The Way of Tea – Part 5 – Pu-erh
Pu-Erh, Truly Black Tea
Continuing on with our dive into true teas, we have learned about black tea, matcha, green tea, and Thai tea. We've now reached the true black tea, pu-erh. Pu'er or pu-erh is a type of fermented tea traditionally produced in the most southwestern province in China, Yunnan Province. Pu-erh tea is post-fermented. This means that the leaves go through a microbial fermentation process similar to that that produces vinegar, wine, yogurt, or soy sauce. This process gives pu-erh its flavor by reducing that tea's astringency and bitterness. It also allows the tea a greater shelf life with pu-erh teas maintaining their freshness for up to 50 years!
In Chinese, what we refer to in English as black tea called red tea. This may be confusing to Westerners who often refer to the tisane rooibos as "red tea." However, rooibos is not a product of the camellia sinensis plant, but rather of a broom-like member of the plant family Fabaceae that grows in South Africa's fynbos or shrubland. In China, pu-erh is called a black or dark tea due to its color. Once steeped, the resulting brew may have a hue so dark that it may resemble black coffee.
Like all true teas, puerh tea is made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis. In pu-erh's cases that is a larger leaf strain, Dayeh. Dayeh trees grow high in the mountains of Yunnan Province. The Dayeh trees are ancient and said to be between 500 and 1,000 years old! These trees are thought to be closer to the original camellia sinensis trees than other tea plants.
While tea is said to have been discovered about 5,000 years ago, when in 2737 BCE. Emperor Shennong supposedly drank boiled water in which a camellia sinensis leaf had fallen in. While this story is very likely mythical, tea has had a long history. Pu-erh tea can be traced back to the Yunnan Province during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE).
The earliest pu-erh was transported by mule and horses caravans along trade routes known as the Tea Horse Roads. Traders would barter for tea in the markets of Pu-erh County, prefecture-level city, and then hire the caravans to carry the tea to their respective regions. Since trade often involved traveling long distances, there was an interest in tea that would not spoil during the journey. Since pu-erh is aged, it was able to remain fresh and even improved after a long transport. Pu-erh became a popular commodity for barter.
Pu-erh teas are available in block tea or loose-leaf. Block teas may be in shaped in a circular disc or in a rectangular block.The blocks may be shaped to include an intricate design. Sometimes these blocks may be referred to as "tea cakes" or "tea bricks."
There are two types of pu-erh, shou (cooked) or sheng (raw). Most mass produced pu-erh teas are made in the shou way, which produces a thick, dark cup of tea with an earthy character. Sometimes the flavor is described as "fishy," but this flavor may disappear with aging. Shou teas are cooked to decrease the amount of time in the aging process. As pu-erh became more popular in the 1980s, tea suppliers developed this technique to accelerate the fermentation process. Sometimes shou teas are blended with edible flowers, such as chrysanthemums, dried fruits, or spices like ginger to add flavor or health benefits.
Sheng teas are fermented naturally without heat over a longer period of time. This process is similar to how master cheese artisans age cheese over time. These teas must be aged for at least 10 years before they are considered ready to be steeped. Shou teas are described as having a vegetal or floral flavor. Like fine wines, these teas are considered the highest in flavor quality and may be quite expensive with some varieties priced in the hundreds of dollars per serving. One of the most expensive pu-erhs has sold for approximately $10,000 per kilogram (approximately $4,500 per pound)! Sheng teas are never flavored as additional flavors could mask the flavor-quality of the refined tea itself.
Pu-Erh tea is steeped with just boiling water for a longer time than many other true teas. Steeping typically takes five to ten minutes. Typically, one teaspoon of pu-erh is used per eight ounces or 235 milliliters of water. The longer the it steeps the darker the color as seen in the images above. In the first image, loose leaf pu-erh is steeped for only now minute. In the second image, it has steeped for four minutes. In the third image, the tea has steeped for 10 minutes and appears almost like black coffee.
Pu-erh teas may be steeped many times without losing flavor. While a good quality green tea can be re-steeped two or three times, a pu-erh may be re-steeped ten times or more! Due to the aging process, good quality pu-erh teas also may have less caffeine than other teas and like other true teas the much of the caffeine will come out of the tea with the first steeping. According to a 1996 study, the amount of caffeine that comes out of tea at the first steeping is about two-thirds of the caffeine comes out of tea in the first steeping. An additional one-quarter of the caffeine leeches out in the second. By the third steeping, there is very little caffeine left. (View the table of the data.) For drinkers of pu-erh tea, this means we can steep cup after cup without being left jittery from a caffeine overload.
Like other true teas and tisanes, drinking pu-erh may have medical benefits. In traditional Chinese medicine, pu-erh tea is used for improving focus, as well as to treat high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes. However, these claims have yet to be proven scientifically. The caffeine in pu-erh may help to improve focus by stimulating the central nervous system (CNS), the heart, and the muscles. Like other true teas, pu-erh tea contains antioxidants that may help protect the heart and blood vessels. Unlike other teas, pu-erh contains small amounts of a chemical called lovastatin, which doctors prescribe to lower cholesterol. Researchers think that bacteria that contributes to its fermentation process may make the lovastatin as parts of their life cycle. Additionally, animal research has suggested that pu-erh tea might lower triglycerides as well as total and "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol while raising "good" high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
For Further Information
Covey, A. (2017, November 29). Sheng vs. Shou: Types of Pu-Erh Tea. Red Blossom Tea Company. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://redblossomtea.com/blogs/red-blossom-blog/sheng-vs-shou-types-of-pu-erh-tea
Goodwin, L. (2019, July 2). Puerh tea: Shou vs. Sheng. The Spruce Eats. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://www.thespruceeats.com/shou-vs-sheng-766448
Gascoyne, K., Américi, H., Desharnais, J., & Marchand, F. (2018). Tea: History, terroirs, varieties. Firefly Books.
Hicks, M. B., Hsieh, Y.-H. P., & Bell, L. N. (2002, August 20). Tea preparation and its influence on methylxanthine concentration. Food Research International. Retrieved April 8, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0963996996000385
Sharma, A. (2021, July 23). 10 of the world's most expensive teas. Lifestyle Asia Hong Kong. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://www.lifestyleasia.com/hk/living/wellness/worlds-most-expensive-teas/
WebMD. (n.d.). Pu-Erh Tea: Overview, uses, side effects, precautions, interactions, dosing and reviews. WebMD. Retrieved April 8, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-1169/pu-erh-tea
What is Pu-Erh Tea? Art of Tea. (n.d.). Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://www.artoftea.com/blogs/tea-101/what-is-pu-erh-tea
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer/sound artist, and published writer for both in-print and online media. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts as well as tea, coffee, baking, cooking, and culture.
All photos ©2022 Janae J. Almen