Poo – what?
Proper, authentic pu-erh tea (pronounced “poo-air”) comes only from the Yunnan province in China. Although it is also produced in parts of Taiwan, the tea purists insist on the genuine Yunnan provenance. Pu-erh shares the same origins and parent plant Camellia Sinensis with oolong, black, and green teas, but that’s where the similarity and any collective parentage end.
Why is it special?
While oolong tea is slightly fermented, black tea completely fermented, green and white teas are not fermented at all, pu-erh tea gets special treatment by being post-fermented.
Fermented vs. oxidized tea
Sometimes, all types of black tea are generally dubbed fermented, even though not all of them live up to the name. In the industry jargon, the two terms oxidized and fermented are being used as synonyms and unfairly so. Oxidation is a purely chemical process: the tea leaves interact with oxygen and turn “black.” Fermentation, on the other hand, assumes the involvement of living bacteria. Compare this to utilizing the ferments in yogurt or leavened bread production. Pu-erh tea is the only type of tea that is not only oxidized but actually fermented, inhabited with healthy microflora. Thanks to the bacteria’s hard work, aged pu-erh tea would evolve with time like a fine wine.
It sounds like an odd thing to do to tea…
This aging process is unique among all teas but not unknown in epicurean gastronomy. It can be linked to vintage wine or aged cheese in the way that the products only get better with age, rather than going stale like yesterday’s bread.
So, how is Pu-Erh tea made?
Let’s compare the gestation of pu-erh to that of mainstream teas to help you understand where it sits on the tea spectrum.
- White tea leaves are simply cut and dried – no further processing required.
- Black tea leaves are cut and then left to oxidize until they turn black.
- Green tea leaves are cut, withered, and then steamed or pan-fired to halt oxidation.
- Oolong tea leaves sit between black tea, and green tea, with the oxidation stopped halfway before they turn black.
- Then, there’s pu-erh. In fact, there are two types of pu-erh. These are the twins that happened to get different upbringings.
The first type, Sheng – row, green pu-erh. It starts as a slightly oxidized tea that is then getting moistened and compressed into bricks or cakes, preserving natural bacteria inside. This is your young Sheng Pu-erh. It might be sharp, astringent, and bitter, but some connoisseurs prefer it this way, and it is available for sale at this stage. To bring it to maturity, Sheng would be stored in the proper environment for years and decades while getting oxidized and fermented (“ripened”). The longer this process lasts, the more complex, mellow, and smooth the taste becomes. The result is the aged or ripe Sheng Pu-erh, the most respected of all Pu-erh family.
The other type is Shou – ripe, black pu-erh. It is also oxidized and fermented, with a “boot camp” approach. To speed up the processing, dry tea leaves are piled up in warm and humid conditions. Moisture is constantly added to encourage effective “composting.” The time of ripening gets down dramatically (from decades to months), so does the price of the final product… as well as the complexity of its flavors. Make no mistake, Shou Pu-erh is a wonderful tea with a luscious body and soothing, earthy aromas. It is thicker, darker, and more straightforward than its sophisticated twin sibling, aged Sheng Pu-erh.
How does a Pu-erh tea taste like?
Pu-erh is not everyone’s cup of tea. Like a moldy cheese, it requires an acquainted palate. First-time drinkers complain about its “musty” or “moldy” taste. That’s not a far cry from reality, since living bacteria interact with the tea leaves throughout the fermentation process. As a result, pu-erh acquires this kind of an earthy flavor. If your preference is for fresh, floral, and herbaceous notes, you’d better look elsewhere.
Don’t get discouraged, though.
Seasoned pu-erh drinkers consider pu-erh tea as “very complex and layered in flavor,” “smooth,” “velvety with no acidity or astringency whatsoever,” “full-bodied, earthy.” You might pick up “notes of moss,” “wood,” “autumn leaves” to its flavor.
Health benefits of Pu-Ehr tea
Like many other teas, pu-erh tea has been touted as medicinal. Besides that pu-erh contains healthy bacteria, which are good for your digestive system; it is also high in antioxidants. Pu-erh lovers cite improvements in a range of conditions from lowing cholesterol to better mental acuity. Plus, pu-ehr is considered useful in fighting belly fat, detoxing and aiding digestion, reducing stress, and curing a hangover. At least, these are the popular beliefs.
What are the side effects of pu-erh tea?
There’s no major flipside to drinking pu-erh tea unless you consume too much of it. And even then, any side effects that you encounter would result from consuming too much caffeine. Up to four cups of pu-erh tea per day is considered perfectly safe. Drinking more than that could cause headaches, dizziness, nervousness, and difficulty sleeping – all the usual signs of a caffeine overdose. One important point to remember here is that the caffeine content in pu-erh tea decreases as it ages. This means that if you’re switching from your usual black tea to ripe pu-erh, you may end up drinking several cups a day to get the same effects. And this, in turn may make you dependent on the tea.
Who makes the best Pu-Erh tea?
There is a difference between factory produced pu-erh and tea from boutique suppliers. Factories tend to make pu-erh from younger tea bushes. The tea could be flat in flavor and even bitter. Smaller producers nurture the tea plants from generation to generation. Some of those trees have been growing for tens and hundreds of years on the mountain ranges of Yunnan. As a result, the teas come out sweeter and smoother, with layered, complex flavors.
Is there an expiration date for Pu-Erh tea?
Don’t worry about the production or sell-by dates on the packaging (it’s likely to be in Chinese anyway). With pu-erh – the diva of teas –
age is just a number
Where to buy the best Pu-Erh online?
We feature only the best tea companies and earn from qualifying purchases.
Naked Pu-Erh Tea
Minty, refreshing, sweet. Naked Pu-erh stems from Yunnan, China and delivers a deep red infusion with a sweet woodsy aroma and mild earthy finish. This organic Pu-erh tea has slight floral notes and a lingering hint of honeysuckle with each sip. This Yunnan Pu-erh tea is cooked and has been aged for approximately 4-6 years.
Aged Chenpi Ripened Tangerine Pu-erh
Citrusy aroma, warm beverage in winter. Tea has had culinary uses for quite a long time. Tangerine pu-erh became a delicacy for the way it tactfully unites the taste and benefits of both the tea and the fruit in one drink that is absolutely perfect for cold autumn days.
Menghai Palace Ripened Pu-erh Cake Tea 2008
Soft and smooth, rich and thick texture. The leaves for this cake were first picked and processed into raw material in Spring 2006, with a two-year pile fermentation period before pressing into full cakes in May 2008. During the following seven years the cakes have been stored in special warehouses for fermentation purposes; as a result when brewing this tea, the evidence of its age comes out prominently on its scent, and the liquid is clear, bright red. The aroma of this tea is intriguing, somewhat similar to red dates while the taste is mild and balanced without any sort of bitterness.All in all this is a perfect tea for daily consumption and those who are new to drinking pu-erh.
Moonlight Beauty Raw Pu-erh Loose Tea
Tender buds, quite mild and sweet. As pu-erh tea grew in popularity, a deeper understanding of it came to be established and local Yunnan tea makers developed a new breed of pu-erh, the Moonlight Beauty. This unique tea is made from the tender buds of large-leaf tea plants by a method similar to that of Fuding White Tea.The Moonlight Beauty tea is rich in taste, and brews to a clear yellow liquid full of flavor with each mouthful smooth and sweet without a hint of bitterness. The name comes from a legend that the tea was originally harvested by local young, beautiful girls at night, ensuring minimal sunlight exposure.
Bird’s Nest Pu-Erh
Fine Pu-Erh Tea Bowls. Made from a large leaf variety of Camellia seninses that grows in the Pu-erh province near Yunnan, China; Pu-erh is a 'post-fermentation' tea known widely for its amazing health benefits. Like a fine wine that gets better with age, Pu-erh is one of the only teas that actually matures and improves with age.Our special edition cake Pu-erh, "Tuo Cha" (Bird's Nest) Pu-erh is pressed into perfect serving size bowls that resemble bird's nests. Each nest is the perfect size for 2 cups of wonderful Pu-erh tea.Use filtered or spring water at a full boil. While Bird's Nest Pu-erh doesn't need to be steeped longer than 4-6 minutes, a long infusion of Pu-erh does not bring about an astringent taste. Many of our Bird's Nest Pu-erh fans tell us this is their 'on the go' tea. Throw a nest in your water bottle, pour boiling water over it, and enjoy it during the day or at the office. The nests do not break apart easily and do not need a filter. Buy loose leaf Bird's Nest Pu-Erhard with our 100% satisfaction guarantee. Make sure and store a nest or two from each order in moderate temperature. Label each nest with the date and enjoy on a special occasion the flavor development that only time can create.
More tea, please!
Isabelle is a freelance writer, self-taught tea nerd, and tea blending enthusiast. She is a herbalist with a strong interest in Ayurveda. Each year Isabelle travels extensively, returning with tea samples from around the world. She is a big fan of handmade teaware and Japanese green teas.