Unwrapping the Mystery of Pu-Erh Teas

Ancient Green Tuo ChaThe popularity of pu-erh teas has increased dramatically over the past twenty years, both domestically in China as well as in the western world.  Despite this, many tea drinkers are still in the dark about this unique variety of tea.Pu-erh teas come from China’s southwestern Yunnan Province, and are traditionally made from the old-growth tea trees that Yunnan is famous for.  The name “Pu-Erh” is derived from the town where all tea in this region was taken after harvest in ancient days. Part of the fascination with pu-erh teas (also spelled, “puer,” “puerh” and “pu’er”) stems from their complexity.  They exhibit a wide-ranging palate of (perhaps unusual?) aromas and flavors that, in comparison to other traditional tea varieties (black, green, etc.), accentuate their exotic character.  In addition, pu-erh teas are highly valued in Chinese medicine, and are believed to aid in the digestion of fatty foods and help to regulate cholesterol levels.

What Makes a Pu-Erh Tea?
Although the end product can be quite different than other tea varieties, the manufacture of pu-erh tea begins with a number of steps common to all teas.  Like other teas, pu-erhs begin by being plucked, whithered, rolled/kneaded, and sometimes allowed to oxidize.  From this point, however, pu-erh manufacture follows its own path.  After initial manufacturing, pu-erh teas are packaged up (either loose or after being steamed and pressed into a certain shape) and the aging/fermentation process is allowed to begin.

It is important to differentiate between the terms “oxidize” and “ferment,” which are often mistakenly used interchangeably in the tea industry.  Put simply, oxidation is a chemical reaction between oxygen and the contents of the tea leaf that changes the tea’s characteristics (making it darker in color, for instance), whereas fermentation results from microbial action where the tea leaves are essentially “digested” by bacteria, changing the properties of the tea in the process.  So over time, biologically-active pu-erh teas continue to slowly change, becoming rather different in character and composition than other styles of tea.  And the longer this aging/fermentation process is allowed to occur, the richer, sweeter and more-developed the pu-erh qualities become.  This is why older pu-erh teas are so highly valued – just like certain wines, age makes a difference.

Differing Styles of Pu-Erh
Two main categories of pu-erh tea are available, each with their own characteristics. These include cooked (or “shou”) pu-erh, which are artificially cooked or “ripened” to accelerate the aging process; and green (or “sheng”) pu-erh, which start out uncooked and are naturally aged. While green pu-erh is the traditional vareity, growing demand for pu-erhs in the 1960′s and 1970′s prompted the invention of cooked pu-erh, which substantially shortens the aging process. Both types of pu-erh tea come in a variety of shapes, including disks, tou cha (“bird’s nests”), bricks, mushrooms, etc., as well as loose leaf versions.  Like wine, puer’s quality complexity depends not only on it’s initial manufacturing, but also on its aging and storage. Great care must be taken to maintain and enhance the quality of a well-made pu-erh tea (in terms of packaging, temperature, humidity, air flow, etc.).

So there you have it, a general introduction to pu-erh teas.  If you haven’t tried any, you certainly should.  Don’t be scared off by the sometimes considerable price of these prized teas; high-quality pu-erh teas can yield many infusions, so they’re actually a good value. We invite you to try one of the several organic and fair trade certified pu-erh teas offered at www.ArborTeas.com – don’t let the mystery of pu-erh tea ellude you any further!

February 16 2009 01:38 pm | Tea Facts

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