Pu erh Tea, The Connoisseur's Choice

Pu erh Tea is a Chinese speciality tea with a fascinating history thought to go back as far as the Tang dynasty. There's really no other tea quite like it; the post-fermentation and ageing processes involved in its production make it unique from others, and bring out wonderful rich and intense flavours and character, that make it appreciated the same way a fine aged wine or whisky may be. The deep, cherry blackness of its steeped leaves deliver delicious earthy and complex flavours that naturally develop over time as it mellows and improves with age, resulting in something very special and, like most good things in life, worth waiting for.

Pu erh tea gets its name from the town Pu'er in the Yunnan Province of China, a historical hub of commerce for tea growers from this region, and surrounding mountain areas. Their harvests of tea were once transported by horses, camels and mule caravans, along the winding mountain paths of the Ancient Tea Horse Road to far-flung areas of China, Tibet, Mongolia and South East Asia. For ease of transport, tea was compressed into different shaped slabs, bricks or logs. It was during these long journeys, as the tea was exposed to the elements and changing temperatures, a natural fermentation process occurred. This brought about microbial changes that resulted in a great enhancement of flavour and health-giving properties. Like other green, black and oolong teas, Pu-erh is made from leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. The mountainous terrain and warm, humid climate where they grow are perfect conditions for tea cultivation. Some of the trees from which they are plucked are ancient and have been growing wild for hundreds of years, providing a livelihood for generations of tea-producing families. Pu erh is considered to be a 'black tea' by the Chinese, but in the West is known as 'dark', 'aged' or 'post-fermented' tea. There are various way of writing its name, that include 'Pu-erh', 'Puer', 'Pu er', 'Pu-er', 'Pu'er', and 'Puerh'.

There are two main categories of Pu erh tea and these are known as Sheng (also called 'raw', 'green', or 'uncooked' Pu erh, and Shou (also called 'ripened', 'black', or 'cooked' Pu erh. Sheng is the original type, that gradually grew more popular over time, until the high demand for it could hardly keep up with supply. It became necessary to find a way of speeding up the fermentation process so the tea would mature and be ready for consumption sooner. The method of processing Shou Pu erh tea was devised by the Chinese tea industry in the 1970s, and involves an additional step to the fermentation process. Both Sheng and Shou are similarly harvested. The plucked leaves are first withered so they lose moisture and start the process of oxidation, then fired to halt the oxidation process, before being rolled, to twist and break the leaves, so releasing their natural juices. The leaves are then sun-dried and sorted. Sheng is allowed to naturally ferment by means of a slow oxidation process, but Shou is purposely fermented; after being dried, the leaves are heaped in piles, moistened with water, and periodically turned. This produces heat that encourages microbial fermentation. This method of 'cooking' the leaves means they take just months rather than years to mature. Both Sheng and Shou can be compressed into a variety of shapes, such as cakes, logs, bells, mushrooms, bricks, cubes, and small nest shapes known as 'tuocha', or left as curled, loose leaves, before being stored to age. Sheng teas can be considered 'young' or 'aged' depending on how long they are left to mature. A young Sheng will produce a green tea, but will darken with age. Although it was initially an affordable tea mainly produced for the poor, nowadays well-aged, high quality Pu erh teas can command exorbitant prices. Some Sheng teas have been left to mature for more than fifty years, and some are sought-after collectables because of their rarity.

As well as being enjoyed for its complexity of flavours and character, drinking Pu erh tea has long been associated with health-giving benefits, and was used as a nutritional supplement by ethnic and nomadic tribes in parts of Asia. It is thought to have cleansing and restorative properties, and be beneficial to digestion. It's believed to help with weight loss by speeding up the process of burning fat, and is a good source of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. It is said to contain small amounts of the chemical lovastatin, that helps to lower LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), and help raise HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol). It is also thought to alleviate stress and improve mental alertness.

There's no easy way to describe how Pu erh tea will taste, as it depends on so many factors, such as its age, how it has been stored, and even the particular mountain it has grown on. It has been described variously as earthy, rich, smooth, sweet, bitter, chocolatey, floral, musty or woody, with flavours such as plum, cherry, or forest fruits. To prepare a cup, it is suggested that approximately 3-4 g be steeped in 200 ml of hot water at a temperature of around 93º C-99º C (200º F-210º F). A prying pick is useful to break up Pu-erh cakes and the amount used should be weighed. Some people prefer to discard the first steep or two, then steep again for two to four minutes, or longer according to taste. Unlike other black teas, Pu erh will not spoil or become bitter if brewed too long, but it may take a little trial and error with infusion times to achieve the desired flavour. Leaves may be used several times, and can produce more complex flavours the more they are steeped.

At Tea-Direct.co.uk, we range hundreds of wonderful loose leaf teas and sumptuous infusions from around the world, including Pu erh Tea, Chinese Young Pu erh Tea and Mini Touhcha Pu-Erh Pie Tea. Through our network of gifted buyers, we carefully select the very finest varieties for your enjoyment, and swiftly deliver them to your home, work or anywhere else!