwrap it or break any off for a sneaky try!
Teaspec explains in a beautiful way how to brew pu-erh!