Pu'er...Demystifying this Valuable Tea Opportunity...
Pu'er Tea offers a tea drinking experience distinctly different from the classic teas that we have become familiar with.
Different from what current era teas have evolved to and from what we have become accustomed to conceptualizing as Tea.
Why does it matter, and why would one have interest in venturing out of their tea comfort zone and into something different and kind of strange?
Because it is SO worth it.
If you are passionate about tea, or even if you have a mild interest in or curiosity about tea, Pu'er tea will bring you a new dimension and appreciation of what tea really is, as well as a glimpse at what tea was like when people began steeping tea leaves in the early days.
So just what is Pu'er Tea?
I love to start this conversation with a passage from Ukers in 1935 upon the realization of the wonders of Pu'er tea:
Mother Nature's Primeval Tea Garden:
"Before any thought was given to dividing this land into separate states, it consisted of one primeval tea garden where the conditions of soil, climate, and rainfall were happily combined to promote the natural propagation of tea..."
Yunnan province, the home of Pu'er tea, in southwest China is in the epicenter of the region botanists have identified as the likely region on earth where the tea species evolved.
Tealeaves have grown on Ancient Tea Trees here for millennia and have been harvested, consumed, and traded by mountain villagers, as part of their indigenous culture.
It All Begins with the Leaf Material...Maocha...
Unique to the harvested tealeaves of this region is a natural fermentation induced by the presence of molds, bacteria, and yeast on the surface of the leaves allowing them, when combined with internal enzymes, to microbially ferment over time.
With time also comes a maturation of the leaves resulting in an enhanced, mellow, silky mouthfeel that seemingly continues improving over time.
Combine this natural time-induced maturation with the inherent clean, herbatious-vegetal, smooth mouthfeel and earthy, rich-garden-soil, autumn-leaf-pile, roasted, sweet undertones, and you experience character like no other tea type.
In China, this type of darkened tea is considered Heicha, literally translated to Black Tea and responsible for the reason what in the west is considered black tea in China is considered Hong Cha or Red Tea.
There is more though that makes this tea ultra-desirable...
The reputation of Pu'er tea goes way beyond excellence in the cup and in the mouth...
Pu'er tea has gained a reputation for digestive and cardiovascular benefits amongst a host of typical advantages of the tea plant. Digestive health, artery health, brain health, blood fat cholesterol...these are considered health strengths of Pu'er teas.
Demand grows...The Development of Ripe Pu'er...
The 1950's saw an influx of mainland Chinese refugees into the British controlled Hong Kong. With the population shift came a growing desire for the Pu'er teas of south Yunnan. Not only was there a demand for more Pu;er tea, but a demand for more of the mellow aged version.
The demand increase led to the development of a standardized process for the darkening of the tealeaves in an attempt to increase the amount of aged Heicha available.
By the 1970's this process was sent to Yunnan the origin of the leaves, where the process further evolved, developed, and was refined into an artform in its own right.
The process of artificial aging (along the idea of short-term composting) known as wodui or wet pile actually does not directly duplicate the nuance of the naturally aged Pu'er however the pleasant outcome is that it produces a second amazing category of Pu'er tea to delight us.
Pu'er Tea Factors, What to Know:
Raw vs Ripe
As a result of the Pu'er tea evolution we now have the original naturally aged version we refer to as raw or in Mandarin sheng or qing, and the ripe, known as shou or shu.
Both versions will naturally age over time after the initial processing of the tealeaves. The raw begins with maocha, specific crude down-covered leaves, sun-dried and naturally aged. And the ripe, also beginning with maocha, but then going through artificial aging or darkening before it's natural aging begins.
Loose or Pressed?
Long before the development of ripe Pu'er tea the reputation of raw Pu'er tea, its digestive and cardiovascular health, spread throughout southeast Asia and beyond to far-reaching places like Mongolia and Tibet.
Heavy meat-rich diets in the grasslands and plains made the digestive properties of Pu'er tea highly desirable and led to an understanding of the cardiovascular advantages as well.
Pu'er City became not only the namesake for the tea of the region, but also the primary origin of the Tea Horse Road on-which tea caravans would take months-long journeys delivering the infamous tea to far-away places.
Vulnerable to spillage and pilfering, tea packed in burlap sacks gave way to the development of pressed plates or Beeng Cha stacked seven-plates-high and wrapped in bamboo sheaths called tongs then bundled into loose-woven bamboo baskets which would become saddlebags for horses, camels and people to carry on the Tea Horse Road.
Today, Pu'er tea is available both in loose and pressed shapes and the pressing of Puer tea has become a cultural technique for transporting, collecting and aging Pu'er tea.
Two Style Tea Gardens...
Today, leaves are harvested from wild-grown arbor style gardens consisting of younger, older, and ancient tea trees as well as cultivated gardens grown from native genetic material.
While arbor style gardens create challenges harvesting leaves from trees of varying sizes, cultivated gardens are groomed for optimizing production and harvesting.
Which Pu'er to Drink?
Raw, ripe, young, aged, arbor, cultivated, loose, pressed...
With Pu'er tea, there is a lot to know, a lot to enjoy, and no rush to know it all.
We purchase Pu'er tea to experience and enjoy it, to get the health benefits, and maybe to collect and appreciate.
Understanding the background of the tea will enhance the experience for you and give some guidance on which Pu'er teas you may be likely to enjoy.
In the cup raw will be clean, herbatious-vegetal, with smooth mouthfeel and earthy, rich-garden-soil, autumn-leaf-pile, roasted, sweet undertones...I like to steep raw Pu'er with water temps typically used for green teas...175 degrees, and to steep to a medium amber color...
Ripe will be more robust deeper amber broth with rich, earthy tones leaving the lighter vegetal character of the raw behind but will be sweet, smooth and soothing with an aroma of petrichor, the scent of the forest floor after rain. For ripe Pu'er tea, I like to use black tea temps, from 195-210 degrees, then steep to a deeper amber color.
From both, a warmth in the digestive track and a pleasant, warm satisfied euphoric sensation and glow.
Put your mind at ease...
Relying on your tea purveyor for suggestions, guidance and for their knowledge of Pu'er teas will give you satisfaction that your choices are right for the Pu'er experience you would like.
With Pu'er teas the fact that they age with time opens an unfortunate possibility of misrepresented and copy teas. Trusting your source is recommended when it comes to Pu'er teas...especially aged.
Is it Pu'er or Pu-erh?
From the wild-grown tea trees in the 14 Famous Mountains surrounding Pu'er City, mountain village people would bring tealeaves to trade for other goods resulting in the naming of the regional mountain tea as Pu'er tea and to the spreading of its reputation.
The Mandarin Chinese Pinyin romanization is Pu'er. Another romanization system, Wade-Guyles translates to Pu-erh or P'u-erh, and in Hong Kong with the Cantonese influence the local translation sound would be Bo-lei.
All this to say, the naming is one additional factor to make this tea all the more mystical.
Pu'er teas, and in particular the Raw Pu'er Teas remain as they have been for centuries. They are a precursor to the modern era teas that have evolved or have been developed from this leaf material and style. With each sip, they truly are like taking a step back in time.