Pu erh Tea - The Complete Story
4 CommentsThursday, 3 May 2018 | The Tea Makers of London
What is Pu erh Tea?
Pu erh tea is a product of historic interest. Like many other well-loved foods and beverages, its invention was a result of fluke conditions. In this post, we explore the fascinating story behind a tea that ages with grace.
Deep in the mountains of Yunnan, shrouded in mist, Chinese farmers pluck large tea leaves from hundred-year-old, wild growing tea trees. Applying ancient knowledge, passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years, the inhabitants of the first tea-growing-region in the world, take part in the slow process of producing a tea that fascinates and intrigues. This speciality Chinese tea is known as ‘Pu erh’.
Pu erh is a post-fermented, aged tea that stems from the Yunnan province of China. There is some dispute about the origin of Pu erh. Some say that its history dates back to the 7th Century, others say that it has only been around for 700-800 years. One thing is certain though, the Chinese have been consuming Pu erh tea for hundreds of years. In the West, however, it remains a specialist beverage which is enjoyed by a niche of knowledgeable tea-lovers and tea connoisseurs. Pu erh teas impart a rich, smooth and earthy taste with complex overtones ranging from plum to chocolate. Like fine wines, Pu erh teas become better with age. The oldest Pu erh teas are sought-after collectables that sell for as much as £800-1,000 a gram. Some even equate the practise of consuming Pu erh, to drinking a part of history.
Throughout time, man-kind has battled the inevitability of the decomposition of food. Salting, pickling, cooling and freezing, are amongst some of the methods used to preserve produce. Sometimes, however, it can be beneficial to let nature take its course. For foodstuffs, such as Pu erh, ageing simply develops a deeper and more complex flavour.
Pu erh Names & Categories
Pu erh belongs to a category of teas, referred to in the West as ‘Dark Teas’. In China, the category is known as ‘Black Teas’. The teas that we, in the West, call ‘Black Teas, are referred to in China as ‘Red Teas’. To add to the confusion, some also refer to the dark tea category as ‘Aged Teas’ or ‘Post-fermented Teas’. The Pu erh family, is the most famous of dark teas.
There are two main categories of Pu erh: ‘Sheng’ and ‘Shou’.
Sheng - Growth and Fermentation Process Diagram below by cathrine_thapa.
Sheng is also referred to as ‘Green’, ‘Raw’ or ‘Un-cooked’ Pu erh and can be further divided into the categories ‘Young’ and ‘Aged’ - referring to the amount of time the tea has been aged. Aged Sheng is viewed as the highest quality of Pu erh teas.
Shou - Growth and Fermentation Process Diagram below by cathrine_thapa.
Shou is also known as ‘Black’, ‘Cooked’, ‘Ripe’ or ‘Ripened’ Pu erh. Shou goes through an extra processing step known as ‘cooking’, which hastens the ageing process.
We will elaborate upon the differences between Sheng and Shou below.
The name ‘Pu erh’ stems from its place of origin - the Pu’er City of Yunnan, China - and has a number of different variations. Pu erh is also referred to as ‘Pu-erh’, ‘Pu er’, ‘Puer’, ‘Pu-er’ or ‘Pu’er’. Pu’er City is located in the south of the Yunnan region. Mountainous terrain dominates the area, with elevations ranging from 376m to 3,306m. Pu’er City has a warm and humid subtropical climate which creates good conditions for growing tea. Producing and exporting Pu erh tea, is an important source of income for the city and the larger area of Yunnan.
Pu erh production is highly regulated to ensure high-quality and authenticity. It is exclusively aged teas from the Yunnan province of China, that can be classified as a Pu erh tea. Other post-fermented teas, must be referred to as ‘Dark Tea’ (Western term) or ‘Black Tea’ (Chinese term).
The History of Pu erh Tea
Dark teas have a longstanding history that dates back over 1000 years. Originally, dark, compressed teas were produced for people living in the remote areas of China’s borders. Transporting tea to these areas, meant long and complex travels across the country. This transportation was mainly carried out on horseback and on camels. Therefore, merchants would compress tea into slabs, bricks and logs for convenience of transport. By applying these methods, the tea would take up less space and would not be as prone to spoil during transportation.
Long-term exposure to moisture from rain and sweat during transport, resulted in a natural post-fermentation. This generated a microbial development which improved the flavour and reported health benefits of the tea.
Hence, it was the conditions of transporting tea to rural areas of China, that prompted the development of Pu erh. It was found that the ageing and post-fermentation process, that the teas were exposed to during transportation, created a tea which was said to aid digestion and provide important nutrients, that otherwise were not available in certain local diets. Pu erh was also very affordable, which added to its growth in popularity across the Chinese nation.
Producing Pu erh Tea
For a tea to be classified as ‘Pu erh’, it must be made from the large-leaf Assamica variety of the Camellia Sinensis tea plant and must be grown in the Yunnan province of China. Pu erh, is one of only a few speciality Chinese teas, to be protected by a region-specific classification by the Chinese government. While this restricts the character and terroir of the tea, the true characteristics of Pu erh, stems from the process that happens after harvesting.
Tea plants from the Yunnan region, have large, soft leaves, that are spaced far apart on large, tough stems. The leaves grow on trees and bushes in the mountainous area of the world’s oldest tea region. Some of these trees are up to a thousand years old and are treated with great care by farmers, who dedicate they entire lives to creating the perfect cup of Pu erh. Using ancient knowledge, these farmers carefully tend to both wild-growing a specially planted Camellia Sinensis leaves, that are earmarked for Pu erh production. Years will go by before these fresh leaves will be ready for consumption. When they are, however, they will impart a tea flavour which is very different from any other tea.
Pu erh teas vary from estate to estate. Each tea farmer uses a different and unique leaf. Some use an abundance of tips and some use silver leaves which grow wild on hillsides in the region. The unique Pu erh teas, which are made from these large, wild-growing leaves, are exceptionally highly prized.
After harvesting, the leaves are heat treated. The timing of this process is incredible precise. The leaves must be exposed to heat long enough to halt oxidation, but not so long that it reduces all moisture and kills the natural bacteria, which are essential to the fermentation and ageing process. The tea leaves also go through a process of withering, oxidation, rolling and sun drying.
When dealing in other types of tea, farmers usually sell the dried leaves directly to wholesalers and merchants. With Pu erh, however, farmers sell the dried loose leaf tea - known as ‘maocha’ - to processors who compress them into various shapes. Harvested and dried leaves are sent to Pu’er City, where each manufacturer blends the leaves, per individual, unique and time-honoured recipes, and continues the production process.
As mentioned, Pu erh was originally compressed into shapes to make it easier to transport. In modern times, however, Pu erh processors compress tea to create a more stable and portable aging environment. Pu erh shapes vary. The most common shapes are brick, cake, log, bell, mushroom and little nests which are referred to as ‘Tuocha’ or ‘Mini Cakes’.
After compression, the Sheng Pu erh tea is stored in cellars under unique temperature and moisture conditions. These conditions create subtle chemical processes, that further mature and mellow the tea over time. You can drink Pu erh tea after three months of ageing. It takes years, however, before the tea starts to develop that unique aged Pu erh flavour.
During the past 50 years, the demand for Pu erh tea has grown as a result of rising interest from the West. Therefore, the Chinese have invented a very clever method to hasten the process of producing Pu erh.
Earlier, we mentioned that there are two main varieties of Pu erh, ‘Sheng’ and ‘Shou’. Sheng - commonly referred to as ‘Raw Pu erh’ - is the original variety of Pu erh which requires years of aging to develop smoothness, complexity and depth of flavour. Shou - also known as ‘Cooked Pu erh’ - is a relatively modern variety of Pu erh tea which dates back to the 1970s.
To avoid having to wait years for the tea to develop its distinctive flavour profile - which is a result of post-fermentation - the Chinese have added an extra, very simple step to the production process. Before compression, they lay out the tea leaves in piles and leave them for several months. This creates a microbial fermentation which produces heat - hence the term ‘cooking’. By letting nature take its course, complex flavours develop much faster than during the traditional Pu erh production method. Some say that Cooked Pu erh is of a lesser quality than the Raw variety, but a well-made Shou can be just as pleasurable as a Sheng Pu erh that has been aged for years.
Storing Pu erh Tea
It is best to store Pu erh teas in a cool, dry place, away from temperature fluctuations and odours. For example, we would not recommend storing your Pu erh teas in the kitchen, as they can be exposed to odours from cooking. A cupboard in a spare-room or pantry is a good suggestion. For optimum preservation, we recommend that you store your Pu erh tea in a sealed cardboard box. If you intend to drink the tea within five years, we recommend breaking up the cake into small pieces, using your Pu erh prying pick. This will leave more surface of the tea exposed to air, allowing for further oxidation and developing the flavour complexity. This process is referred to as ‘waking up the tea’.
Drinking Pu erh
The epitome of slow-food, Pu erh tea is always evolving. Hence, no two cups of Pu erh tea taste exactly the same. There are two acknowledged methods for brewing Pu erh - the modern Western way and the traditional Chinese way. The Western way is less complicated, whereas the Chinese way produces a more authentic flavour and overall experience. The most essential tolls for brewing Pu erh is a Gaiwan and Pu erh prying pick - needed only for compressed Pu erh teas, of course. For more information on how to brew Pu erh, please see our comprehensive Pu erh brewing guide.
While Pu erh remains a speciality amongst Western tea-drinkers, its rich history, unusual aesthetic and appealing flavour is aiding its popularity in the West. Who knows, Pu erh may even follow in the footsteps of its Japanese cousin ‘Matcha’ and become a mega foodie trend. For now, we welcome you into the exclusive club of Pu erh drinkers.
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