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Why Tea Addicts Go Crazy for Pu-Erh

According to the the October 31, 2019 article in Serious Eats,

"In the war on rot, aging food is a tactical retreat. We can't beat nature at its own game, so we join it, and let microbes have their way with meat or cheese in the hopes of developing deeper, more complex flavors than the fresh versions can offer.

There's less rot involved when we age drinks like wine, beer, and whiskey, but it's still a testy alliance with nature—giving up the fresh, fiery tastes of youth for something deeper, layered, and more mature. Age, though it manifests in many forms, has a character all its own. You know it when you taste it; you're drinking time.

The Western world's long been keen on aging all kinds of drinks, but up until the last couple decades or so, the idea of applying the same principles to tea was largely unknown. Head over to China, though, and you quickly see that aged tea is as much a part of life as 21-year-old whiskey and prized vintages of Champagne.

Why age tea at all? Most tea doesn't so much age as turn stale and dead. But with the right environment, and the right tea, you get something utterly unique: a drink that slinks down your throat and hugs your belly, relaxes your muscles and calms your mind. The best aged tea is medicine you want to gulp, full of bitter chocolate or stonefruit or wet, sweet soil. And for the complexity of what you're drinking, it can cost way, way less per serving than that bottle of old Scotch.

While you can age many kinds of tea (I'm sitting on some lovely oolong almost as old as my parents), none is more lusted after than the pride of Yunnan Province, a tea hundreds—if not thousands—of years in the making: pu-erh.

Pu-erh, which is processed in a special way to encourage microbial fermentation after the leaves are dried, ages more dynamically than any tea out there. It does not have fans. It has junkies who buy kilos of the stuff at a time to bliss out on days-long brewing sessions, only dropping out of their highs long enough to argue over the best pu-erh blends, growing regions, and storage methods. There are grasping amateurs who buy, gift, and drink the tea to gain social status among Chinese elite. And there are pu-erh investors, too, gambling on a particular tea's aging potential, who build booming futures markets and, in the case of a major bust in 2007, crash them.

Over in the West, pu-erh is a niche market within a niche market. But its devotees are growing. And if there's a tea that's ready for the big time outside Asia, this is it.

A Tea Like No Other

For a tea to be called pu-erh, it must be made from the large-leaf subspecies Camellia sinensis var. assamica and grown in Yunnan Province in China's southwest, where Han Chinese as well as many ethnic minorities share borders with Burma and Laos. It's one of the few teas to be designated a protected origin product by the Chinese government, a rarity in an industry run wild with loose, unregulated terms and limited oversight.*

Those factors restrict the tea's general character and terroir to a set of parameters, but the real trick to pu-erh is what happens after it's picked. Fresh leaves get tossed by hand in giant woks long enough to halt the tea's oxidation, but not so long as to drive off all moisture and kill natural bacteria. The tea is then left to dry in the sun, but the bacteria live on, and over years and decades, they'll help completely transform the tea from a fresh, bitter green into something more dark, mellow, and rich.

Most tea farmers sell their dried tea directly to vendors or wholesalers, but with pu-erh there's usually a middle step. Farmers sell their finished loose leaves (called maocha) to processors who often blend leaves from several sources, steam them, then compress them under heavy weights into a variety of shapes, such as frisbee-like cakes, square bricks, and small concave nests. This Ming Dynasty-era practice was originally developed to make tea easier to transport over long distances, but these days is reserved for teas designed for aging; the compressed form makes for a more stable and portable aging environment as time does its thing.

A cake of pu-erh is in a constant state of change, and as you chip away leaves to drink over the months and years, no two brews will taste the same. Some pu-erh is delicious to drink when fresh: it's vegetal and fragrant with gentle bitterness and a tickling sun-dried pungency. Other pu-erh needs years of aging for profound bitterness or harsh, smoky flavors to mellow out into something smooth, sweet, and dignified. Half the fun of drinking the stuff is watching your tea grow and change as you do.

Drinking Time

Though pu-erh is one style of tea from one province, it's tricky to make generalizations about how it tastes. Regional variations in terroir, processing styles, and age all come into play, and the world of pu-erh is maddeningly complex, even by fine tea standards. As Jinghong Zhang puts it in her excellent Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic, an elucidating academic treatment of the tea's socio-political-economic history, "Pu-erh tea has been packaged by multiple actors into a fashionable drink with multiple authenticities." But to paint with the broadest of all possible brushes, here's a very rough breakdown of the three major pu-erh categories:

Young 'Raw': This looks like green tea more than anything else, and it's either brand new or not old enough (under, say, two to three years) to develop any of the aged characteristics of more mature pu-erh. It can be floral and sweet or as bitter as amaro, but there's an undeniable youth and grassy freshness to the brew. Some pu-erh people hate the taste of bitter young sheng, but others specifically seek it out for those bitter qualities. And some of the best young sheng out there should be drank fast, like green tea; not all pu-erh ages well, and time can just flatten out its snappy, vegetal flavor without adding anything new.

Aged 'Raw': There are many schools on how to age pu-erh, but all involve controlled heat and humidity to smooth out the tea's rough edges and make for a darker, deeper brew that tends to register lower in your throat and body. Aged pu-erh raw usually has some woodsy, earthy qualities and camphor or dark fruit notes, but rather than specific flavors, the important thing here is the depth and body the tea develops. There's enormous range in how that character manifests; a seven-year-old pu-erh likely won't be as murky and moody as a 30-year-old one. So the only way to get a sense of how aging affects pu-erh is to drink a lot of it.

'Ripe': The deep, dark, basementy pu-erh favored by the likes of Hong Kong drinkers takes decades to mature, which is why in the 1970s, tea processors developed a shortcut: shou ('ripe,' as opposed to 'raw' sheng) pu-erh, in which dried pu-erh leaves are piled in rooms and left to effectively compost for months in the heat and humidity from their own biomass. The process cuts maturation time down from decades to months, though shou pu-erh usually winds up tasting less complex than good aged sheng, and it's typically made with lower grade leaves. But a good shou pu-erh can be thick and luscious as a latte with a rich, mushroomy sweetness that sinks to your belly, and it's usually cheaper than comparable quality aged sheng pu-erh. Note that you can age shou pu-erh just like sheng, but since it's already been 'pre-aged' in processing, its character will evolve far less over time.

Fortunately, no matter what kind of pu-erh you have, brewing it is relatively straightforward. Like other fine Chinese teas, it benefits from using a lot of leaf in small pots, brewing for short times (15 to 60 seconds) over a series of as many as two dozen infusions with boiling or near-boiling water, adjusting as you go. (More on this kind of brewing right this way.) More than most tea, pu-erh is built for change, not just over months and years, but over a single brew session.

You can use a scale to weigh out your leaves to the gram, but I usually break off a six- to 10-gram chunk with a butter knife for a 100-milliliter gaiwan or clay teapot.* Even relatively simple fresh, young sheng pu-erh will develop in your pot as you keep re-steeping, and more mature aged teas can travel from dank and mushroomy to spicy-sweet to grapey-floral.

* Here's a video on how to break apart a pu-erh cake. There are plenty of online resources on the subject, but this one has the best soundtrack.

Buy it With Care

Buying quality tea is always tricky business, but this is especially the case with pu-erh. The most challenging part of buying good pu-erh is knowing who to trust. Since it's such a trendy tea in tea circles, and vendors typically buy from other sellers or middlemen processors and factories rather than farmers directly (remember, those processors are the ones who press the tea into its final form), there's a lot of opportunity for someone to lie along the way and either upsell their goods or completely misrepresent what they're selling.

Do a little reading about pu-erh and you'll see some vaunted names come up again, such as famous teas like Menghai Factory's 7542 cakes or lusted-after antique 88 qingbings, or noteworthy growing regions like Yiwu and Laobanzhang. All justly celebrated, but without much regulation, there's no guarantee that the $300 aged cake you just bought is actually the tea being advertised. Even pu-erh experts can get fooled by fakes, a rampant problem in the industry.

Pu-erh can get expensive. Since the tea is formed into a compressed shape, you have to buy it in fixed amounts. Small nest-shaped tuo forms are usually 100 or 250 grams, and cakes, the most common form, are over three quarters of a pound. While many vendors offer smaller samples of their pu-erhs, those samples come with a substantial markup. Oh, and those big name teas? Some of them can command astronomical prices: four or five figures for less than a pound of tea.

The good news, though, is that quality pu-erh costs less per-gram than many other quality teas that a) can't age well, so you have to drink them fast, and b) don't last nearly as many re-steeps as pu-erh, so while you may pay a higher upfront cost, even pricey pu-erh can come out cheaper per cup than some other celebrated tea styles.

So it's worth buying your pu-erh with care, which is why I typically do so from vendors who specialize in it and who either press their own cakes or have long-established relationships that have a proven track record of quality. If you're brand new to pu-erh, don't get too hung up on the terminologies and labels you'll find as you start shopping. Instead, set a budget, order some samples and maybe a couple cheap cakes to start, and drink with an open mind. The addiction comes later."

I highly recommend purchasing from a New York City shop called Tea Drunk. Presently they are offering a Sheng Pu-Erh sampler for $49 (also noted on the Products & Health Devices tab on this website). According to their website "Tea Drunk’s Sheng Pu sampler showcases a great range of terroir and vintages. It includes teas from all four main Pu Er regions: Old Ancient Six Mountains, New Ancient Six Mountains, Lin Cang and Wu Liang Shan. Beside terroir, the strongest merits of Pu Er tea is the age of tea trees. All the teas in this Sheng Pu sampler are harvested from ancient tea trees between 200-600 years. Get a real taste of what Gu Shu Pu Er tastes like! The sampler includes four Pu Er Cha (Sheng Pu) teas:

  1. You Le Long Pa 2014 You Le is one of the famous old six ancient tea mountains east of Lang Can river. While the Pu Ers from the east side of Lan Cang river are all known for their elegance and mild temperament, You Le stands out as the sweetest of all.

  2. Dong Nong 2015 Dong Nong is the village in the Lin Cang tea region, where this Sheng Pu is picked and crafted. Lin Cang teas are known for being sweeter and brighter but with rougher tannins in comparison to teas from other main tea regions.

  3. Wu Liang Shan 2017 Wu Liang Shan, “limitless, endless mountain,” is the name of one of the two major mountains in the northern Yun Nan tea region and the location of this Sheng Pu. Wu Liang Shan is known for producing pleasant, easy to drink Sheng Pu.

  4. Ban Po Lao Zhai 2019 Ban Po Lao Zhai means old village of Ban Po and Ban Po is translated to half-way to the top of the mountain. The village is indeed located half-way up Nan Nuo Shan mountain. Teas from the west of Lan Cang river are typically known for their more forward, robust and substantial profile. Nan Nuo Shan is particularly known for the weighty mouthfeel and subdued aroma."

The Health Benefits and Energy of Pu-Erh

In a November 9, 2016 Facebook posting Holden Qigong states; "According to Chinese medicine, tea clears the mind, circulates the Qi, and strengthens the internal organs. Scientists have even found positive immune-enhancing and cardiovascular effects for all kinds of tea.

But of all the teas you will ever drink, Pu-erh delivers the highest amount of Qi straight into the energy system; and here's the key to why: it's still alive.

That's right, the curing process for real Pu-erh tea encourages beneficial and healthy bacteria to grow. This means that when you drink Pu-erh tea you are drinking a living elixir teeming with microbial life. In it's own way it's a living medicine.

Through the process of aging and fermentation the cell walls inside of the leaves break down. This makes the energy of the plant, the Qi of the plant, infinitely more absorbable to your body. Allowing you to quickly reap the myriad of health benefits from the tea itself.

Tea, and Pu-erh tea especially, is known to contain a chemical that inhibits tumor growth. Research also shows that tea lowers cholesterol and normalizes blood sugar. It's antibacterial and helps prevent cavities, is a powerful antioxidant, and has powerful anti-aging capacities (it is 200 times more potent than vitamin E). *

After drinking a good cup of real Pu-erh, you'll often notice a sense of physical elevation and mental clarity. You'll notice the subtle energies flowing through your body, and be more aware of the space around you. You may be more tuned in to your breath and the cycles of inhales and exhales.

As Qi Gong practitioners, this state is probably familiar to you. It's similar to the uplifting feeling you experience after a particularly good practice.

Bringing the two together, Tea and Qi Gong, is extremely powerful. In combination they could be seen as "the art of preventing dis-ease, prolonging life, and living happier." Who wouldn't want that?"

Key TCM concepts behind Pu-Erh tea (Pu er Cha)'s properties

As noted on; "In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), pu'er tea are plants that belong to the 'Herbs that clear Heat and relieve Toxicity' category. Herbs in this category are used to clear inflammatory and infectious conditions, referred to as 'Internal Heat' in TCM. This is why most of the herbs in this category will have both antibacterial and antiviral properties. In TCM one has too much 'Heat' in their body as a result of a deficiency of 'Yin' (which is Cold in nature, see our explanation on Yin and Yang) or, more commonly, an excess of Yang (Hot in nature). Herbs that clear Heat and relieve Toxicity treat the latter while, at the same time, removing infectious toxins from the body. As such they tend to be Cold or Neutral in nature.

As suggested by its category pu'er tea are plants that are Cold in nature. This means that pu'er tea typically help people who have too much "heat" in their body. Balance between Yin and Yang is a key health concept in TCM. Those who have too much heat in their body are said to either have a Yang excess (because Yang is Hot in nature) or a Yin deficiency (Yin is Cold in Nature). Depending on your condition pu'er tea can help restore a harmonious balance between Yin and Yang.

Pu'er tea also taste Bitter. The so-called "five elements" theory in Chinese Medicine states that the taste of TCM ingredients is a key determinant of their action in the body. Bitter ingredients like pu'er tea tend to have a cleansing action on the body by clearing heat, drying dampness and promoting elimination via urination or bowel movements.

The tastes of ingredients in TCM also determine what organs and meridians they target. As such pu'er tea are thought to target the Stomach and the Liver. In TCM the Stomach is responsible for receiving and ripening ingested food and fluids. It is also tasked with descending the digested elements downwards to the Small Intestine. The Liver on the other hand is often referred as the body's "general" because it is in charge of regulating the movements of Qi and body fluids. It also takes a leading role in balancing our emotions."

Make a cup and enjoy!

* Block, Will. "Pu-erh Tea Could Save Your Kidneys", Life Enhancement Magazine. June, 2012.

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