Puerh tea is probably the least drunk and least understood tea of all the different types. With the publication of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane in 2017, some people became more interested and wanted to try this tea about which they had read. The book is a work of historical fiction based in China among families to which Puerh tea was very important.
The first thing to mention is that you will see multiple spellings of this word. Some use Pu’er and others puerh, pu-erh or even puer. The name is derived from the town of Pu Er in the Yunnan province of China. This town is where growers from the neighboring mountains brought their harvests to be sold and sent elsewhere in China or in more far-flung regions such as Tibet and Mongolia.
Other names you might notice are aged teas, post-oxidized teas or dark teas. “Dark” means “black” in Chinese, hence dark tea is called black tea in China. What we in the western world call a black tea would be known as a red tea in China. To make it even more confusing, we tend to use the term red tea to refer to an herbal tisane made from rooibos.
Puerh is actually just one tea that is in the category of Dark Tea. Other dark teas include Liu-an, Liu-bao, Fu-Zhuang and Qian Liang Cha. Since puerh it is the most commonly known, this discussion will be limited to that particular dark tea.
Among the categories of tea, this is the only type of tea that is truly fermented. In some older sources, you will see black and oolong tea referred to as fermented tea. However, the more correct term is that these teas are oxidized, which refers to a chemical reaction that occurs when the enzymes within the tea leaf are exposed to oxygen. Similar to an apple turning brown when cut and left on the counter, oxidation causes tea to turn brown as well as changing the aroma and flavor.
Fermentation is a microbial process that takes place without need for oxygen. It is aided by heat and humidity. The tea leaves undergo this microbial fermentation process after they are dried and rolled. The degree of fermentation varies among different kinds of dark teas.
In the Yunnan province of China, the tea was harvested from ancient tea trees growing in the wild. Because of the high demand for the tea and the fact that it was transported on horseback, the local population devised a processing method that consisted of compressing the tea into cakes of different sizes/shapes. During its months of travel, the tea underwent a fermentation process whereby microbes acted on the tea, causing biological and enzymatic changes. The resulting tea became highly sought after, first by royalty and other powerful people, and later by tea connoisseurs. Puerh teas are still produced mostly in the Yunnan province. However, one can find them being produced in other regions of China as well as northern Vietnam.
There are two main types of puerh tea.
Sheng (raw) Puerh
This type is the original and traditional type of puerh. It can be consumed immediately upon production or after it has been aged. In the “young” stage, its flavors are fresh, floral and/or fruity with similar flavor profiles to green tea.
If left to age, it develops a mellower, smoother and more complex flavor. This aging and fermentation process can take place over a very long period of time, 10-50 years. In fact, many do not consider this tea fully mature until it has been aged for 30 years. This the type most sought-after by tea connoisseurs.
Puerh lovers will explain that the flavor profile can change with each brew of the same leaves. Some will say that the best taste is obtained at around the 4th or 5th brew, when the leaves are totally unfurled and the flavors are released.
The old growth trees from which this tea is harvested have complex and varied flavors and aromas. Puerh experts will name camphor, lotus, orchid, dried jujube, dragon eye (longan) fruit, plum, ginseng, and areca. They tell us that the different taste profiles in puerh have to do with the grade of the leaves, the stages of aging, and the other types of trees that are grown in the area. They explain that the old-growth tea trees have very deep roots, and over time these roots would intertwine with the roots of other trees nearby and absorb the fragrance emitted from these trees.
Although it can be found in loose-leaf form, Sheng puerhs are typically compressed into cakes or bricks of differing sizes and shapes. They are used by breaking off small amounts for brewing.
Shou (cooked or ripe) Puerh
Because of the growing demand for puerhs, during the 1970s the Chinese tea industry developed a new type of puerh that could be brought to market faster. The aging process was artificially accelerated by a "cooking" process, called "wo dui”. It involves incubating the tea in a moisture-rich environment where microbial activity causes the temperature to rise and thus intensifying the fermentation process. This typically takes anywhere from 45 days to a few months to complete.
The flavor of Shou puerh is very earthy and mellow without bitterness or astringency. Terms used to describe Shou puerh are earthy, nutty and woody with a sweet (sugarcane or plum) aftertaste. However, poor quality Shou puerh is flat and dull and may have an unpleasant odor.
Shou puerh is meant for immediate consumption. As opposed to Sheng puerh, it does not get significantly better with time. However, some feel that aging it results in a smoother tea with less earthiness and more of a sweet plum flavor.
Although the quality can vary, this type of puerh is considered of lower quality to Sheng. The leaves used for its production are more likely to come from a tea plantation rather than the old and wild native tea trees.
Because of the expense of the Sheng puerh, most tea shops will only carry the Shou variety if they have any at all. At English Tealeaves, we offer a very nice Shou puerh. As some people find the earthy quality a little unusual, we also offer three wonderful flavored puerhs. The additional flavors in these tend to offset the earthiness. We invite you to try any of these.
Are you looking for something new in your tea drinking? Why not try a puerh? We would love to help you to see if this might be just what you are looking for!