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Pu-erh Teas

Famous for the strength of flavor, pu-erh tea is for the adventurous tea drinker. These teas have been made for centuries in Yunnan Province, China. Pu-erh tea is often pressed or molded into bricks or cakes, making them great for easy transportation, in the old days, by caravan. Its popularity spread when Mongol horsemen carried this tea across Asia under Kublai Khan during the thirteenth century. The name Pu-erh comes from Pu-erh city in southern Yunnan, where the tea would be collected from the surrounding regions before it was set out in caravans for export. Pu-erh is great to convert coffee drinkers into tea drinkers. Some pu-erhs can be as strong as espresso!

Pu-erh's difference in flavor comes from an additional step in processing. After picking the leaves, the tea maker either creates a green or a black tea. Once that is done, a special micro-fermentation agent is added. This remains a state secret that is as closely guarded today as it was under the Ming Dynasty -- back then the punishment for divulging tea secrets was death. The best way to describe this process is to compare it to what happens to milk when rennet is added to make it a cheese. Some green pu-erhs do have a slight yogurt taste to them. Once this fermentation has been accomplished the leaves are then packed or steamed and pressed into bricks, called tuocha (small, single-serving pellets), or cakes. Because of the additional processing step to the leaves, these teas are also the only ones that improve with age. Some prized pu-erh teas can be over 50 years old. There are stores in Taipei, Taiwan, that specialize in selling only pu-erh teas and the range -- in style, quality, and price -- is astounding. People will pay thousands of dollars for rare pu-erh teas that are 30 years old and up.

 Pu-erh Tuocha  Green Pu-erh Dragon Cake  Black  Pu-erh Bingcha

There are hundreds of styles of pu-erh. Notable are tuocha, small nuggets of compressed tea. This creates a strong, espresso-like tea with an earthy flavor. Green Pu-erh Dragon Cake has impressive designs embossed onto it from the press and the tea is just as good. Pu-erh bingcha, a small, Frisbee-sized disk, is perhaps the most common way for pu-erh teas to be processed and sold. It is a good idea to hold on to these as they will get better and better each year.

Collecting Pu-erhs and Storage

Although drinking aged Pu-erh has a long tradition of hundreds of years, collecting Pu-erh really took off in the 1980's, starting in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The price of aged Pu-erhs skyrocketed in the late 1990's, and there was a surge of "fake" pu-erhs out in the market, as demand grew. In the past couple of years this bubble has burst, and the market has settled down a bit.

Many factors influence the final outcome of collecting and aging pu-erhs. Black, or "ripe" pu-erhs usually are ready to drink, but can also be aged. Green, or "raw" pu-erhs are ideal for collecting, as this type of tea still needs time to go through its final stage of fermentation. Its aging process will be more pronounced over time. This can take as little as ten years, but depending on the quality of the green pu-erh, sometimes up to twenty or thirty years!

Pu-erhs are best kept in a semi-dry environment that have variable temperatures. Excessive moisture can cause the tea to get moldy. Always store your black/ripe pu-erh separately from the green/raw puerh (like on different shelves), and keep pu-erhs wrapped in paper - not airtight bags. Pu-erhs should be allowed to breathe, so that they can continue to change.

Health Benefits

Pu-erh teas also have a lot of medical lore surrounding them. In China they are considered beneficial for lowering cholesterol, fighting hangovers, and aiding digestion. Rich in vitamin and minerals, it also is known to reduce stress and lowering high blood pressure. Most Chinese will drink a pu-erh tea just after eating any food that is heavy or greasy.

How to brew pu-erh tea:

  1. When the bricks are extremely tightly pressed it is best to use a strong knife to carefully pry out some leaves. The technique that works best is to insert the knife into the edge of the brick and then gently work it up and down until the tea loosens and falls off.  Watch video of breaking open a beencha here...
  2. Add about 3-4 grams per serving of tea (the amount depends upon type of pu-erh) to your teapot.
  3. Add hot boiling water at a full rolling boil -- it's the only tea that should be made with boiling water.
  4. If the tea looks dusty, you may wish to wash the leaves with a brief 10-15-second infusion. Then pour off the liquid.
  5. Steep for 2-3 minutes. Once the tea seems ready to you, give it a stir and then pour and taste. If necessary, adjust the steeping time for a stronger taste. The Tibetans are famous for brewing their pu-erh teas overnight to make their famous Soo Jah (Yak Butter and Salt Tea).

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