Today we are exploring a popular topic of debate: pu-erh tea caffeine content. Pu-erh is one of the most controversial tea categories out there. Many people believe that pu-erh is quite high on caffeine. Some assume that the darker the tea, the more caffeine it contains. Perhaps darker brews of tea remind of the highly caffeinated culprit coffee? However, we know that the freshest, youngest green teas often have higher caffeine content. While it's true that pu-erh is a great energizing tea, is it that high in caffeine? And does the color of the brew matter?
What Is Pu-erh?
Pu-erh is a kind of fermented tea common in China. There are two types of pu-erh tea — raw pu-erh (sheng) and ripe pu-erh (shou). Farmers produce them in Yunnan, China. Although according to guidelines, we can only call pu-erh from Yunnan Province "pu-erh," there are other Asian countries that grow and harvest pu-erh, like Myanmar and Thailand, making it a prevalent Asian tea.
After processing, producers age Pu-erh, usually from 2-3 to 25+ years. The result is a tea with dark color and bold, mellow flavor.
Ripe vs. Raw Pu-erh In A Nutshell
Raw Pu-erh (Sheng) is made from maocha (sun-dried, half-finished tea leaves) that farmers process similarly to green tea. After harvest, the tea leaves are quickly roasted, rolled, sun-dried, and then steamed and compressed into various shapes (mostly cakes). Then, producers will age the cakes until the tea's taste transforms into something new, unique, and utterly delicious.
Ripe Pu-erh (Shou) is made by maocha undergoing a procedure of "wet piling" (渥堆 – Wo Dui). It consists in piling the leaves and sprinkling them with water. The high heat and humidity create specific bacteria that further ferment the pu-erh leaves.
While raw pu-erh is a tea with over 800 years of history, ripe pu-erh is a relatively new type of tea — most of the recipes and techniques of making ripe pu-erh were developed in the 1970s.
Liu Bao Hei Cha
Hei cha (dark tea) is a category for all post-fermented teas produced in China. Unlike Shu Pu-erh, the fermentation degree in Hei Cha (and Liu Bao Hei Cha in particular) can vary from lighter to heavier. This tea is very earthy and nutty. According to Traditional Chinese medicine, it is a neutral tea, meaning it has both yin and yang (hot and cold) energy.
Pu-erh Tea Caffeine Comparison
When we look at raw vs. ripe pu-erh, two key factors come into play — processing degree and aging time!
When the tea leaves age, their caffeine content slowly starts to break down. The longer we age the tea, the less caffeine it will have.
Raw pu-erh aged for a few years has a higher caffeine content than one aged for 10+ years.
A study on tea caffeine content conducted in 2011 came back with the following results:
Ripe pu-erh contains 13.03 – 18.01 mg/g
Aged raw pu-erh contains 7.81 – 14.95 mg/g
Ripe pu-erh: 60-70 mg per 8oz
Raw pu-erh: 30-45 mg per 8oz
A joint study on tea caffeine by two Chinese universities came back with the following results:
Raw pu-erh: 4.29% caffeine
Research by the Yunnan agricultural university suggests some yeasts break down the caffeine during Shu pu-erh fermentation, while some molds increase it.
Overall, the newer and less processed the tea, the higher the caffeine amount. For Pu-erh, it translates into new Sheng Pu-erh containing most caffeine, followed by aged Sheng Pu, and finally Shou Pu-erh with the least caffeine content.
However, it's still not that simple.
What Else Affects Caffeine Content In Tea?
It is essential to note that many other factors affect the amount of caffeine in tea:
- the part of the tea plant being used (buds naturally contain more caffeine)
- cultivar (var Assamica contains more caffeine than var Sinensis)
- age of tea trees (the older the trees, the stronger their root system is – the more caffeine they contain. For example, Gu Shu tea trees)
- brewing time (the longer we brew, the more caffeine gets released. This will also be evident by the bitter taste)
So, without considering all of these components, it is a bit too soon to conclude the caffeine content of a particular tea type.
Studies that aim to measure the caffeine content of various tea types usually show that caffeine levels can vary more between individual teas in one tea category than amongst the categories themselves (like black, green, etc.)
Does Tea Go Bad?
One fantastic thing about the Yunnan tea, pu-erh, is it doesn't go bad like many other teas! Of course, everything expires sooner or later. However, when it comes to pu-erh, you can keep a cake of raw pu-erh your whole life! Still, most tea enthusiasts will put a cap on these cakes for about 25 years. Not because it will go bad on the 26th year, but rather because the inner transformation is not so obvious anymore.
On the other hand, producers don't age ripe pu-erh for too long. We suggest drinking it within 5-10 years. Although it won't go bad from longer storage, the taste won't develop much either.
Pu-erh Caffeine Content Conclusion
In conclusion, this fermented tea from China doesn't necessarily have the highest caffeine content of all the different types of tea. Nevertheless, it is a tremendous energizing tea and a great alternative to coffee! How come?
The answer is L-theanine!
L-theanine is an amino acid present exclusively in tea that affects serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. According to various studies, L-theanine gives mental focus, increases cognitive performance, improves mood. It also helps to combat stress and anxiety and reduces blood pressure.
The high level of L-theanine present in sheng pu-erh is responsible for the influx of energy and Cha Qi that many people experience when drinking raw pu-erh.
Drinking pu-erh in the morning will help you gain some focus and energy for the upcoming day. It's also an excellent tea for digestion. Remember to eat your breakfast first, as it can irritate a sensitive stomach.
How To Brew Pu-erh Tea
Here is a video on how to make pu-erh tea: