A tea that can be aged like a fine wine? Oh yes, it exists.
Each category of tea has something special to offer, but puerh in particular is a deep and complex subject. Firstly, there are a myriad of spellings for it: puer, pu-erh, pu’erh, pu-er, po-lei, po-nei…exhausting. For our purposes I’ll just use puerh. I could just keep changing the spelling throughout the article but that just seems like a nasty confusing prank.
Puerh comes from the Yunnan province of China, named for a town located there where tea was sold and traded rather than produced. The leaves used for puerh are from an assamica variety of the camellia sinensis plant that has large leaves. Apparently some of the plants in Yunnan have been around for some 1700 odd years! Like many teas, puerh goes through a complex set of processes, most uniquely being naturally or manually fermented. It is the only tea type that can be aged, and indeed becomes more valuable as it ages if stored properly, with some cakes garnering hundreds of dollars. Seriously.
Puerh is made into circular cakes, rectangular bricks and other shapes for storage and transport. Not to say that you cannot find loose puerh, but it is a common characteristic of puerh to be formed. Other shapes include birds nest and ‘tuo cha’ which are single serving pressed pieces. There are even ornate puerh picks and knives made for separating servings from the large cakes/bricks.
There are multiple tea producing regions within Yunnan, and even more specific areas within those regions, each producing puerh with different character. I said this was a complex subject. We will be focusing on a broader view here for starters rather than an in-depth geography lesson. We’ll save that for later;) No there won’t be a quiz.
Ok this is an important point to understand about puerh: there is the slow, manual fermentation or the accelerated fermentation. “Raw” refers to those puerhs that have been naturally fermented – no acceleration. They can be experienced by the consumer straight away or after a lengthy natural aging process which makes for a richer and smoother flavor – like an aged whiskey. It is these naturally aged teas that tend to fetch the highest prices and be the ones tea nerds drool over. It takes 10-30 years to fully age a raw puerh!
“Ripe” puerh has been given a little help to speed up that multi-decade waiting period. It is moist heat that is the key – a ‘cooking’ process that causes microbial activity on speed resulting in an aged puerh in months rather than decades. Makes sense to me. I have only so much patience.
I’ve encountered varying views on this – some who dislike the idea of rinsing for fear of losing any precious caffeine and others who ritualistically rinse their puerh. So I asked purveyors of great puerh tea, Bana Tea Company about this. They said that as puerh is often a bit dirty from such long storage and transport a quick one second wash with freshly boiled water is advised and is so quick it doesn’t significantly affect the caffeine content. It also opens the leaves up for a better brew. Ok. So rinse it is.
Puerh is robust and takes a good 212° F water temperature [UPDATE: I have encountered ones suggested to be brewed at 180-195, so it's worth look at the website or packaging from the supplier] and is also notable in the number of steepings it can take and still produce quality flavor. I have found that the flavor varies throughout the steepings. It is frequently advised to start with a 10 second steeping and depending on your palate can exceed 10 even 20 infusions in a small vessel like a gaiwan, mainly with the time increasing with each infusion. But of course, tea is a personal experience. Take the guidelines and run with them.
I am just scraping the proverbial surface of this vast tea type and am still relatively new in my exploration of puerh. It has been an interesting ride thus far.
I’ve tasted puerhs ranging from a green tea-like personality to tasting like a wet forest to a dried fruit character to even a mushroom-like flavor. It really is a varied and unique taste experience within the microworld of puerh tea. Added bonus about puerh is that raw or ripe, it has been found to support digestion and healthy weight. I wish you the joy of discovery with puerh.
Many thanks to Linda Louie of Bana Tea, from whom I took my first workshops on puerh, and who is dedicated to puerh tea and an amazing detailed resource on everything about it. Check out www.banateacompany.com for massive detail on the subject.
All opinions are my own. I was not paid for mentioning any product.