All About Pu-erh Tea

So, it sounds kind of funny to us Westerners…but don’t knock it until you’ve tried this heavy hitting tea! You’ll be happy you did!

What Is Pu-Erh?

Chinese tea Pu-erh packed in dried mandarins on wooden table

Pu erh is a type of fermented, or “dark” tea. Naturally-occurring microbes give the tea a more mellow taste, making it less sour and less bitter while giving it a better mouthfeel and aftertaste. This tea is mainly produced in Yunnan Province, located in the southwest of the country, sharing borders with Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. Like other beverages produced from the Camellia sinensis plant, pu-erh offers possible health benefits.

Origins Of Pu-Erh

Complex of Ming Dynasty Tombs in Beijing China - A UNESCO World Heritage Site

One legend that fermented tea originated on the Silk Road during the rainy season. Some tea is said to have gotten soaked in rain, and the merchants carrying it left it on the side of the road, thinking it was now useless. A year later, a nearby village was suffering from dysentery, and they drank that tea that they found out of desperation. The tea cured their suffering, and become popular. However, this is only a legend, and more historically accurate records say that fermented tea originated in the Ming Dynasty, in the 1400s to 1500s.

How Is It Made?

The first step in the production of pu-erh is harvesting the tea leaves. Although tea plantations are commonplace, the most highly prized pu erh comes from old, wild tea trees found in the southern mountains of Yunnan. Tea harvested in the spring is most highly valued, followed by fall tea, then summer tea. The tea leaves used to create pu-erh are similar to green tea, and come from a variety of tea tree with larger leaves than other varieties (Camellia sinensis assamica).

After being harvested, tea leaves are dried out to prevent them from spoiling. Then they’re dry-roasted to stop enzyme activity and oxidation. The tea leaves after dry-roasting are called maocha. To turn the maocha into fermented pu-erh, it’s put into a warm, humid environment, where it’s piled up, dampened, and periodically stirred up, in a process similar to composting (but with a much tastier result!).

Microbes that were on the tea leaves during harvesting ferment the tea leaves while it’s being “composted”. These microbes are mainly molds, but also include bacteria and yeast. The specific species of microbes that lead to fermentation vary greatly from region to region, but the most important organism responsible for fermentation has been found to be Aspergillus niger. This is a fungus that is a common food contaminant, showing up as black mold on fruits and vegetables. Don’t let that scare you! When used in the production of pu erh, this fungus species is harmless (and your tea won’t taste moldy). After fermentation is done, the tea leaves are then compressed. Varying shapes are used, including bricks, balls, or even a mushroom shape.

Pu-erh tea is often served Gongfu style. Although the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which uses green powdered tea, is arguably more well-known to Westerners, China also has a similar cultural ritual. In Chinese, this tea ceremony is literally called, “making tea with skill”. During this ceremony, close attention is paid toward the quality and temperature of the water, tools and equipment used, teacups, and procedures including preparation, brewing, serving, appreciation, and clean-up. Green powdered tea is not traditional in China. Instead, many other varieties are used, including pu-erh. Pu-erh is much stronger than other varieties of tea, and the same leaves are used to make multiple pots of tea. In Cantonese culture, it is common to add osmanthus flowers, wolfberries, pomelo rinds, or chrysanthemum flowers to the tea before brewing.

Why Drink Pu-Erh?

Young woman at home sitting on modern chair in front of window relaxing in her living room reading book and drinking coffee or tea

Pu-erh, like other varieties of tea that come from Camellia sinensis, may have health benefits if you drink it regularly. This is due to the chemical compounds found in the tea leaf, including catechin, caffeine, and theanine. Catechin is an antioxidant that in some studies has been found to help with weight loss. Caffeine, in healthy doses, increases alertness, lowers fatigue, speeds up metabolism, and lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Theanine is an amino acid analogue that has been reported to promote alpha wave production in the brain, leading to lowered stress, improved cognition, improved memory, and a better mood. Theanine has also been reported to raise levels of neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. Another possible health benefit of drinking pu-erh is lowered cholesterol levels. In addition, black tea consumption has been associated with a reduced risk of stroke. Although pu-erh tea is not black tea, there’s a possibility that it could have the same effect, as it comes from the same plant.

If you’re a tea-lover, pu-erh could be your next favorite! With its smooth taste and health benefits, it’s a great choice for those looking for an energy boost or an alternative to coffee. Why not add some to your shopping basket next time you’re out and about?

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