Pu’erh tea, pronounced “poo-AIR”, is a distinct tea variety produced in China’s Yunnan province that is only just starting to be known in the Western world and was in fact, illegal to import into the U.S. until 1995. It is unique for several reasons. Unlike most teas named for the region where they are grown, Pu’erh gets its name from a town where tea is not grown, although it was at one time a thriving tea market and trade in this type of tea was very heavy. It is produced from a large-leaf variety of Camellia sinensis known as “Da Yeh” that is supposedly an ancient strain of tea propagated from pre-historic tea trees and is best suited to warm and humid growing conditions. It grows high and can be picked almost all year round although the best are those picked in spring and autumn. Unlike other teas, instead of the first flush or budding leaves, Pu’erh is traditionally made with the older leaves. The leaves are covered with fine hair, are larger than other tea leaves and have a different chemical composition.
One of the biggest factors in the uniqueness of Pu’erh is its method of production. Nobody outside of its manufacturers in China knows exactly the process. In fact, during the Ming Dynasty, trespassers caught on the plantation were executed! Basically, it is processed much like black tea with a couple of exceptions. The tea is picked, withered and partially fired allowing the tea leaves to retain moisture. This tea is heaped into large piles, where a natural bacterium causes a chemical reaction similar to a compost pile. The pile is carefully turned to maintain proper balance of temperature and moisture. The leaves are then dried loose or compressed into tea bricks or cakes which are wrapped in paper and stored outside to further mature. Finally, the tea is stored in special underground rooms or caves for several years, adding to its unique character. Pu’erh tea gets better with age like wine and can be found in vintages dating back 50 to 100 years. It is usually aged at least 1-4 years and comes in green, dark and brick tea.
Compared to other teas, Pu’erh has more complicated tastes. Naturally low in tannins, it has a very strong, bold, earthy flavor which is incredibly deep and rich that first-time tasters either love or hate. To brew, first rinse the leaves by covering with boiling water and quickly pouring it off. Then cover again with boiling water and let steep for 1 to 5 minutes, depending on the darkness your prefer, and serve. This tea is often steeped for long periods of time until as dark as strong coffee, but because of the prolonged processing it fails to develop the bitter, astringent properties of other teas. No matter what you do it is impossible to ruin this tea! Pu’erh may also be re-steeped 2-3 times more without losing flavor. Also called “Beauty Tea”, “Slim Tea”, and “Longevity Tea” in other countries, in China it is considered a medicinal tea. It cleanses the blood, lowers cholesterol and triglycerides, helps with weight control plus it is a perfect tea to have with or after a heavy meal as it helps in digestion particularly of fatty foods.
TEA TIME TRIVIA
The 'tea bricks' once used as currency
were typically made with Pu'erh
and constituted the first medium
of monetary exchange used by
nomads beyond the Great Wall of China
as early as 476 AD
“Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.”