A tea for the truly initiated, Pu-erh is as rich in history as it is in flavour. Described as the “Bordeaux of China”, Pu-erh is a unique, fermented tea, deserving of its own category as it constantly changes and improves with age. Maturing to produce a complex array of flavours that both challenge and intrigue the taste buds, this traditional Chinese tea is a must for the discerning connoisseur.
Named after the city where the bulk of tea-related business occurred during Imperial China, Pu-erh tea is now produced in many places around Yunnan province. Traditionally, the tea originated from old, wild tea trees that are found in the tropical regions of southwest China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and very eastern parts of India.
Only during the Tang dynasty did tea leaves start getting pressed into bricks. This was for ease of transport as the tea bricks travelled by horseback along “The Ancient Tea Route” to be traded in Tibet, Mongolia, and northern parts of China. Contemporary tea processing steps, such as pan-frying or rolling were not involved in the production of this tea.
It was the Ming dynasty that saw the introduction of sheng (raw) Pu-erh. Tea producers carrying their product to market over many weeks often had their tea cakes exposed to the elements. Rain would dampen the tea and as a result, the cake would often need to be unwrapped and dried out in the sun. This is what initiated the micro-organic fermentation, which changed the aroma and taste of the tea. As these teas continued to travel in caravans or were eventually put away in the storerooms of drinkers and merchants, they continued to mature into more flavoursome and valuable commodities.
These days the process of creating sheng (raw) Pu-erh is very much an intentional one as maocha (roughly processed, fresh tea leaves) are pan-roasted, rolled, rubbed, and shaped. However, whilst Chinese green teas are then dried with hot air to kill enzyme activity (Japanese teas are steamed), Pu-erh leaves are instead left to dry in the sun, which allows the few enzymes left to remain active and assist in the fermentation. These leaves are then compressed and are left to age in storage.
Shou (ripe) Pu-erh, on the other hand, uses an accelerated process to age the tea. This is a fairly recent invention, having only been formulated back in 1973. The purpose was to create more developed flavours within a matter of months, instead of the years it would take a sheng Pu-erh to naturally mature.
To produce shou Pu-erh, oxidised maocha undergoes “wet piling” (also known as “artificial pile fermentation”) where the leaves are set in piles, gently sprayed with a mist of water, and covered with a hemp cloth. For sixty to seventy days, heat and humidity are carefully applied and monitored to emulate the natural aging process as active microbes are encouraged to thrive under these conditions. Once the leaves are fermented, it is at this stage they are then compressed.
Shou Pu-erh can be left to age further — usually up to ten years, but the idea is it has been made with the intention of being able to be enjoyed fairly immediately after its fast-forwarded fermentation. Because of the controlled conditions under which shou pu-erh is produced, the flavours are usually more balanced and mellow making it the more popular option amongst Pu-erh drinkers.
Some consider Pu-erh a ‘living’ tea as its continuous evolution and maturation promotes the development of probiotics, or ‘good’ microbes. This has shown to be particularly beneficial in balancing intestinal bacteria and soothing discomfort in that area.
Chinese research has also found that what makes Pu-erh so remarkable is it is a natural source of Lovastatins, which are produced by the probiotic activity. Whilst considered a part of the Statin class of drugs, Lovastatin is in fact a naturally occurring compound found in select foods. Its main function is lowering the bad cholesterol produced by the liver, otherwise known as Low Density Lipoprotein, whilst simultaneously increasing High Density Lipoproteins — good cholesterol. This decreases the risk of heart disease, strokes, and heart attacks.
Furthermore, studies have shown that Pu-erh has the ability to inhibit Fatty Acid Synthase (FAS) — an enzyme linked to both obesity and cancer (elevated levels of FAS are found in a wide variety of human cancers). This is why many Pu-erh drinkers will often enjoy a cup or two after a meal.
Long regarded as a tea of ‘longevity’, Pu-erh enthusiasts even talk of its capacity to stimulate the body’s Qi (life force energy).
Pu-erh has become more than just a standard cup of tea with vintage tea cakes (bingcha) and bird’s nest (tuocha) treated as valuable collectibles, similarly to expensive bottles of wine. Savoured for both its flavour and its health-giving qualities that are almost akin to medicinal, Pu-erh is an exceptional Chinese tea that all serious tea drinkers need to try at least once.