What is Pu-erh?

What is Pu-erh?

Original post By Homefire Staff

Pu-erh is the only truly fermented tea, and it is a deep, rich beverage that generally has an earthy, mushroomy, or hay-like scent and taste.

Pu-erh tea (pronounced POO-are or POO-air) - also known as Pu'er, Puerh, or dark tea, is a fermented Chinese tea named after Pu'er City, which is located in Yunnan Province, globally famous for producing high quality tea. 

Pu-erh is the only truly fermented tea, and it is a deep, rich beverage that generally has an earthy, mushroomy, or hay-like scent and taste, although depending upon processing and whether it has been aged can vary greatly from floral to bright and grassy to woodsy. Due to the fermentation, pu-erh can sometimes have a pungent, or "funky" taste. A telltale sign of low quality, poorly processed or stored pu-erh is a distinct fishy odor, and this pu-erh should be discarded. 

Originally cultivated and processed during the Han Dynasty (between AD 25-225), Pu-erh tea wasn't introduced to the rest of the world until the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906) when traders bartered for pu-erh tea and delivered it on mules and horseback along routes between Tibet and China. The fermentation of this type of tea kept it from spoiling on the long journey. 

Historically, pu-erh was also compressed for convenience to make it less bulky for the horse caravans and, in addition to the more widely recognized loose leaf variety, can be found today in many interesting pressed forms such as flat, disc-shaped cakes (also known as bing cha), tuo cha (which look like tiny bowls), mushrooms, balls, bricks, coins, and more. Before consuming, compressed pu-erh must be very gently pried apart with a small tool called a tea pick. 

With its high polyphenol levels and antioxidant catechins, pu-erh is believed to have many health benefits such as lowering blood cholesterol, supporting healthy blood sugar levels, soothing inflammation, improving mental clarity, and aiding in digestion and weight loss. More research is needed to definitively confirm these claims, but we do know that tea in general is protective against cancer and heart disease. 

There are two types of pu-erh: "ripe" Shou (or Shu) pu-erh, also known as "cooked" pu-erh, and "raw" Sheng pu-erh which is the traditional form of pu-erh. Both types begin as leaves gently plucked from the Camellia sinensis plant which are then quickly processed by roasting and sun drying to cease oxidation, the enzymatic reaction that causes a tea leaf to turn brown after harvest.

From there the processing for raw pu-erh is complete and the leaves are then steamed for compression into cakes and balls and allowed to age under clean, careful conditions thus fermenting naturally over time. Although raw pu-erh can be and is often consumed early on after processing, providing a tea experience more like green tea, this style of pu-erh is often aged up to 20 years and can be aged for much longer for a richer, deeper, more complex flavor. Some decades-old raw pu-erhs can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars! 

Ripe “cooked” pu-erh undergoes further processing by rapid forced fermentation - applying heat and moisture and inoculating the tea leaves with beneficial bacteria - for a period of about 40-50 days, after which it is ready to be consumed. This faster style of processing makes for a less complex tea but can be just as satisfying and easily meets the wide demand of pu-erh that the slow aging process of raw sheng pu-erh is unable to sustain.

Pu-erh tea is generally brewed the same way one might brew most black tea: heat clean. good quality water to between 200-212° F and steep at 3-5 minutes. Some people employ a "rinse" prior to steeping pu-erh to clean and open the pu-erh leaves. Simply pour your heated water over the leaves and let them sit for about ten seconds, then discard that water and continue steeping as usual. Pu-erh can often be steeped numerous times so don't be afraid to experiment!

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