Yunnan, the birthplace of tea, produces Pu-erh (pronounced “POO-air”), the most famous tea that you have probably never heard of. The legend of Pu-erh tea began almost 2000 years ago in this southwest province of China. In a small basin surrounded by mountains is the city of Pu’er where the tea got its name and the province’s ancient tea market. The allure of this tea comes from the healing properties and the longevity attributed to drinking pu-erh tea. The tea connoisseur knows that pu-erh tea is a valuable commodity that is also a decadent treat. Learning about this healing tea is as complex as its taste.
Health Benefits of Pu-erh
Asians consume pu-erh daily because it helps restore and maintain good health. Numerous generations of Chinese have relied on this tea as a digestive aid after fatty meals. In the 1970’s Chinese doctors in Kunming reported clinical experiments in which drinking pu-erh was shown to lower cholesterol levels in the blood stream. Confirming this study, French researchers at St. Antoine Hospital in Paris duplicated the results. They found that three cups of pu-erh a day for a month brought lipids down 25 percent in 20 hyperlipidemia patients, while those on other teas showed no change. These tests showed pu-erh performed at least as well as clofibrate without the drug’s side effects. (click here for a June, 2009 study that identifies the bio-active compounds responsible for lowering cholesterol). In addition pu-erh helps to maintain a healthy weight by increasing metabolism. Additional benefits include claims that pu-erh also helps a hang-over, prevent dysentery, and stimulate secretions from the spleen and other organs.
Not only do people enjoy drinking pu-erh tea for the health benefits but also for the investment potential. Pu-erh tea can be considered a collectible because the aging process increases the taste as well as the price (click here to see some of the different costs). Historically, Pu-erh has been used as currency similar to precious metals. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1970’s a number of the old cakes were destroyed increasing the rareness of aged pu-erh. From this destruction came a process to ferment pu-erh in 60 days, making it more accessible to folks like us. Now the popularity of pu-erh has spread from Asia to the west and has tea aficionados buzzing. Pu-erh is similar to wine as it is identified by region and year. Just remember all pu-erh tea starts out the same but is far from equal.
How Pu-erh is made
Yunnan’s high elevation provides lots of sun making it the ideal growing location for the basic ingredient tea leaves called maocha. This sunshine produces large leaf tea plants yielding ideal maocha. The quality of the maocha is the most important factor in making pu-erh as the ideal maocha is two leaves and one bud.
There are two general types of pu-erh, shu (black, cooked) and sheng (green, raw). Sheng pu-erh is made from maocha that is lightly steamed and pressed into cakes. The legend of pu-erh stems from sheng pu-erh as it slowly changes over time through a natural fermentation process. Some microbes survive the sun drying of maocha and work their magic over 8 to 10 years to transform raw pu-erh tea to a natural “cooked” state. It is the sheng that is most valuable as it starts to reach full maturity around thirty years. Pu-erh teas are mysteriously dark, fermented teas that are robust, elemental, rich and grounding.
Shu pu-erh is more complicated. In 1973, because of a shortage of old cakes caused by the destruction of all things old during the Cultural Revolution, a process was developed to uniformly speed up the aging process. This secretive process sounds relatively simple, but requires vintner-like skill. Large piles of maocha are wetted and then covered with a large canvass cloth, creating a kind of composting effect. The water drains off as does some of the natural moisture through the weight of the pile. Inside of the pile heat is produced. The pile becomes a rich environment for the growth of microbes that thrive in the tea leaves of the Yunnan rain forest. The skill comes into play when the pile needs to be turned since timing is everything. When to turn and the attention paid to the details of turning are critical, so that the pile adds a pleasant fragrance to the tea. A poor level of skill turns the heap into an unkempt barnyard smell, flatteringly called ‘earthy’ in the West, and ‘old house smell’ in China. After the the tea is cooked it is sorted for grade, and then lightly steeped and pressed into cakes, bricks, etc.
Choosing Quality Pu-erh
Pu-erh is often a favorite tea of the truly dedicated tea drinker. The taste of Pu-erh varies whether it is shu or sheng, but also by the age and the region it comes from. This tea can be either left loose or compressed into cakes. The cakes are permitted to retain enough moisture to allow additional fermentation over time. For this reason, pu-erh is best stored open so that oxygen can continue to refine the tea.
When shopping for pu-erh here are some general guidelines. Check the cake for uniformity and compression as the cake should be firmly packed. The color of a cooked cake is dark with red overtones. The color of a green cake should be dark green with silvery overtones. Smell it if you can, and forget it if it smells like a farmer’s sock. Don’t believe out of the ordinary claims, and don’t buy old pu-erh unless it is from a reputable source.