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28th July 2007

By Edward Eisler

Puerh Tea

Puerh tea has been touted as a weight loss miracle. In China puerh is catching the attention of investors as it increases in value at more than 100% per year. But what is it about this tea, so unknown outside China, that makes it so special?

Puerh (Puer; Pu-Erh; Pu-Er) tea is a hot topic at the moment. With today's celebrities saying that they drink puerh, countless thousands flock to buy it to help them look thinner and more beautiful. However, there is a great deal more to this potentially outstanding category of tea than a quick fad.

Puerh tea is so different to other teas - its taste, aroma and texture have an appeal which transcends analysis and intellect. Instead it appeals to those that can appreciate it on the very deepest level. Those that truly love Puerh tea (myself included) find that its appeal is not just in its unique flavours and textures, but also in the way it soothes both mind and body. This may be derived from imagination but I have regularly shared this experience with many puerh drinkers in China.

Puerh tea is made in a unique way. Actually, there are two production methods which result in 'raw' and 'cooked' varieties.

The raw processing method is beautifully simple and produces the most sought after and expensive teas. The leaf is picked, at best from wild, ancient trees found deep in the tropical jungles of China's Yunnan province. The leaves are allowed to wither on bamboo trays before being quickly wok-fired to kill the enzymes and prevent immediate oxidation. Then the leaves are dried in the sun. After a year of ageing, the leaves may be compressed into cakes by steaming the dry leaf and compressing it into the desired shape - a fast and highly skilled process.

Cooked puerh is made by allowing the leaf to ferment in highly humid and warm rooms before being dried. This speeds-up the fermentation process, quickly producing a rich, mellow, earthy tea. Some find that cooked puerh is suitable as a starting point for puerh tea drinking with its mellow and easy-going flavours.
However, in this blog, I would like to concentrate on raw puerh.

The Da Yeh (Big Leaf) variety of tea tree is used to make Puerh. It produces a strong, full textured liquor. The taste is full enough to withstand many years of maturation. Years of ageing alter the flavour - the sappy and complex character of the fresh leaf remains but is made harmonious, soothing and rich over time. In April this year, I tasted hundreds of new, raw puerhs from every region in Yunnan province. When young, raw puerh can taste astringent but good young leaf will still show excellent mouth feel and clear flavours. These qualities of strength of mouth-feel and clarity of taste in a young tea suggest that it may be good tea to put aside for a few years to mature. Poor quality, young raw puerh will never improve with age.

How can one tell a good puerh from bad? Most raw puerhs come in cake form. Firstly one can look at the compressed leaf itself. The leaf should be regular, thickly and neatly matted without too much variation in the strength of the compression. It should not break off too easily - you should need to use a knife to prize off the tea in layers. The dry leaf should not smell musty but richly aromatic - a little like a cigar cabinet. If the aroma of the dry or wet leaf is overly musty (or even 'barnyard'), it suggests that the quality of the storage conditions were too damp.

The flavour will change according to the age of the tea - it will get slowly mellower, fuller and more rounded. The colour of the dry leaf will change from green → yellow → red → brown over time. Similarly the colour of the infusion will change from greenish yellow → greenish with hint of red → red gold → russet → deep plum red. The flavour of course will vary depending on the region in which it was produced, the quality of the season and the production. But as a general rule the flavour should not be musty but clean, full and complex.

The way the tea is stored is very important. Warm temperature of 30 degrees will aid the speed at which the tea matures. Some humidity is also important. However, the air must be fresh and able to circulate. Stagnant conditions make the tea taste musty. I have visited outstanding puerh tea warehouses which contain puerh worth millions of pounds. The aroma was amazing - like a richly textured cigar cabinet.

When making raw puerh to drink it is essential to infuse it correctly, otherwise you may find your tea will taste overpoweringly astringent. You will need a small teapot with a capacity of less than 250ml or a gaiwan of similar size. You will also need a tea pitcher to decant the infusion into as soon as it has reached the optimum steeping level. Take quite a lot of leaf - 5-8g, and infuse it with boiling water for a few seconds twice to awaken the leaves - pour away these infusions. Then steep the leaves for 15-20 seconds before decanting the infusion into the server. I really recommend our 1998 Vintage Cooked Puerh Mini Cakes to begin your journey into raw puerh tea drinking, as it is so smooth, soothing, richly textured and complex.

The first infusion is said so show the quality of the storage - clean flavour will show that the storage was good; musty flavours the opposite.
The second and third infusions show the age of the tea - the more full, harmonious, perfected and rich, the older the tea. This is not something that is easy to describe in words.
The fourth and fifth infusions show the quality of the tea itself. Good raw puerh can be infused at least ten times. I have been fortunate to taste Red Seal puerh which was made in the 1940's. It was possible to infuse this tea at least twenty times.