What Is Pu-erh Tea?
Pu-erh tea is the only type of tea which is truly fermented, rather than oxidized. True fermentation occurs when microbial activity breaks down compounds in the leaf. This process produces the characteristic earthy flavor of pu-erh teas. Fermentation occurs over time, so these teas are aged for many years before they are ready to drink. Older teas develop richer and more complex flavor notes, and thus increase in value as they age.
The name 'pu-erh' comes from the city of the same name in Yunnan Province. This city was the historic trading center for teas picked in the surrounding area. Compressed teas, shaped into discs or bricks, were easy to store and transport, or even use as currency.
The native people of southwestern China have drunk teas like this for centuries. This area is the ancestral home of the tea plant, and compressed cakes were one of the earliest forms of tea. But it's popularity didn't start to spread until the 1950's. When people from mainland China immigrated to Hong Kong, there was a surge in exports of teas in this style.
Today, pu-erh has found worldwide popularity. Unique flavors and complex variety captivate connoisseurs. Meanwhile, heavily marketed health benefits draw in new audiences. The massive demand has led to a proliferation of misinformation surrounding the style. Today, it is very difficult to find and verify quality teas in this category.
How Is Pu-erh Tea Made?
Pu-erh processing starts out much the same as other types of teas. After leaves are harvested, they wither until softened. Then a roast "fixes" the tea, or prevents it from oxidizing. After this roasting step, the similarities end. To start fermentation, a small amount of moisture is retained in the leaves. Finally, they are steamed and compressed into bing, or "cakes". Pu-erhs can also be stored for aging as loose leaves.
Then, the leaves are aged and fermented. The most traditional method of fermentation results in a sheng, or "raw" pu-erh. These teas are naturally fermented over time, with minimal intervention. This style requires at least ten years of aging to become 'drinkable'. Extra aging continues to improve the complexities of flavor.
Shou, or "cooked" pu-erhs undergo accelerated fermentation. The leaves are heaped into a large pile. Like composting, this creates heat and encourages microbial activity. With this method, teas can be ready to drink in as little as a year or two. Further aging will continue to develop the flavors, as with sheng pu-erhs. This modern method developed in the 1980s to imitate the traditional aging process. With demand rising, these accelerated methods became common.
The method of initial fermentation is only one way to categorize pu-erh teas. Flavor profiles in this category can vary based on many other factors, as well. Like other teas, the provenance, variety of the leaf, and harvest date all play a role in the finished tea's flavor. But the aging process introduces a whole new set of variables.
The humidity of the aging environment is particularly influential. Drastic differences in flavor can emerge based on where the tea ages. The humid climates of southern China cause rapid fermentation and dark, peaty flavors. Drier climates in northern China or North America can slow fermentation. The slower aging results in crisper, drier flavors. Dry climates can even stop fermentation completely, keeping pu-erh leaves green in color.
Signs Of Quality
Quality is notoriously difficult to discern in pu-erh teas, and misinformation abounds. Also, flavor preferences vary by region or even between individual drinkers. What one tea drinker considers fantastic may not be to the tastes of another. In general, it is best to look for tea vendors that can give you as much information as possible. Ask about the tea's origin and aging process, and be aware that if the price of the tea looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Pu-erh drinkers in Hong Kong prefer a dark, musty aroma. Many western connoisseurs enjoy a pu-erh still green in color. Our personal preference is for crisper, brighter flavors and a smooth, rich body. These flavor notes develop in well aged teas after years of dry storage. We look for the leaves to be a dark color, without fuzzy white spots of mold. The aroma should be earthy, but without mustiness. Our favorite pu-erhs are even a little bit fruity and sweet, with notes of dried cherries or marzipan.