Located in the southwest corner of China where the country borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, the mountainous Yunnan province is considered the birthplace of tea. Home to many of China’s ethnic minorities who are thought to have cultivated tea in the area for at least 1,000 years, Yunnan is also ground zero for pu-erh (also spelled puer or pu’er), one of the world’s most sought-after teas. “Most of the teas in the world were planted in plantation-styles, except pu-erh,” says Linda Louie the California-based owner of Bana Tea Company, profiled in our July/August 2019 issue. “Because Yunnan is where tea cultivation began, it has the most old-growth tea trees in the world.”
Though nowadays the majority of pu-erh is harvested from neatly groomed bushes, the most prized pu-erh teas are gathered from the groves of ancient arbor tea trees that dot the province, some estimated to be around 1,200 years old, and the resulting dark and fermented brew is considered king among teas for the profound relaxing effect it can have on drinkers. It is a tea that for many becomes the very definition of tea itself. “The taste and body feel, it’s hard to explain, but it is another state of being,” Louie says.
While many commercial teas are harvested year-round, pu-erh leaves are picked from large-leaf Camellia sinensis var. assamica plants only five times each year: early spring, mid-spring, late spring, summer and fall. Leaves collected during the two initial harvests are the most valuable as the roots have absorbed the ground’s mineral content without being water logged by summer’s monsoon season. “Spring harvest is richer and more complex, offering a bouquet of flavors,” Louie explains. “A fall harvest is more straightforward.” After the fresh tea leaves are picked, they are processed either by hand in woks or tossed in a drying machine, deactivating the tea’s oxidizing enzymes. However, the firing isn’t long or hot enough to wick all moisture from the leaves and they retain some of their natural bacteria. The mao cha, meaning primary tea, is further kneaded and left to sun dry. Then the complex magic of pu-erh begins.
Unlike most teas, the residual microbial life on pu-erh continues to ferment, shaping and changing the flavor over time. “Over the years, raw pu-erh will change from a brisk, bright and fragrant tea into a tea that is earthy, possessing flavors like Chinese herbs, camphor, old books and lotus” Louie says. “The tea increases its richness and complexity.” The practice of allowing the tea leaves to age organically dates back hundreds of years to when pu-erh was compressed into easy-traveling cakes and carried on far-reaching trade routes stretching from Pu-erh (a 17th-century distribution and taxation center from which the tea takes its name) to inland China and Southeast Asia. On these long journeys it is believed the tea was exposed to the elements and would arrive with a mellowed flavor.
Navigating Pu-erh’s Classifications
Until relatively recently, there was only one understanding of what pu-erh tea meant. Yet ever since a process emerged to manually speed up a tea’s fermentation period, pu-erh is now divided into the categories of raw and ripe.
Also called sheng pu-erh, raw pu-erh is processed in the traditional style and receives no manual fermentation boost. Raw pu-erh is further divided into young and aged, depending on how long the tea has been stored in a controlled environment and allowed to age. Occasionally likened to green tea, young raw pu-erhs, either with no age statement or only a few years, debut slightly bitter but develop a fresh, grassy flavor over several infusions. “Many people who try a young pu-erh for the first time don’t like it,” Louie says, because the teas tend to have a sharp, bitter quality instead of the warm, antique flavors the aged ones boast. Her advice? Keep an open mind and continue drinking: the more you pu-erh you try, the better you’ll come to understand the tea.
Typically the priciest pu-erh, aged raw teas improve for about 20 to 25 years then the flavor begins to flatten out. When brewed, a quality tea will produce a transparent and rich broth with a luscious mouth feel that isn’t overly tannic or “tongue grabbing,” as Louie puts it. “The taste should always be thick, not thin.” Good aged pu-erh also possesses gan, a minty, cooling sensation that emerges once the tea is swallowed, coating the mouth and often lingering for minutes. “It’s that dancing in your mouth type of sensation,” she says.
Despite their high cost, many tea aficionados gravitate toward the delicate flavor of pu-erh aged organically. “The natural aging of a tea cake allows the tea leaves to age at its own pace,” says Louie. “At the end of 10 or 20 years, the tea still possesses the original characters, such as the energy, the mouthfeel and the fragrance, adding to the new flavors that develop over the aging period.” As such, aged raw pu-erh is deeply symbolic and tea cakes are often presented as gifts, much like expensive bottles of wine.
The tea also possesses a vitality that many experienced drinkers seek. “Aged pu-erh is priced not only because of the unique flavors,” Louie says, “but for its increased energy, cha qi. The cha qi generates strong feelings of contentment and peacefulness within the drinker. It gives one a deep level of relaxation physically and spiritually. I would describe drinking aged pu-erh as an expansive sensory experience: When I drink it alone, aged pu-erh can transport me back in time.” Teas made from old trees are generally thought to possess good qi.
Believed to contain nutritional properties that aid digestion, pu-erh was the beverage of choice at Hong Kong dim sum restaurants. As these restaurants rose in popularity, the demand for the tea grew beyond the capacity to age it to a desirable taste profile. In 1973 a process emerged which could accelerate the leaves’ fermentation, thus mimicking the depth of flavor found in an aged pu-erh without requiring decades of storage.
Called ripe or shou pu-erh, the loose tea leaves are piled together and stored for months in a humid environment, tossed frequently to distribute the heat that gets generated. “It’s like composting—which I know is not the most attractive way to describe it,” Louie says. This manual fermentation causes the tea’s microbial life to be hyperactive and quickly transforms it from a green or amber-colored tea into a dark tea with flavors that come close to a raw aged tea. After several months of conditioning, the tea is then packaged and ready for consumption. Some choose to continue to age ripe teas, although the flavors will not develop overtime as fully as in a raw tea. Quality ripe pu-erhs create a deep, mushroom-like brew and are found at a more accessible price point than raw teas with impressive age statements.
With pu-erh’s global popularity boom beginning in the late ’90s, certain teas from prized regions and old-growth trees grew so valuable many counterfeit pu-erhs, with misrepresented age statements and origins, entered the market. Price inflation from fakes even caused the market to collapse around 2008, meaning reliable sellers, like Louie, are as important as ever.
Louie says that due to the high prices of aged pu-erh, newcomers should begin with a young pu-erh (either raw or ripe) to familiarize themselves with how the tea changes over time. Though cakes can be expensive, they contain many servings and the preferred brewing method (10 seconds to several minutes) can produce up to 20 infusions per serving. As the brewing process takes place, Louie describes the tea as one that talks to you, engaging in an ever-evolving conversation. “I pour a cup in the morning, and continuing drinking it throughout the day,” she says. “It is comforting, relaxing and works with my body.”
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