ART OF TEA
What is Pu-erh Tea?
Pu-erh tea, known as “black tea” in the Far East part of the world, originates from the Yunnan province of China and is named after the market town in which it was first developed. Pu-erh tea is post-fermented, which means that the tea leaves go through a microbial fermentation process after they have been dried and rolled, causing the leaves to darken and change in flavor. This process allows the teas to not only improve with age like a fine wine, but many pu-erhs are able to retain their freshness for up to fifty years! Pu-erh teas can be found in compressed brick form or in loose leaf form and can be made from both green and black tea leaves.
Puerh tea is made from a larger leaf strain of camellia sinensis called Dayeh, which are ancient trees with mature leaves that are said to be between 500 and 1000 years old. These trees are usually grown in temperate regions and although they can be harvested year-round, the opportune time to harvest is in mid-spring. Various conditions and environmental factors can impact the flavor profile of pu-erh, resulting in a rich experience for the tea drinker's palate of this bold tea that can be smooth, fruity, peaty, grassy, musky, herbal and earthy.
History of Pu-erh Tea
Pu-erh tea can be traced back to the Yunnan Province during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220CE). Trade in Pu-erh tea began in the Tang Dynasty, became famous during the Ming Dynasty and was popularized in the Qing Dynasty.
Pu-erh was transported by mules and horses in long caravans along established routes that became known as the Tea Horse Roads. Traders would barter for tea in the markets of Pu-erh County and then hire the caravans to carry the tea back to their respective homes.
The increasing demand for a tea that could be easily transported and did not spoil on long journeys sent suppliers on a frenzy to come up with ways to preserve the tea. It was found that with fermentation of the leaves, the tea not only kept fresh but it actually improved with age. People soon discovered that pu-erh also helped with digestion, provided other nutrients to their diet, and because it was so affordable, it quickly became a popular household amenity. Pu-erh tea was highly prized and it became a powerful tool for bartering amongst traveling merchants.
Pu-erh Tea Today
Today, pu-erh continues to be regarded as a highly prized commodity. Even in modern society, a well preserved pu-erh still maintains its value and remains a household treat.
In western society, the popularity of pu-erh tea is only just now being introduced to the mainstream population of tea drinkers, propagated by new hype generated by mass-media about its many salubrious effects. It is only a matter of time before the beauty and benefits of pu-erh tea become commonplace household knowledge.
Pu-erh Tea Types and Variants
There are two different ways a pu-erh tea can be classified: raw (sheng) and cooked/ripe (shou). This is due to the amount of processing that occurs after the tea leaves are picked and withered.
With raw processing, the leaves are withered then heaped into piles, much like a compost pile, allowing bacteria to ferment. This is the most important step of the process, called “Wo Dui” (moist track). This is the point where the character of the tea begins to develop. The leaves are then partially pan fired in order to halt enzyme activity, lightly rolled and kneaded, then left to dry in a “Dry Storage” environment with enough moisture to allow the tea to slowly oxidize over time. At this point, the tea is immediately compressed into cakes or left in loose leaf form.
The cooked processing method was developed in the early 1970’s by the Yunnan Kunming tea factory to speed up the process of production. With cooked processing, the tea leaves are picked and withered then mixed with a bacterial culture created to replicate the bacteria that would be created during natural fermentation. Then, the pu-erh is left to fully oxidize for up to 40 days in a hot and humid environment before firing, creating a dark, earthy infusion.
During this time, the development of another type of pu-erh was also birthed. The method of half-cooked pu-erh came to be. This is actually a mixture of raw and cooked leaves that have been smoke-steamed and pressed, giving the tea a beautiful mixed color of light and dark leaves.
Pu-erh Tea Tips & Preparation
Pu-erh tea is most often steeped in either a yixing teapot or a gaiwan teabowl. Fill your choice of teaware with about 1 Tbsp tea leaves per 8oz water, and 'awaken' them by quickly rinsing with hot water at about 206°. Immediately flush out the water and re-steep. Pu-erh is brewed gongfu style, meaning that the tea leaves are only immersed in hot water for a short time before the tea is poured into another container. The best Pu-erh teas can be steeped up to 10-12 times before beginning to lose their flavor. Pu-erh tea is best enjoyed when slurped. This allows for exposure to the air, which will activate the diverse flavors while providing greater contact with your taste buds
Whether you are new to pu-erh teas or just looking for something unique and adventurous to satiate your palate, we have a wonderful selection of teas and blends to try. Here are some of our favorites:
Single Source – Immortal Nectar, Naked Pu-erh
Blends – Coconut Cacao Pu-erh
Post-fermentation by aging breaks down the caffeine levels in pu-erh, meaning that the caffeine content naturally diminishes the older it gets. This means that a very old pu-erh might have trace amounts of caffeine by the time it is consumed in comparison to a younger pu-erh. That being said, the actual caffeine content present in a cup of pu-erh tea varies upon how long the tea is steeped. The longer the steep time, the more caffeine the tea will contain. Caffeine content will lessen each time tea is re-steeped.
Our Best Selling Pu-erh Teas
So they started packing up their leaves for the long journey across the top of the world to Lhasa.
That route came to be known as the Tea Horse Road and it was the highway for the tea trade until the 1950s when the Chinese moved into Tibet and closed it down. Tea enthusiast and author Jeff Fuchs retraces the journey in The Tea Explorer .
It starts in Menghai, a bustling little town that has evolved into a city full of hundreds of tea shops — ground zero for the pu’erh tea industry.
It’s also where much of the tea from farmers comes in for processing.
“The journey that tea took is probably one of the most physically daunting journeys that the world has known,” says Fuchs.
For over a thousand years, the 5,000-kilometre journey along the Tea Horse Road took months and wound along dirt paths over the Himalayas. Tea, along with other luxuries like salt and gems were all carried on the backs of mules.
The road went over the Sho’La Pass, the gateway to Tibet, a 4,800-metre summit that could be deadly. Over the centuries many died here during snowstorms or by falling off the trail.
Along the way the tea leaves would ferment while they stayed packed into their bamboo shipping containers.
When the leaves were finally released, the taste and smell would be earthier, more pungent. To the Tibetans, pu’erh tea had a different flavour than what the people were drinking back down in the valleys of Yunnan.
To add nourishment, the Tibetans churned the tea with salt and yak-butter, making it more of a meal.
“The tea that the locals drink should be looked at as a fuel. It’s more of a full-on meal,” says Fuchs.
Cunga, an old trader from Lomanthang worked on the road since he was 14 and carried hundreds of kilograms of tea, 40-50 thousand kilometres over his lifetime over steep mountain passes.
When Tibet was taken over by China, the tea road was shut down. The trade highway through the Himalayas came to a halt, the economic conditions of the people declined — and so did the quality of the tea they drank.
The journey itself is an important part of Asian history, one that Jeff Fuchs has spent over a decade documenting. “Tea’s journey is one of the reasons why it is the second-most consumed fluid on the planet. These were epic journeys to get tea to every single valley in the Himalayas.”