A chunk of hard, dark tea made in a small bowl was certainly not what I was expecting when a friend in London offered me a cup of tea a few years ago. It turned out to be a very important cup – its taste so intriguing and moreish that it catapulted me into the world of Chinese tea. This exploration has led me to so many new and far-flung places, tastes, and incredible people. I fell in love with tea through puerh, and although I also love to drink oolongs, greens, blacks and whites, it’s puerh I’ll always come back to. I’m definitely not the first person to fall for its intrigue – or to ask with the first cup “what is puerh?”, but the immense depth and breadth of flavour and ancient culture and history, of both production and drinking, means it’s a tea type many tea lovers go crazy for.
This month we launched our very first raw puerh cake from the Ai Lao Mountains, a protected range in the heart of Yunnan province. So, to get you ready for this this new tea, I’ve dug into the stories behind puerh. Read on to discover what puerh is, where it originates, what makes it’s unique and at the end I’ve shared my tips on where and how you can begin exploring this truly superb type of tea.
What is puerh tea and where does it come from?
Puerh is a style of unoxidised and carefully aged tea from Yunnan province in the south west of China. It’s prized for a complex, fragrant, and bitter-sweet taste. Although similar styles of tea making can be found in a few other provinces, tea can only be called puerh if it is from Yunnan. It’s one of the very few teas to be designated a protected origin in China. Made anywhere else and it’s known as ‘Hei Cha’ which means ‘black tea’ (not to be confused with what we English refer to as black tea, which in Chinese is called ‘Hong Cha’ and translates as ‘red tea’).
Legend suggests that tea cultivation began in South West China during the 4th century, however it wasn’t until a few centuries later during the Tang Dynasty that the creation of a trade network now known as the Ancient Tea Horse Road would pass directly through Pu’er city, enabling tea from Yunnan and Sichuan provinces to be transported to Tibet and beyond. This encouraged the growth of tea as an important export.
What are the different types of puerh?
There are two main types of puerh tea, the first being ‘sheng’ or raw puerh, which is the original kind and can be enjoyed either fresh or after it’s been left to naturally age and slowly oxidise. This ageing can be anywhere from a few years to a few decades and in the right conditions, the ageing matures the flavour of the tea and creates layers of complexity, depth and sweetness.
Freshly produced tea can also be intentionally fermented – a sort of speeding up of the ageing process. This is the second type known as ‘shou’ or cooked puerh. This fermentation process called ‘wo dui’ (wet piling) was innovated to replicate the rich and earthy taste of a puerh tea that has been naturally aged for many years.
What makes Yunnan so special for producing tea?
There are many things that make Yunnan unique and incredible, from its vibrant multi-ethnic culture to its ancient tea history. The most noteworthy for tea are firstly the kind of tea plants (or rather tea trees) found here. Yunnan is home to the indigenous Camellia sinensis assamica varietal of tea, which is what’s used to make puerh. Although naturally occurring in the wild, this varietal has been cultivated across Yunnan for centuries and so there are now tea gardens made up of full sized - or arboreous - tea trees. Some of the individual trees are hundreds of years old, and with their deep roots, these ancient trees (referred to as ‘gushu’) are the most highly prized for making puerh. By comparison, in most other parts of China, tea bushes are more thoroughly cultivated and heavily pruned, giving good leaves for just a few decades before being re-planted.
Another benefit of crafting tea in Yunnan is the land itself. The soil is extremely fertile, and the rural and mostly untouched nature of the province means the environment is biodiverse. It has a temperate climate and many mountains more than 1,000m in height, all of which work together to create the perfect conditions for growing and harvesting flavoursome tea. The final key to what makes tea from Yunnan special is the people. The lands are cared for by small families or village communities who often work together to harvest and handcraft their tea and protect their environment. They use skills handed down through generations, so have an expert understanding of how to work in harmony with the tea trees and their land to coax out teas with incredible taste, while keep the environment fertile. The interest and value of puerh tea in the last few decades has transformed some of the rural areas in the province, bringing money to the remote places where some of the highest quality tea is produced. This has helped to create new roads, giving access to villages that were once only reached on foot, build new homes and buy better tea processing facilities to continue the craft of tea. It’s evidence of what happens when tea from a specific area is valued – communities and their environments can thrive. In these areas, local governments are involved in keeping the area pristine for the long term too – they prevent the use of certain pesticides and maintain ecological practices.
How is puerh tea made?
Puerh is made in spring and autumn, the most temperate times of year. As with all teas and indeed most agricultural products, there are fluctuations within the timings of the seasons, and harvest also depends on the age of the tea plants. Older trees will tend to flush new buds and leaves later than younger bushes. Tea producers late could result in the tea plants producing only a few leaves for making tea, using the rest of their energy to produce fruits and flowers instead. There are few written rules for making puerh, only guidelines, so as with most hand-crafted tea, each producer uses their own intuition and experience to get it right; knowing the land, weather and plants in the garden are essential.
Puerh production begins by harvesting the buds and leaves by hand and in small batches. These are then spread out on bamboo mats and left to wither for 5 hours or more depending on the temperature and weather. The wither reduces the water content to get the leaves dry enough to begin the wok firing. The wok firing is known as a sha qing or ‘kill green’ and is usually done by hand in large metal pans over fire. This heating of the leaves deactivates most, but not all, of the enzymes in the leaf responsible for oxidation, thereby locking in the green colour and complex flavour.
After frying, the leaves are rolled in a small machine for about 5 to 10 minutes. This breaks the surface cells of the leaves and the hard leaf stems. Doing so means any remaining water content can be released, as well as the organic tannins in the tea, which contribute to the unique bitter-sweet flavour of puerh. The leaves are then rested overnight before a final slow, sun-drying on bamboo mats to ensure a smooth, mellow texture. At this point you have sheng (raw) puerh tea, which is ready to enjoy, but usually pressed into different shapes, such as a ‘bing’ (tea cake) or brick, for easier storage and continued ageing.
Sometimes the raw puerh tea will then be fermented to create shou or ‘cooked’ puerh. During the wo dui or fermentation process, the tea goes through consecutive stages of piling into large mounds, wetting, turning and covering with sheets to induce the humid conditions for microbial activity and fermentation. As well as enzymes in the tea leaves further oxidising during the process, microorganisms grow in the tea piles catalysing reactions in the leaves and causing a change in the chemical compounds of the tea. This is very similar to the microbial reactions prized in cheese making. These reactions increase the content of vitamin C and antioxidant catechins. This process can last from 20-70 days, after which the tea is fully dried and then rested before being enjoyed.
What does puerh tea taste like?
Raw puerh is often light in colour with a pale golden green hue that produces a fresh flavour filled with complex bitterness and transformative sweetness, floral notes, dried fruits, a light earthiness and hints of aromatic wood like sandalwood. Cooked puerh is much darker and richer with a similar bitterness, balanced by caramel fudge sweetness and even earthier undertones of forest floor, spices and tobacco leaf.
But this famous style of tea is not so easy to pin down to a few tasting notes as it is often enjoyed often more for its immersive quality, made gong fu style over a long session of many infusions – much like my very first experience of the chunk of tea made in a small bowl or “gaiwan”. From its complex initial taste and thick texture, puerh is also enjoyed for its long aftertaste and lasting ‘hui gan’ (returning throat sweetness). Seasoned puerh tea drinkers will even notice the sensation of ‘cha qi’ or tea energy which fills the entire body after an extensive tea session.
How to make puerh tea and find the best type for you
To really understand the complex and unique taste of puerh tea, I’d strongly recommend trying it gong fu style. This method uses a larger amount of tea leaves (either loose or broken off from a pressed cake) and small amounts of water for multiple short infusions. Made this way you’ll go on a journey as different flavours emerge with each infusion. Specialised clay teapots are the primary choice for many puerh enthusiasts, but if you don’t have one of those (as most don’t), then using our Tea Master or Tea-iere are a great way to perfect the art of gong fu tea making with ease. Check out the video I made on how to make gong fu tea over on our Instagram.
Gong Fu will work with all types of puerh, so in terms of which tea to pick, if you like fresh, and fruity flavours with a complex bitterness then go for young raw puerh (like our Ai Lao Mountain tea), but if you prefer something more earthy and rich, then try an aged or fermented puerh like our Vintage Imperial Puerh or Cooked Mini Cakes. Here’s a basic gong fu recipe for our cooked puerh mini cakes which are a great intro into puerh tea:
One mini cake or 5g of leaf per 125ml (half a One Cup Tea-iere), infuse for 1 min at 100˚c to allow the cake to open up, then pour out all the tea and enjoy. Re-infuse for 30 seconds on the 2nd infusion, adding 10 seconds more to each subsequent infusion (up to 8 times).