A guide to puerh tea
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Puerh is a compressed, aged, post-fermented green tea made from special tea varieties grown and processed in Yunnan province. For a tea to be an authentic puerh it must be grown and processed in Yunnan, picked from the broad-leaf cultivar and sun-dried.
The leaves are processed into two main types: Raw or green (sheng) puerh and cooked or black (shou) puerh. Raw and cooked puerh can then be processed into compressed or loose versions.
Puerh is the most coveted and controversial of all tea types because it is one of the few teas that is ‘laid down’, similar to fine wine, to improve with age. 40 or 50 year old puerhs can fetch enormous prices.
Top quality aged puerhs can be infused up to 60 times and can produce an astonishing range of subtle and complex flavours, ranging from earthy and musty to sweet and fruity. For this reason, puerh inspires both widespread counterfeiting and a uniquely obsessive devotion among aficionados that borders on fanaticism. However, today it is possible for non-obsessive puerh drinkers to enjoy reasonably priced raw and cooked puerh. The golden rule as always is to buy from a reliable source.
growing and production
Varieties: Puerh is produced from a number of varieties of the broad-leafed Yunnan cultivar, known as Da Ye (Sinsensis Assamica). Puerh varieties can then be further cartegorised into ancient, tall, wild and small-leafed.
Major growing areas: Major growing areas include Xishuangbanna, Dali, Baoshan, Dehong, Puerh County and Lan Cang (Mekong) River Basin, Yunnan. The Chinese government has designated the puerh-growing areas as PDO, i.e. only tea produced in this area can be called puerh. This has not prevented puerh from being made with leaves from other areas and indeed within other areas including Guangdong, Hunan and other western provinces.
Picking: Tea for puerh production is picked in the spring, summer and autumn. Spring and autumn teas are most prized. Puerh is picked as buds, single bud and one leaf, or two leaves and one bud. Buds are considered to be the highest quality, but most puerhs contain a mix of all three pickings.
Processing raw puerh: The puerh leaves are withered in the sun or by wood-fired heating for a few hours, and then fired lightly in large woks. The leaves are carefully hand-rolled to bruise them and start the fermentation process, then rested and dried again. The prepared raw puerh leaves, known as Mao Cha (‘rough tea’), are then either stored to be sold as loose puerh or sent for pressing into blocks.
Loose puerh ages more quickly than compressed puerh. To make compressed puerh, the leaves are steamed, wrapped in cloths and pressed into cakes or bricks – traditionally this is done by hand using heavy weights, although machines are increasingly common. The puerh is then stored for a minimum of 1-2 years to post-ferment, where microbes and bacteria will act on compounds in the tea to create the characteristic earthy flavours of puerh tea. Well-made puerh will continue to change and develop its flavours for several decades.
Processing cooked puerh: Cooked puerh is treated the same as raw puerh until the stage when it becomes Mao Cha. At this point, instead of being simply steamed, compressed and stored, the puerh undergoes a process known as ‘wet-piling’, whereby the leaves are left in damp piles in a humid environment to imitate the natural ageing process. The damp leaves are carefully turned and any rotten leaves removed to prevent mould developing.
Ageing puerh: Both raw and cooked puerh benefit from ageing by exposure to the air in a dry, dark place, although only the better quality cooked puerhs will be affected by ageing. Ageing affects both the texture of the tea liquor and the taste of the tea – typically raw puerh teas are more mellow and sweeter the longer they age.
Puerh production can be traced back as far as to the Han Dynasty (200 BC), although some scholars date the start of puerh production to the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Yunnan was the starting point for the ‘Tea-Horse Road’ from where tea and horses were traded with Tibet and Northern China. Block tea was made because it was easier to store and transport. One theory is that the action of the horses’ sweat on the compressed tea led to the discovery of the benefits of the post-fermentation process. Disappointingly, it’s more likely the effect of the humid climate of Yunnan on the stored tea that created the post-fermentation process.
The technique for producing cooked puerh was developed by the famous Kunming and Meng Hai Tea Factories in 1972 to replicate the natural ageing process used for raw puerh. It is said to have evolved, as a variation on at the technique long-used by some merchants to counterfeit aged tea.
In 2003/4 a domestic ‘puerh bubble’ pushed prices up to stratospheric levels and sparked a plethora of inferior production and counterfeit puerhs. Teas from this period are still regarded with suspicion and genuine teas should be sourced by a true expert to guarantee quality.
The most famous traditional puerh factories include Xiaguan, Menghai and Kunming. More recently, new entrants into the market such as Haiwan, Xing Hai, Changtai, Mengku factories are gaining good reputations.
There are many resources on brewing puerh online and many take the debate about the choice of key elements – the water, brewing vessel, tea quantities, water temperature and infusion times – to fabulous levels of over-refinement. Our quick guide to brewing puerh is as follows:
Water: Spring water (from where the tea was grown) is best, but a spring/filtered water with a pH of just over 7 is fine. Puerh should be brewed with boiling water.
Infuser: A small 140ml yixing (ZiSha) clay teapot is ideal. A small gaiwan (lidded bowl) will do well. Very small infusing vessels, as little as 50ml, are sometimes used.
Tea quantities: Puerh experts tend to use large amounts of tea and infuse it for very short periods: 5-7 grams per 140ml of water, infused for 10-15 seconds per infusion, is a common brew technique.
Separating the leaves: Use a puerh knife, an oyster knife, or any chunky broad-bladed knife to gently separate the tea leaves from the cake or block, keeping them as whole as possible. Tuo Cha can also be separated by steaming them wrapped in cotton in a bamboo steamer for around 20 minutes, then drying the tea, but only if you plan to use your puerh up relatively quickly.
Infusion times: A typical infusion sequence will be as follows: infusion number: 1 - 15 seconds, 2 - 12 seconds, 3 - 25 seconds, 4 - 40 seconds, 5 - 50 seconds and so on. A lot depends on the quality of your puerh and the ratio of tea to water.
Health benefits of puerh tea
In China, puerh is widely used for medicinal purposes: to combat ageing, heart disease, toxins in the blood, cancer, heart disease, cholesterol, digestive problems and to aid weight loss, blood circulation and as a hangover cure. The benefits of puerh are rapidly gaining credibility in the West and serious scientific research is ongoing.