Pu erh is perhaps the most singular of the seven tea families. It’s known as the least accessible tea category, especially because of its distinct and sometimes intense flavours. You don’t need to be a tea expert to appreciate its elegant side- suffice it to say a single taste has hooked more than a few first-timers. With the growing enthusiasm for tea of the last few years, pu erh is getting more and more popular. And as we become ever more accustomed to its characteristic taste, we can treat it a little like a hearty cheese or even a nice piece of dark chocolate.
Pu erh is an aged, fermented tea that can be found in many forms. In the most common, the leaves are compressed into little cakes called bing cha, in little nuggets called tuo cha, or in the shape of a brick. Yunnan province, in southwest China, is where the majority of pu erhs are produced. Pu erh originated in Yunnan, where wild tea trees, aged over 1,000 years, still grow in the forests. Once upon a time, the tea leaves were harvested then compressed to facilitate their transport to the village of Pu’er, on old commercial center for tea exchange. This is how, with time, the name Pu’er came to be associated with particular type of tea.
The unique way of processing pu erh tea leaves gives its characteristic flavour. There are two methods: sheng and shou. The oldest, sheng (meaning raw), consists of making the fresh green leaves into cakes and aging them naturally in certain caves. This process can take years. Sheng pu erh only improve with time, not unlike fine wine. In China, it’s not uncommon to give a pu erh cake as a wedding gift and take it out 10 or even 25 years later for a fine-aged taste. Pu erh aged more than 30 years are considered very high quality teas worth their weight in gold.
With the recent popularity of pu erh, producers needed to quickly find a new method to meet their demand. Waiting years to drink your tea is not ideal for daily consumption. And so they developed a method to accelerate the process. We call pu erhs made this way shou (meaning cooked). The leaves are dried then stacked in batches, forming a large pile, in a warm and humid room. The leaves then release their water as vapor, and a new batch is piled on top. The heat exchanged between the batches rises quickly and accelerates the aging of the first batch of leaves. This process takes about 3 months.
Next, the leaves are gently raked to ensure they are evenly dried. The dried leaves are then compressed into cakes or bricks in the same way as sheng. They are, however, best drunk shortly after purchasing, as they age considerably less well than sheng pu’erh.
These two types of pu erh present rather different tasting notes. Sheng is known for its mineral flavours, which evoke root vegetables, like beet. Shou has a deeply earthy flavour which recalls wood and dew. Both teas are famously full-bodied and are ideal substitutes for anyone who wants to replace their coffee consumption with tea. With time, aging breaks down some of the tannins that make the liqueur slightly bitter.
One of the reasons for pu erh’s recent rise in popularity is its numerous health benefits. It’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years. It’s known to aid digestion and help the liver process toxins (this makes it ideal for the day after a big night out).
For any fan of tea or adventurer, pu erh is worth discovering. Inside each little cake is hidden a bountiful treasure.