About Pu-erh Teas [+]
Pu-erh is an Asian tea with an ancient history of over 2000 years. It's a kind of fermented tea common in China. Furthermore, it's a regionally specific product with geographical indication. A National Standard for Pu-erh tea production came into effect in 2008. It says that only tea produced in Yunnan's 639 towns in 11 prefectures and cities, including Pu'er and Dali, can be called Puer tea. Tea leaves must also come from tea trees of the large leaf variety, growing in the defined area and then processed using a specified technology. Today, in nearby regions such as Vietnam, Myanmar, and even Thailand, tea is grown and processed with pu-erh technology. Technically it cannot be called "pu-erh" according to this law. So many traders smuggle tea leaves from these regions into Yunnan, where they are packed, labeled, and sold as authentic Yunnan pu-erh tea.
This tea is indeed complex and exciting. What makes it unique is that pu-erh is a Chinese fermented tea with a robust, strong, earthy, or bitter taste (depending on the type of pu-erh) that takes time to get used to for some. However, its benefits outweigh the cons, and what once were the cons become its treasured features.
Raw Vs. Ripe Pu-erh
Both the ripe and the raw are made from sun-dried leaves – Shai Qing Mao Cha. The leaves for maocha usually come from the camellia sinensis var. assamica tea plant. Farmers first pick the tea leaves for both teas and quickly roast them. Then, they sun-dry, knead, steam, and compress them into round disks called cakes. Aside from pu-erh tea cakes, producers also often make bricks, tuocha, stuffed chen-pi pu-erh, or even leave them as loose leaf tea. After these steps, farmers put the tea out to age. Producers are often aging it for decades, which results in its dark color and bold, mellow flavor.
Raw (Sheng) Pu-erh is made from mao cha and processed similarly to green tea. First picked, withered, quickly roasted, sun-dried, kneaded, then steamed and compressed into pu-erh cakes – round disks of pressed tea. Then, farmers age it until the tea's taste sufficiently transforms.
Raw pu-erh doesn't undergo the piling process. Thus it remains with a fresh scent and some bitterness, with a noticeable sweet aftertaste.
On the other hand, Ripe (Shou) Pu-erh is made from oxidized and fermented tea. First, it goes through the same steps as the raw one. However, when producing the pu-erh tea cake, it undergoes a 'Wet Piling' process (渥堆 – Wo Dui). This goes as follows:
- Farmers pile the tea leaves in a tea factory to a height of about 70cm, varying by a tea master.
- They then wet the piled tea with water and sometimes also cover them. This way, the farmers create a warm and humid environment to speed up the fermentation process.
- Under heat and humidity, a complex of fungi and bacteria (from the Aspergillus family) develop in the tea pile, further enhancing the fermentation process.
- After fermentation, the tea is unpiled and ventilated.
Depending on the degree of fermentation, pu-erh changes its color. When you drink raw pu-erh, you'll notice the liquid is lighter - in the yellow hues. If farmers age the tea, the liquid gets gradually darker each year. In contrast, ripe pu-erh can be dark red or even black as coffee. You can tell the wet piling degree by the color of the tea – the darker the liquid, the higher the damp piling degree. Furthermore, the piling process transforms the tea, making it much earthier, with a thicker mouthfeel.
With the recent aged pu-erh tea craze, it's important to note that a longer aging process doesn't mean that it's the top tea. Or that the tea taste will be better. Undoubtedly, there are some longer-aged pu-erhs with mind-blowing taste. However, age alone shouldn't be your area of focus when buying this delicious fermented tea from China.
Pu-Erh Tea Benefits
Many societies recognize the benefits of this exceptional Asian tea. Throughout Southeast Asia, pu-erh is an integral part of the food culture. Furthermore, many people regularly drink it after a meal as it's known for its aid in digestion.
People used pu-erh tea as a fundamental part of Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries, way before it became a beverage of enjoyment. Moreover, pu-erh has a gentle dose of caffeine, making it an excellent energizing tea. The beauty is it keeps you feeling alert, focused, and creative. Yet not jittery like in the case of coffee. This tea was one of the main exports on the Tea Horse Road when Tibetan monks consumed the fermented drink during long meditation hours.
Acidity Of Tea
What is the pH of tea? Of course, it differs slightly depending on the type of tea. When it comes to pu-erh, the acidity of tea generally fluctuates between 5-6. Furthermore, scientists discovered that the pH level of cultivated pu-erh tea is usually slightly higher than that of Gu Shu pu-erh (ancient tea trees).
How To Brew Pu-erh Tea
Most pu-erh teas brew best at water temperatures of around 210-212ºF (99-100ºC). The beauty of this fermented tea from China is that it's impossible to ruin with high temperatures. Many people even choose to boil it.
If enjoying pu-erh as per the ways of Gong Fu Cha, we recommend brewing it in Zisha Yixing teapots or gaiwan. This porous teaware rounds out unwanted sharp notes, making the tea mellow and enjoyable. Tea connoisseurs prefer to keep Yixing teaware just for one tea type, in this case, pu-erh.
Pu-erh Tea Taste
In terms of taste, raw and ripe pu-erh are nothing alike. Sheng Pu-erh has a certain amount of bitterness and, sometimes, astringency. This bitterness is a quality that many seasoned tea enthusiasts seek out in their fermented tea. Those new to the world of Chinese tea believe that astringent and bitter qualities are inferior and that tea should only be sweet. While in moderation, these qualities elevate tea. Furthermore, they are signs that the tea will give well to aging.
On the other hand, ripe pu-erh is very earthy. The mouthfeel is buttery and oily; we can feel these soft oils coating our entire mouth cavity with each sip. Along come notes of tobacco, moss, black walnuts, tree bark, and an enigmatic molasses finish.
What Is Hui Gan?
Loosely described, Hui Gan (回甘) refers to the specific taste formed by the joint action of the bitter and sweet substances in the tea. When drinking high-quality sheng pu-erh, we might have an initial sensation of bitterness. It will gradually subside to end with sweetness. Hui Gan is also a poetic term we often use in the tea ritual, comparable to elusive words such as Cha Qi or Wabi-Sabi.
From Chinese, we can translate hui gan as "returning sweetness." It is this beautiful sweet finish that lingers on your palate while drinking the tea - and afterward. Do all teas have it? Surely not! However, quality raw pu-erh is quite known for it - one that is mature and carefully processed.
What Is Hei Cha?
Hei Cha is a type of post-fermented tea. Essentially, Shou Pu-erh is a kind of Hei Cha. Hei Cha includes teas like Liu Bao, Tian Jian, Liu An, Ting Juan, and Hua Juan.
Hei Cha (黑茶) translates as "black tea". "Dark tea" is used to avoid confusion with what Europeans call "black tea", referred to as "red tea" or hong cha by the Chinese. This tea has a history of 1000+ years. Undoubtedly, the processing methods of Hei Cha have evolved with time. Nevertheless, it remains a beloved tea throughout China as a historical attribute and a regional specialty. Brought in by Chinese tin miners, Liu Bao Hei Cha is especially popular in Malaysia.
Hei Cha is dark, ranging from deep red to black as coffee. You'll undoubtedly remark it has zero astringency, and the taste is noticeably sweet and woodsy. Many age hei Cha for several years, making the flavor round and mellow.
How Is Liu Bao Hei Cha Made?
Originally farmers made hei cha for export on the Silk Road, and they always compressed the teas into cakes to ensure ease of transportation and freshness. The original processing techniques of Liu Bao Hei Cha served as the basis for modern-day Ripe Pu erh.
The production process of Liu Bao tea has gradually developed from the Qing dynasty to nowadays. Here is its most modern version: First, farmers pile the raw tea leaves and expose them to high humidity to stimulate the formation of bacteria and subsequent fermentation. Afterward, they steam the leaves and press them into large bamboo baskets. After packing the tea leaves into baskets, they leave them to air-dry for several months. Afterward, they continue to age them even further.
Back in the day, you could only buy Liu Bao Hei Cha in giant baskets of 40-50 kg. Of course, nowadays, with the increased popularity of this tea type, you can buy it in various amounts and forms - in baskets, loose-leaf, and compressed.
Does Tea Go Bad?
Can tea go bad? One fantastic thing about our Yunnan tea friend, pu-erh, is that it doesn't spoil like many other teas. For example, you can keep a cake of raw pu-erh your whole life! Flavor-wise, most tea enthusiasts will put a cap on these cakes for about 25 years. However, it will still be excellent to drink.
On the other hand, we suggest enjoying your ripe pu-erh within 5-10 years. It won't go bad from more extended storage. Albeit, the taste won't transform drastically either.
Pu-erh Tea Caffeine
Does pu-erh tea have caffeine? Yes, it does. All teas from the camellia sinensis tea plant have caffeine in them. However, one common misconception is that the caffeine content of pu-erh is higher than any other tea, which is not necessarily true.
In determining tea caffeine content, it's essential to note many factors:
- the part of the tea plant farmers used (buds naturally contain more caffeine. Pu-erh is often made out of large, mature leaves)
- 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)
- how long has the tea aged (the longer the pu-erh is aged - the lesser caffeine it contains)
- brewing time (the longer we brew, the more caffeine gets released. This will also be evident by the astringency of the tea)
On the spectrum of all tea types, pu-erh has mid-range caffeine content, neither the highest nor the lowest. This makes it an excellent tea that helps you focus on getting some work done, writing a poem, or meditating.
What Is Cha Qi?
In Chinese, Qi (气) is the life force behind all things.
Cha Qi (茶气) roughly translates as "the energy of tea." However, it is so much more, and it is something we feel rather than can explain. Some may say that feeling Cha Qi is like feeling becoming one with tea.
Indeed, it is an exceptional quality, found almost exclusively in aged pu-erh. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, it's of utmost benefit. It relaxes our muscles and warms our bodies. Furthermore, it gives us a light and airy feeling. Gradually, the mind becomes relaxed with an overall sense of well-being.