Of all the teas in China, none is so valued as pu-erh, yet in the west it is relatively unknown.
In a nutshell, pu-erh is in a separate category from any other type of tea because it is fermented, rather than oxidized. It is left alone to age as a microbiotic process gradually transforms the flavor and body of the tea over time.
Unlike other teas, which are left to wilt or oxidize for a short time and then roasted, pu-erh is roasted and then fermented. Essentially, the tea (in a form called maocha, which is bitter and grassy in taste) is stored in a cool, dry place and in some cases exposed to a low amount of heat. This process transforms the green maocha into a heavy, dark, smooth, and rich tasting pu-erh with no bitterness at all.
Much of the information found online concerning pu-erh can be confusing and contradictory, and rather incomplete. As a tea drinker, I find many of the online sources about pu-erh tea to be dry and one-sided, describing pu-erh as if it were a medicine rather than a tea to be enjoyed.
This is a shame, as pu-erh as a category is especially captivating for a multitude of reasons, not limited to health benefits. Here are six solid reasons that will help you understand what pu-erh is and why you'll love it.
1. Pu-erh’s aging process creates a distinct flavor profile that only improves with age.
Like an aged wine, pu-erh develops complexity and character the more time passes. Pu-erh is known for having an “earthy” aroma, but does not necessarily taste like earth. There are actually a score of flavors found within pu-erh: woody mushroom, peat and sweet hay, or the herbal taste of camphor or aloe. Some pu-erh drinkers even describe the taste of petrichor, or the smell of the earth before it rains.
However, pu-erh holds the potential for even greater flavor complexity due to the aging process, as well as a few other factors. It can present notes of scotch, full of woodsmoke and leather; notes of sweetness, like dried cherries or stone fruit; even creamy and bright flavor profiles. Drinking a pu-erh for the first time is almost always guaranteed to be a new experience, as no pu-erh ages the same way.
Every pu-erh has the potential to be utterly unique in taste. Even among the same batch of harvested leaves, the flavor depends on the storage environment. For instance, leaves harvested in 1980 would be 37 years old today. After the long aging process, individual batches of the finished tea would taste dramatically different, depending on where they were aged.
If one batch of those 1980 leaves was shipped to Shanghai, the hot and humid climate would have increased the rate of aging to produce a heavy, dark, and earthy tea with hints of mushroom in the flavor. Meanwhile, another batch from that same harvest might have been shipped to San Francisco, where the dry and cool climate slows the aging process to result in a bright and herbal flavor with hints of sweetness.
In that sense, pu-erh reflects not only the region and craft from which it was produced, but also the tea’s personal history of where and how long it was aged. This creates the potential for vast flavor variety, and is one of the most exciting aspects of drinking a pu-erh. As Max Falkowitz, editor of the fine food and dining magazine Saveur told NPR in a recent interview:
"Pu-erh offers a narrative and emotional thread over the course of time and brewing the leaf again and again. You're not just drinking tea; you're participating in a story."
It’s fitting that fine dining enthusiasts have a deep appreciation for pu-erh, as the taste of pu-erh is not only a delight unto itself: it’s a delight to pair with food as well.
2. These flavors pair wonderfully with food. The richer the food, the better the combination.
Much like a bold red wine is recommended for a match to a rich cut of steak, the rich and heavy flavors of pu-erh enhance heavy, savory foods. The wide array of flavors found within pu-erh particularly compliment heavier foods. If you enjoy a choice cut of rare steak, a pu-erh with a touch of camphor in the taste cuts into the fat and elevates the sweetness of the meat. With a slab of dark chocolate, a pu-erh with notes of stonefruit enhances the sweetness with tart notes, and brings out the rich cocoa taste of the chocolate.
Pu-erh also possesses a smooth and rich body and mouthfeel. Having a cup of pu-erh nearby while enjoying an especially zesty or spicy dish can provide relief for moments when you feel overwhelmed by flavor, and can even help as a palate cleanser by preventing your tastebuds from becoming too acclimated to the flavors in your meal--keeping every bite you enjoy as flavorful as your first.
At Red Blossom we adore a fine dining experience. We never hesitate to order pu-erh if it’s on the menu. If it's not, we even bring our own to dinner! Pu-erh never fails to enhance the taste of any dish, and we have another reason to rely on pu-erh to improve our dining experience...
3. The fermentation of pu-erh gives it digestive properties. It helps your body break down heavy foods in the stomach and helps you feel lighter after a big meal.
Due to the microbial aging process, pu-erh develops digestive properties over time. Pu-erh naturally helps break down down fats and grease in the stomach. This has to do with the unique cultures that pu-erh develops as it is left to age, much like the cultures and probiotics that naturally develop in yogurt.
This property is one of the chief reasons pu-erh is so prized in China for health reasons, and why the idea of a good restaurant in China without pu-erh on the menu is unthinkable. As we’ve said, we at Red Blossom love to indulge in fine dining. Having a pot of pu-erh on the table means we never regret that one last bite of creme brulee.
4. The aging process of pu-erh is ongoing. Unlike most teas, pu-erh does not have an expiration date.
Most teas go stale after a few years. The lighter the tea, the faster they fade. But pu-erh is dependable, provided it is stored in a cool, dry place. With proper storage, it will only improve in flavor. This is handy for those who tend to stockpile teas they never have time to finish. At least when it comes to pu-erh, long term storage offers an advantage.
This dependable quality of pu-erh has made it a popular investment throughout China, much like investing in wine. The parallel is evident: both pu-erh and wine are products of tradition and craft, improving with age and becoming more valuable as time passes. Tea culture in China is full of stories about people who wait decades, even whole lifetimes, to age a promising pu-erh. Serious collectors of pu-erh even age teas for their children and grandchildren as inheritance.
5. Pu-erh is naturally low in caffeine.
We avoid trying to assess the level of caffeine in any tea, as the differences are generally small. But caffeine does break down over time, and microbial activity encourages the process. The older the tea, the less caffeine it retains. By the time a pu-erh tea is ready to drink, virtually none of the original caffeine content remains. You can drink it before bed, or even all day long, and it won’t prevent you from sleeping. This makes the tea a great choice for people who enjoy hearty, robust flavors but also want to curb their caffeine intake.
But a properly aged pu-erh does seem to have its own unique energizing properties. Many pu-erh drinkers describe feeling uplifted and sometimes even giddy after a long session of drinking pu-erh. The older the pu-erh, the more potent the effect. Some attribute this to the fermentation process, some to the potency of the flavor after the years of aging. Whatever the reason, pu-erh seems to provide an energetic boost without any of the negative side effects of caffeine.
6. Pu-erh’s aging process removes any bitterness from the flavor.
Tannins are compounds found in a variety of plant life, and are active flavor elements of both tea and wine. In wine the flavor of tannin is described as drying or earthy or even metallic, and in tea the flavor profile is similar. An over-abundance of tannin causes a distinct bitterness in tea that overpowers any other flavor, especially if the tea is brewed too long.
Wine professionals are not able to explain fully why, but the tannins present in red wine gradually “soften” and fade out of the flavor with age. In a similar way, the tannins in tea also seem to fade off with time. The tea leaves are left dark and rich in flavor, but without the traces of acidity or dryness that tannin produces.
Therefore, the taste of an aged tea is smoother than a tannin-filled fresh tea. Past a certain point, there is no bitterness at all. This is why some Chinese tea drinkers prefer to buy their darker teas a few years after harvest. It allows the tannins to dissipate, especially in pu-erh tea. As a rule, pu-erh should never be bitter after proper aging.
This makes it an excellent choice for those who are sensitive to bitter flavors. As a good quality pu-erh will never become bitter, this style is an especially good choice for tea drinkers that tend to forget their cup while brewing.
For these reasons, pu-erh is a particularly cherished and appreciated throughout China, and more recently in the west as well. If you’re interested in becoming more familiar with pu-erh, we’re happy to recommend some of our personal favorites.
The Grand Shou 2006 is smooth and rich without being overpoweringly dark, and has a lovely hint of tart fruit sweetness. We suggest pairing it with a dark chocolate dessert.
Our 2008 pressed cake is an easy choice for tea drinkers who favor darker flavors; the malted notes in these “Emperor” leaves pairs wonderfully with savory meat dishes.
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