If you’re looking to try a new tea, pu-erh might look appealing because of the interesting way in which it is prepared and its connection to Chinese history. Still, what exactly is pu-erh tea, and what makes it unique from others?
Pu-erh is a fermented tea primarily made from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis or Assamica trees. It originated in the Yunnan Province of China and is traditionally presented in “cakes” of leaves that can be added to boiling water. It often contains high levels of caffeine.
If you’d like to know more about this delicious tea, we’ve got you covered. Below you’ll discover how it’s prepared, what it’s best used for, and some similar teas you might also want to try if you find you like the taste. So grab a cup and come along for one of the most unique and irresistible teas ever made.
What Makes Pu-erh Tea Unique?
If you leave most teas alone for long enough, they will slowly lose their potency and flavor, until finally they should just be thrown out. This is not the case with pu-erh tea. In fact it’s quite the opposite.
Pu-erh tea is the result of a long process of preparation that results in a smooth yet dark and rich taste.
In China, the leaves of the “wild old tree” are hand tossed in large woks to block their natural oxidation. Unlike other teas however, some moisture and bacteria is left behind to sit in the sun and ferment; delivering a wholly unique flavor.
The tradition of steaming the leaves after they are prepared and compressing them into small cakes–with shapes ranging from squares to discs–began during the Tang Dynasty and continues to this day. This process makes the tea easier to store, travel with and prepare for drinking.
The History of Pu-erh Tea
Pu-erh tea has a history as rich as its flavor. Originating somewhere between 25-220CE, during the Eastern Han Dynasty, it took some time to become popular and readily available throughout Southwest China.
The tea was named after a town and trading post of the same name located in central Yunnan.
It became a primary tea for trading because of the way it needed to ferment and would not spoil as quickly as other teas. Its popularity primarily spread through Southwest China and Tibet via caravans on what are known as the Tea Horse Roads (also known as the Southern Silk Road).
These trading caravans wound through Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet, and played a role in the popularization of pu-erh tea during the Tang Dynasty.
Today, it has made its way west and begun to pick up a following due to its bold flavor, stimulating effect and many health benefits.
Meanwhile in China, the town of Pu-erh has been industrialized over the ages and is now known as Ning Er. But this region still produces the tea and takes great pride in its discovery.
The Four Main Types of Pu-erh Tea
There are four basic types of pu-erh tea; Maocha, “Seng Cha”, “Shu Cha’ and Aged Raw Pu-erh. They are delineated by how they are prepared, as you will see below:
These are raw green leaves used for making pressed pu-erh or Seng Cha.
This is raw or green pu-erh tea. It’s prepared the old fashion way, by being dried out in large heaps then left to ferment in naturally occurring moisture and bacteria in a process known as “Wo Dui”.
Next it is pan-fired to prevent more enzyme activity and dried out. After the tea has oxidized, a decision is made on whether it will be pressed into cakes or stored as loose leaves before hitting the market.
This is ripened or red Pu-erh tea. It was developed in the early 70’s by the Yunnan Kunming Tea Factory in order to expedite the fermentation process.
Instead of using the natural bacteria and moisture, it is dried out in the sun, then mixed with a bacterial culture that has already been prepared. It is then left to oxidize in a humid environment for a little over a month and cooked to give it its distinct dark look.
Aged raw pu-erh tea:
This is a lot like the Seng Cha pu-erh, except it goes through a slow secondary oxidation and fermentation process.
How is Pu-erh Tea Grown?
The process of cultivating the various trees and bushes that produce pu-erh tea, can have a dramatic impact on how much the tea is worth and how it tastes.
Pu-erh tea is cultivated in three different ways, as we have listed below:
If there is a crown jewel of cultivation when it comes to pu-erh tea, wild trees would have to be it. The leaves of these trees have grown and developed without any human intervention, except when it comes to picking them.
It is often claimed that the flavor profile of teas from “wild trees” is more robust and nuanced–even containing hints of mint. This is widely attributed to the fact that camphor trees can often be found growing in the same places as the tea trees themselves.
Wild Arbor Trees:
These are the remnants of old plantations that have since been growing on their own. While the leaves they produce aren’t as prized as those from wild trees, they are known to generally have the second best flavor profile.This is primarily attributed to the organic practices of maintaining them, without pesticides and from the secondary metabolites in the trees themselves.
These usually yield the cheapest pu-erh teas because they lack the flavor produced by both wild arbor trees and wild trees alike. The tea bushes are often grown on a flat terrain, without other plants like the camphor trees around them to give them an extra flavor.
Probably the biggest factor in why these leaves end up less flavorful and cheaper however, is that they are sprayed with pesticides and grown in chemical fertilizer to protect them and make them grow faster.
Pu-erh Tea Caffeine
Depending on the strength of the brewed tea, pu-erh tea can be high in caffeine. The caffeine in pu-erh tea can vary from 30-70 mg per 8 ounce cup. With ripe pu-erh usually containing more caffeine than raw pu-erh. It’s on par with the caffeine in teas of different types.
How is Real Pu-erh Tea Packaged?
True pu-erh tea can usually be quickly authenticated by knowing what kind of packaging to expect. There are a number of ways in which you can expect authentic pu-erh tea to be packaged based on whether you are buying wholesale stacks or individual cakes.
This is important because there are quite a few counterfeit pu-erh teas floating around the marketplace. Oftentimes the counterfeits are merely green tea, forest tea or tea that did not originate from Yunnan.
Other times it really is pu-erh, however the claims they make about the age of the tea or where the leaves originated are false.
In the following sections, we’ll break down exactly what to look for with wholesale stacks and individually packaged cakes.
Tǒng: Tǒng is the name for a stack of authentic wholesale pu-erh tea. Ensure that these are wrapped in coarse paper, bamboo shoot or stem husks. The number of cakes inside of each stack is usually determined by the stack’s weight.
- Five mini cakes should weigh around 250g
- Seven cakes should weigh around 357 to 500g.
- Ten mini cakes should weigh around 100g
Jiàn: If you really want to buy in bulk, many factories sell stacks in loose bamboo baskets referred to as one jiàn. The side of the basket should have a batch ticket on it that indicates the batch number of the tea, the type that it is and the factory it came from.
One jiàn is generally twelve stacks or tǒng, however that isn’t completely standardized and some factories count a different number of stack as a jiàn. Make sure you double check how many you’re getting for the best deal.
Individually Packaged Cakes
There are a few standard things an individually packaged cake or a bĭngchá should have if it is authentic. Look for the following:
The wrapper should tell you the type of leaves, where they were harvested, the batch number and which factory produced your cake. It will also probably include their logo and other artwork. The wrappers can be made of anything from cotton paper to cloth and may come in multiple layers.
There should be a large flyer, packaged loosely under the wrapper with the factory and brand name printed on it. It will often also explain the history of the company and the effects you can expect from the tea as a way of boosting sales and creating consumer confidence.
They embed these small tickets–with the tea factory’s name and brand printed on them–into the cakes themselves during processing as a way for you to ensure you’re getting the real deal. Higher end factories may provide more than one ticket.
Internal quality of the cake:
Oftentimes you’ll find that companies will put one layer of higher grade tea on the outside of the cake, but a lower grade on the inside to make it appear to be of a better quality.
Still, there is usually a dimple in the cake where you can catch a glimpse of what’s inside before you waste any money (this is assuming you’re buying it in person).
How To Make Pu-erh Tea
Fortunately, it doesn’t take nearly as long to prepare a cup of pu-erh tea as it does to prepare the leaves. If you follow each of the steps below, you can be sipping a delicious cup in no time:
- Ensure that you have a way to boil water, a teapot with a strainer and of course both the tea itself and a teacup. (For the tea, you want three to four grams of loose leaf or just one cake per cup.)
- Place your pu-erh tea in the bottom of your teapot, then fill it with boiling water. (Please note that if you want to bring out more of the caffeine and flavor you can first “rinse” the leaves.)
- Let the tea steep for approximately two minutes. (Please note that if you want a weaker tea you can let it steep for a shorter amount of time and if you want a stronger tea you should let it steep a little longer.)
- Pour the tea through the strainer into your cup, and voila, you’ve got a delicious cup of Pu-erh tea!
- If you would like you can add honey, sugar or milk to sweeten the flavor, though you should surely expect to be frowned upon by your fellow pu-erh tea aficionados.
What are the Health Benefits of Pu-erh Tea?
Pu-erh tea isn’t only known for its distinctive rich flavor, but also for providing its users with a number of health benefits. Though some of these benefits still require more research to be fully understood, we have compiled and listed them below.
Though its effects in this area still aren’t fully understood, there is some research that suggests pu-erh tea can inhibit cancer cell proliferation and thus slow down the spread of cancer.
Though these findings are quite promising, it’s important to remember that a key requirement of the scientific method is reproducibility, and thus more studies should be done before these results are considered conclusive.
Reduces headaches and migraines:
The oxidative effects of pu-erh tea are great for reducing headaches and migraines. They do this by increasing the level of oxygen in your blood and ultimately improving your circulation.
Antioxidants and vitamin C are fantastic for building your immunity and avoiding things like the common cold or the flu. Fortunately pu-erh tea is packed with both.
Helps with metabolic syndrome:
Metabolic syndrome can lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Plus it comes with a variety of issues ranging from high blood pressure to insulin resistance.
Fortunately there is promising research that suggests pu-erh tea can reduce these symptoms and prevent them from getting worse.
In at least one study, pu-erh tea was found to be useful in improving subjects lipid profile, reducing body mass index and significant weight loss.
Encourages Bone Health:
The antioxidants and polyphenols found in pu-erh tea can be great for maintaining strong bone health.
Pu-erh tea contains GABA and theanine, which are both associated with reducing stress. This may make it a good alternative to coffee if you want caffeine but are having a difficult day.
Pu-erh tea contains between 30 and 100 mg of caffeine.This means it can provide you with just the pickup you need in the morning or during afternoon drowsiness.
Are There Similar Teas to Pu-erh?
While pu-erh tea is one of the most unique and delightful teas you’ll find, after you try it you may hunger (or should I say thirst) for other teas like it. While there aren’t any teas exactly like pu-erh, we think you might want to try some of the following:
Kombucha is the most well known fermented tea in the United States. While it has a taste that is distinct from pu-erh, it has many of the same health benefits including probiotics, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Chances are you’ve already heard of this one. Still, if you haven’t tried it, you should.
Anhua Dark Tea:
One of the most popular fermented teas within China is Anhua dark tea. It is compressed into bricks and served in a way reminiscent of pu-erh tea. However, it has not yet seen the kind of success outside china that pu-erh tea has.
Liu Bao is a dark fermented tea that finds its origins in the Guangxi province of China. It belongs to the same family of teas as pu-erh and has a similar flavor. The leaves are also sometimes compacted down before they are sent out for sale, so that they are easier to travel with and use.
Da Hong Pao:
Perhaps the most expensive tea in the world, Da Hong Pao is said to be similar in flavor to pu-erh. Like pu-erh tea, Da Hong Pao is a dark, highly oxidized tea that originates from China.
In the same way that pu-erh is compressed into cakes, huajuan tea is rolled and compressed into log-like shapes. In fact the name means “patterned roll tea.”
What is Pu-erh Tea: The Takeaway
Pu-erh tea is a smooth, rich tea that originates from Yunnan China.There are three major ways it is cultivated; on wild trees, wild arbor trees and plantation bushes. After the leaves are picked they are dried out in a heap and allowed to ferment and develop flavor in a number of different ways.
Sometimes simply with their own natural moisture and bacteria, while at other times in a bacterial culture to expedite the process.
For the user, it only takes a few minutes to prepare but is packed with flavor and comes with a litany of health benefits. There’s even promising research that suggests it can be used to help with problems ranging from migraines to cancer.
It can be bought individually or in bulk, so there’s really no reason not to just try it out. If you’re tired of drinking the same old same old boring teas, pu-erh might just be for you.