Written by Will
An easy way into a rewarding tea type.
If you’ve heard of cooked puerh tea, you might have got the impression it’s a tea reserved for connoisseurs, to be enjoyed only by collectors with an acquired taste.
We would disagree. To introduce more people to the immersive taste of puerh and its ancient origins, we set out to source a fresh batch of cooked puerh with a supple, velvety and rich flavour.
This deep dive ventures into China’s Yunnan province, the home of puerh, to demystify this unique style of tea. I’ll show you what makes this origin so special, uncover some of the tea’s rare flavours and share some infusion tips, so you can have fun making this tea at home.
Name A reference to the individual cakes of pressed puerh tea, in the traditional ‘tuo’ shape.
Cultivar Indigenous tea bushes of Camellia sinensis var. assamica ‘Da Ye Zhong’
Style Post-fermented puerh tea
Origin Dongzhai garden, Baoshan, Yunnan, China
Terroir Bordering Myanmar, the garden sits among the ancient tea mountains of Yunnan province, famed for its wild gardens and tall tea trees.
Picking Season Picked in autumn 2018, fermented and rested for 18 months in Pu’er City, then pressed in spring 2020.
Leaf Small, compressed mini cakes of dark brown leaf.
Infusion Deep and translucent ebony.
What is cooked puerh tea?
Puerh is produced only in China’s Yunnan province. ‘Cooked’ refers to the fact this style of puerh tea is post-fermented.
First, the freshly picked tea leaves are processed to make ‘raw’ puerh. This sweet and zesty raw puerh can be enjoyed fresh or pressed into cakes and stored for ageing – some raw puerh has been carefully stored for an entire century. Store it for even a few years and it should begin to develop a thicker texture and a richer, rarer taste in the tea, with notes of tobacco leaf, incense woods and medicinal herbs.
In the 1970s, some producers didn’t want to wait that long for their tea to develop these rich flavours. They took some fresh raw puerh and fermented it, hoping to recreate the dark and complex taste that comes from ageing. They used a process now known as ‘wo dui’ or wet piling: the raw puerh tea is gathered into large piles and left in a humid environment to ferment and oxidise for a few weeks, turning them a dark, golden colour. The experiment was a success, with fermentation working very well to induce the complex, dark and rich flavours into the tea.
What makes Yunnan special?
When it comes to puerh, the origin of Yunnan is celebrated for two reasons.
First, it’s an ancient and innovative terroir for tea making. As well as a history spanning thousands of years, it has lots of high mountains and plenty of fertile soil, which helps give the tea bushes a deep fragrance, complex flavour, and thick texture.
Second, Yunnan is populated with forests of indigenous Camellia sinensis var. assamica tea trees. Some of them are up to 1,500 years old and have been left to grow very tall, with deep roots for a rich supply of important minerals and plenty of flavour from the soil to the leaves.
The combination of these two elements make Yunnan a terroir for puerh tea with a complex and sometimes intense character – and a taste that’s truly unique to this origin.
How did we find this batch of tea?
Our current batch of cooked puerh was processed and pressed exclusively for JING by fermentation specialists in Pu’er City, Yunnan. We selected a batch that uses raw puerh leaves picked in autumn 2018 from Dongzhai garden in Yunnan’s Baoshan district. After a heavy fermentation, the batch was rested for 18 months, allowing the tea flavour to mellow and develop a more characteristically smooth and earthy character.
When we tasted it in 2020, the flavour was spot on and we felt it was ready for pressing. Traditionally, puerh tea is pressed for storing, but we chose the classic, thimble-sized, mini ‘tuo’ cake shape. These are neat individual portions which make them simple to infuse and enjoy.
What is this batch like to drink?
The colour of the infusion is a dark, glowing ebony, indicative of deep and rich flavour. In contrast, the aroma is quite light and sweetly spiced, with some hints of antique wood and dark chocolate fudge. The flavour of the first sip is quite unexpected: complex and dark with a strong earthiness, incense woods and an underlying fruitiness. But it’s not overwhelming; there’s no bitterness and the flavour is balanced by a velvety, smooth texture, accentuating the comforting, mellow mood of this tea.
Our cooked puerh mini cakes can be reinfused many times. The second and third infusions bring out a more minerally sweetness that can be felt all the way down the throat – an enjoyable aspect of puerh known as ‘hui gan’ or returning sweetness in China.
When is this tea best?
In China, cooked puerh is often drunk after a meal, as it’s believed the fermentation lends the tea some helpful digestive properties. I could see how the rich flavour would be enjoyable after eating, like a single-malt whisky or black coffee. In fact, the comparison to coffee is a helpful one, as this tea also has strong flavour, balanced by a very smooth and drinkable texture. Perhaps you’ve just found a replacement for your morning americano?
What’s the best way to make it?
This is an easy one to make as it’s weighed out for you. All you have to do is unwrap the mini cake, pop it in your teaiere and pour over some boiling water. You’ll need water that’s as hot as possible to help the mini cake loosen up and allow the tea leaves to fully infuse. It’ll take a minute, but you’ll see the compressed leaves come loose, turning the infusion from a light red to a dark, cola black. For the second and third infusions, add 20-30 seconds extra to bring out more of that deep body and minerally sweetness.
Remember, when you think it’s got to the perfect strength, pour out the whole infusion into your favourite mug for the complete, perfect cup.
Go-to Method: 1 mini cake per 250ml; 100˚C; 3 minutes per infusion
For an extended tea session, this tea is fun to make in the gong fu style. With more leaf and less water, you can explore the depth of flavour as it evolves over 15 (or more) short infusions. For best results, use our Tea Master, a gong fu teapot or a gaiwan, if you have them at home.
I would also recommend rinsing the tea before beginning your infusions. A rinse is basically an infusion you do first and discard, as it’s usually weak tasting. The intention is to help a compressed tea, like these mini cakes, to loosen up. That way your first infusion will fully extract the rich and complex taste.
Gong Fu Method: 1½ mini cakes per 100ml; 100˚C; 30-second rinse; 15-second first infusion, +5 seconds for each subsequent infusion
Who is this tea for?
I’d like to shine a light on this unique tea type and get more people interested in the rich flavour of puerh. These cooked puerh mini cakes are the perfect place to start. They’re simple to make and have plenty of character, while still being smooth and easy to drink. If you’re ready to dive a bit deeper into the world of tea and experience something new, they’re a great introduction to an often overlooked type of tea.