Pu erh tea is a made up of tea leaves that had been plucked from tea trees growing in the Yunnan province. It was here that this type of tea had originated from. It must be produced in the Yunnan province for it to be an authentic pu erh tea. Other areas have tried producing it but the quality and the flavor are not the same so it is best that you get your authentic tea from the right source.
The pu erh tea’s taste has a mild earthy flavor with woodsy tones as well. Because of the fermentation process that it goes through, it has a deep and rich body that’s extremely smooth and refreshing. The best pu erh teas are rich in flavor and have a lingering taste because of the minerals that are contained in the tea. It’s also some of the most expensive. Its colors when seeped ranges from brown red to dark brown red depending on how long you let it seep.
What’s so unique about the tea is the aging process that it undergoes. Its important to mention here that there are two categories of this specific tea, Ripe and Raw pu erh tea. Raw is the traditional tea and ripe is a more modern variation. More on these categories shortly.
History of Pu Erh
As earlier mentioned pu erh tea originated from the tea trees in the mountains of Yunnan province. It produced by the ethnic groups around Yunnan and was made for their personal consumption until it was traded and transported via “The Ancient Tea Route”. Because it was such an important trading route for tea, “The Ancient Tea Route” had been dubbed as the second Silk Road.
Though the trees in the Yunnan province had been producing tea for centuries, the pu erh was only introduced during the Ming Dynasty around 700-800 years ago. Prior to the Ming Dynasty, teas from Yunnan were simply dried and compressed and no additional process was involved. Once the additional steps of aging and fermentation were incorporated into the tea making process, the raw pu erh tea was born. The ripe pu erh tea was created only in the 1970s.
Understanding Raw & Ripe Pu Erh
Before diving into processes we need to clarify and understand these two variations. Both ripe and raw are produced similar in the initial stages, it is only after harvesting, pan frying/steaming, rolling and drying the leaves under sunlight where they differ.
Raw: Fermented slowly through aging
Ripe: Fermentation is speeded up through methods to try and replicate raw variations.
As you can see the main difference is fermentation. Raw takes a long time to result in taste characteristics related to the tea. Compared to ripe where fermentation is speeded up to reduce this time. Both variations result in their own advantages and disadvantages. The main differences with both variations are, taste, price and availability. With raw variations there is not going to be as much available which makes the price of the tea much more expensive as it requires much attention and time to produce. However, you get traditional and unique tastes that can be evolved from aging the tea for over 20 years. Ripe Pu erh can be aged for around 10-15 years but any longer does not have an effect on the taste. Now let’s jump into more in detailed processes in creating the tea.
Processes of Pu Erh Tea
Harvesting: The process of creating pu erh tea is similar to the process of creating green tea but not identical. It starts with the harvesting process. Harvesting uses 3-5 leaves that are plucked from a single bud. The 3rd leaf and the older leaves plucked are essential to this process because this leaves had been growing with the plant longer than the first 2 leaves.
This gives the tea its strong flavor and lingering taste. The leaves are handled gently to prevent them from bruising. Spring is the best time to harvest. The types of tea trees where the tea leaves are plucked from will have an effect on taste.
Kill-Green: Once you have harvested your tea leaves, the next process is pan fry or dry roast the leaves using a large wok. This process deactivates the enzymes from the leaves but doesn’t remove it 100% unlike in green teas.
Drying: Once the pan roasting process is done, the tea leaves are laid out in the sun to dry.
Raw Pu Erh: From this stage the sun dried leaves create fresh raw pu erh tea. The color of the leaves starts out green then turn yellow green. With the proper storage, the color of the leaves will remain yellowish green.
Ripe Pu Erh: The process of making ripe pu erh starts with raw pu erh. The leafs are sprinkled with water to begin the fermentation process. A sheet is placed on top of the moist leaves so that the humidity is maintained. Various bacteria will then begin to grow within covered tea leaves as the oxidation process goes on.
The temperature of the leaves will reach up to 80 degrees Celsius which tells you that it is at the peak of the fermentation process. Once a week the sheets are opened and the tea leaves are mixed to even out the moisture level. Once the fermentation process stops, usually after several weeks, the temperature decreases and the leaves are ready for the 2nd stage.
The 2nd stage involves spreading the leaves evenly on a flat surface to dry out the leaves and to let yeast and mold to perform further fermentation. Lumpy tea leaves will then form because of the mycelium of mold. This lumping process forms cha-tou which is one of the most expensive ripe pu erh teas.
Cha-tou is a lump of pu erh that has a fruity flavor and is very limited in quantity. The rest of the loose leaves that don’t become cha-tou are packed and shaped. It takes 6 months to a year to produce the tea.
Shaping: Both raw and ripe pu erh leaves can be molded into any shape you want. The most common shape is round and flat similar to a pizza. The process of compressing the tea leaves starts by steaming them slightly to soften the leaves. The softened leaves are packed and compressed in a cotton bag using a heavy compression device. Some raw variations are bought as loose leaves.
Aging: This is where true Pu erh tea is created, through aging and fermentation. Otherwise its simple green tea. Over time flavors and tastes are created which affects aging time. Depending on certain preferences you may want to get a 10-year-old or 2-year-old batch. When it comes to raw and ripe variations raw can be aged for longer delivering a wider range of flavors. Its known that raw pu erh can be aged over 30 years! Where ripe is usually aged until 15 years as taste does not improve over more time.
Factors that Affect Quality
There are 3 factors affecting the quality of leaves used. These are altitude, weather conditions, soil quality. Pu erh tea leaves don’t do well in high altitudes. This is the reason why most of them are grown at the lower side of the mountain.
Weather conditions that are dry and sunny produce good quality teas. It is during these conditions that the tea trees are able to absorb sunlight to conduct photosynthesis and the tea tree growth is slower. Some experts say that the slower growth of the trees the leaves produce teas with more after taste.
Soil quality also affects the tea leaves. The nitrogen in the soil helps make the plant grow faster so it is not advisable to add nitrogen inducing fertilizers. Most tea tree farmers even advise against putting fertilizers altogether due to the unnatural results it produces. It is always best to let nature takes its course when growing the tea trees.
When harvesting tea leaves, the first harvest of the season always produces the best leaves. It is also believed that over plucking of tea leaves from the trees produces less quality tea. This is because the tea trees have less time to absorb the proper minerals and nutrients from its surroundings.
Expert pu erh tea makers also warn about things like overcooked tea leaves and tea leaves that have been fermented for too long. You should always follow the right length of cooking time and fermentation to ensure that you get quality. Too much cooking makes it taste bitter and fermenting the tea leaves for too long spoils them and makes them compost.
To ensure quality and to retain its taste, it must be compressed and stored properly. A highly compressed pu erh tea ages slower than loose leaves. The more compressed the teas were packed the slower the aging process. Store the tea in a place that is free of humidity and high heat. Both factors speed up the aging process of the tea.
Types of Tree
Tea Gardens is what ripe pu erh teas are made of. The after taste for this type of tea is less than the other tea trees unless positioning of the garden is high up in mountains near native trees to gather more minerals and vitamins from their dropped leaves.
100-200 years old tea bushes have a stronger taste because of the minerals in the soil where it is grown. The age of the trees in this category is older than those of the garden tea.
Old tea trees are usually trees that are more than 200 years old and grow on the slope of the mountain. This is considered the best type of tea source and is also the most expensive.
Wild tea trees produce varying sizes, shapes, taste and flavor from its leaves. These trees usually grow in the deeper parts of the forest and when processed, the leaves produce a stronger and sometimes bitter taste. These trees tend to be from any age and hybrid variations of surrounding trees.
Pu Erh Tea Benefits
Pu erh tea contains anti-oxidants that can help to bring down the body’s cholesterol levels because of the small amounts of lovastatin contained within the tea. This chemical used for prescription medicine to lower your cholesterol. Also known to lower the bad cholesterol in the body called triglycerides.
Some studies have also linked pu erh tea weight loss and burning of fats in the body. It is said to help reduce fat intake by speeding up the digestion and not allowing the body to absorb fat and flushing it out immediately.
Also caffeine is present within the tea that can help keep you alert and awake when you need to. It also contains vitamin C and has been used in the treatment of colds.
Pu Erh Tea Caffeine
Firstly, this tea does contain caffeine, its derived from the camellia sinensis which produces caffeine. Now understanding amounts of Pu erh tea caffeine becomes more complicated. Fermentation and how the tea is produced does have an effect on caffeine. Green tea is very similar in initial processes where its heated up to deactivate the enzymes, this step helps prevent caffeine from being produced within the leaves. However, Pu erh tea then goes through further stages including fermentation, this reasoning prevents comparison between green and pu erh tea caffeine quantities.
Fermentation can increase caffeine levels found from resulting microorganisms. Studies have found mold fermentation can increase caffeine where yeast fermentation can actually lower caffeine. Both mold and yeast fermentation can be found in ripe pu erh. There isn’t enough studies and research on this topic to give a general caffeine amount found in Pu erh tea. However, with aged tea over time the caffeine starts to break down. This results in decreased caffeine levels and more typically in Ripe pu erh tea. This is one factor to why some types of pu erh have lower caffeine levels, people do tend to feel this with some types.
If you require certain amounts of caffeine contact the tea producer/brand.
Ideally you should keep the tea in a dry and cool place that’s free of humidity and has controlled temperature. Store your tea in a cool (not cold) and dry place that’s free of strong odors, sunlight and high heat. Humidity and high temperature ages the tea faster. The leaves also absorb any unpleasant odor that it comes in contact with so be sure not to expose it to unpleasant odors. Sunlight dries out the tea making it taste bitter.
The packaging of each pu erh tea also serves as its protection from outside elements that can lower the taste and quality of the tea. Keep the packaging intact as much as possible and don’t let the tea get exposed to air and humidity. Open only a fraction of the packaging if possible when getting tea to preserve the rest of the packed tea.
How to Brew Pu Erh Tea
To brew pu erh tea you must take a chunk off a round of packed tea. Some people prefer to take flakes off using a knife while others prefer to steam the entire round to soften it before taking chunks off it. Take off a well sized portion of the tea from the round then place in a steeping tea pot. Pour in water with temperatures ranging from 95 degrees Celsius for lower end pu erh teas, 85-89 degrees Celsius for quality ripe pu erh teas.
For the first tea steeping, a maximum of 30 seconds will produce great tasting tea. Pu erh tea is very versatile when it comes to steeping times because you can choose to steep longer and produce a stronger tasting tea or steep quickly to get a lighter flavor. For the succeeding steeping of the pu erh tea you must steep no longer than 10 minutes. Too much steeping produces a darker shade of tea and could taste bitter and even unpleasant for some.
Pu erh tea can be infused more times than regular teas because of its lack of bitter and astringent properties. This can be done by steeping it quickly and successively within a short period of time usually for an hour or 2. For a great tasting tea a ratio of 2 to 3 grams of pu erh tea per 6 ounces of water should do. Note also the compression of the tea. The more compressed the tea, the less you will need to put in the tea pot.