Pu'er Tea

also called dark tea, ripe tea, red tea

spelled a variety of ways including puer, pu-er, puerh, pu-erh, pu'erh

Pu'er tea contradicts just about everything you know about tea.  Think of it as the rebellious sibling in the family.  Its taste is robust and earthy—neither delicate nor floral.  Pu'ers don't require freshness to be top-notch.  They're not even drinkable until they're two years old; older is even better.

The differences don't end there as you will see.  Pu'er also offers a different tea-drinking experience.  If you've never tasted it, seek some out and give it a try. 

I've just come inside after raking damp leaves on a blustery November day and decided that nothing but a steaming cup of pu'er would suffice.  It has the ability to extend the wonderful smells of the outdoors, warm the body, and somehow provide sustenanceall in one cup.  How many beverages can claim that?

The Character of Pu'er Teas

Pu'ers occupy the dark end of the spectrum of tea colors.  They weigh in as a substantial, dark reddish brown.  Distinctive, earthy, and unmistakable, their taste can be reminiscent of leather, tobacco, soil, or animals, but with a sweetness that makes it totally pleasurable.

As with other teas, these flavors result from the tea's processing.  But unlike other teas, pu'ers undergo fermentation and aging during which chemical compounds in the leaves are transformed to give it its taste.

Major Styles of Pu'er 

Two types of pu'er are produced:  raw (also called green or sheng) and ripe (also called cooked, black, or shou). 

Raw pu'er is traditional pu'er.  When properly aged it has a great deal of depth, with fruity and spicy notes layered with the earthiness typical of pu'ers.  Aging benefits raw pu'ers, making them more mellow and less astringent.

Ripe pu'er is a modern invention and is the most common type sold in the U.S.  In its production, fermentation has been sped up.  While it is said to lack the nuance of a raw pu'er, nothing should stop you from delighting in its glories.  

Both raw and ripe pu'ers are compressed into solid disks (or cakes) of varying shapes called bing cha (also been cha or beeng cha).  Ripe pu'er is also available as loose leaf tea.

A Very Brief History of Pu'er Tea

Tea-makers began producing compressed teas in the eighth century in southwestern China's Yunnan province.  Both the county and town of Pu'er lie in Yunnan.  This region was the starting point for the trade routes between China and Mongolia.  The nature of compressed tea (it is easily transported and doesn't deteriorate rapidly) made it a perfect trade commodity to withstand the slow, overland routes of the time. 

We don't know if the compressed teas traded during that era were fermented in the same manner as pu'ers today—most likely they tasted quite different.  But at some point pu'er tea-making began in Yunnan province although its existence was little known to the outside world.

Fast forward many years, decades, and centuries to the 1940s.  After WWII, Hong Kong was quickly regaining population and expanding its economy.  Although far from Yunnan, evidence points to this being the place where pu'er production expanded substantially to satisfy the growing population's tea-drinking demands.    

Ripe pu'er was developed in the 1970s to speed up the maturation process.  No longer were years and years required before a drinkable pu'er could be produced. 

In about 1999, pu'ers became wildly popular, and prices for it (primarily raw disks) skyrocketed.  Production increased to supply the demand; unfortunately, these teas weren't always of the highest quality, and sometimes they weren't even true pu'ers.  By 2007 the market for pu'er tea plummeted, leaving a lot of tea manufacturers and merchants out of business.

Where Pu'er Tea is Produced 

In 2008, the Chinese government decreed that tea must be grown in a particular area of the Yunnan province in order to carry the pu'er name.   Disks of pu'er adhering to this appellation carry labels stating the date and place of manufacture.  Seals of provenance are also affixed to help ensure a quality product.

Yunnan province is a tropical part of China, and the large leaves of Camellia sinensis var. assamica that thrive there are used to produce pu'er tea, not the small-leaved tea plant most commonly cultivated in China.

What else Makes Pu'er Teas Different?

After harvest, leaves for both raw and ripe pu'ers undergo withering during which leaves are sundried for about a day.  Leaves are then fixed with heat to minimize the amount of oxidation that takes place.  (Conversely, oxidation is encouraged in oolong and black teas.  See Tea Processing Basics.)  Some moisture must be retained during fixing to facilitate the next stages of processing where raw and ripe pu'ers take different paths.  

Leaves used for raw pu'ers are piled to begin fermentation.  The fermented leaves are then compressed into bing cha.  For raw pu'ers, the shape of the cake impacts its taste and aging requirements.  The cakes age in storage facilities where they continue to ferment.  Traditionally, at least some aging took place in caves, but today's facilities are more likely to be artificially climate controlled.  Initially the tea cakes are quite astringent; it takes about five years to soften the tea enough to lose its astringency.  

Leaves used for ripe pu'er are allowed to partially oxidized after initial firing.  Then they are piled into large heaps where they ferment for 2–3 months, during which time they're kept damp and periodically turned.  Think of it as a compost pile of tea leaves.  The inside of the pile isn't exposed to oxygen, heat is generated, and microorganisms that degrade the leaves multiply.  Both color and flavor develop during this period.  After fermentation, leaves are fired once again to stop the chemical reactions.  If destined for bing cha, the leaves are compressed at this point; otherwise, they are packaged in loose leaf form.  Unlike raw, the shape of ripe pu'er cakes is merely aesthetic and impacts neither its taste nor aging.  Cooked pu'er is next stored in climate-controlled facilities, but unlike raws, they're ready for consumption in 2–3 years.  Aging a ripe pu'er may make it sweeter, but the result isn't as dramatic as it is for raw pu'ers. 

So the processing for all pu'ers is much longer than that for other teas.  Likewise, its geography is also spread out.  Tea leaves are harvested in one place where they are partially processed, then transported elsewhere for additional processing and aging.

What to Look for When Purchasing

As with any other tea, first and foremost, buy a pu'er that appeals to you.  Pu'ers are highly variable and unique in character.  Aging also changes their nature over time.  So smell it, taste a sample if possible, or buy a small amount before making a large purchase.  (For more tips, see How to Purchase Loose, Whole Leaf Tea.) 

Because of the many counterfeits that entered the market early in this century, it's particularly important to purchase pu'ers from a reputable tea vendor. 

If you have succumbed to the temptation of a raw pu'er that tastes bitter, it probably needs to age further to allow the flavors to mellow.

When buying bing cha, look for a label that indicates the date and place where the tea was manufactured as well as a seal showing its ownership over time.

How to Brew Pu'er Tea

Brewing pu'er is a kick because the aromas and colors are so immediate and dramatic.  

Begin with pu'er in either loose or cake form—and, of course, high quality water at the right temperature.  If the tea is loose leaf, scoop some into a teapot or infuser as you would any other loose tea.  If you have a cake, break off a piece using a pu'er knife (or other knife in your kitchen), then pop it into a teapot.  

Pour boiling water (200–212°F (93–100° C)) over the leaves for about 30 seconds, but throw this infusion away.  (This initial infusion washes the leaves and opens them up to release the flavors.)  Then pour water for the first real infusion.  Steep from 1–3 minutes; the next infusion will take only about 10 seconds.  Subsequent steepings will increase gradually in time.  Pu'er is a robust tea, so don’t be surprised if you can brew the same leaves a dozen times. 

Storage Tips

Storing pu'ers is different from other teas since they will keep for many years and may even get better depending upon the type of tea and conditions in your home. 

Protected them from light as well as extreme heat and humidity.  Generally speaking, pu'ers are comfortable in the same conditions as are humans.  Do not keep them in airtight, sealed containers since air circulation is critical to them.  If you have disks of pu'er, remove any outer, impermeable packaging, and leave them wrapped only in their rice paper coverings.

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