A House with the Aroma of Pu-erh Tea

Wouldn’t it be quite heavenly to live in a house that smells like tea? And by this I mean the fabric of the house itself.


Tea offers an aroma that is generally delicate, often complex—perhaps faintly sweet or fruity or spicy or earthy or malty or a mingling of attributes. The fragrance alone seems to transfer some of the brew’s calm alertness to you, if just by association.

So in today’s world, can a house offer up the aroma of tea?

In the United States, not so much, with the outgassing of carpet and cupboards and paint and adhesives—so much so that damage to our immune systems can occur! Further, all these chemicals react with each other, creating new chemicals, and all of these are absorbed by pretty much everything in our homes and then continually released into the air we breathe! Great news to start your day, eh?

In contrast:

hanok [are] the traditional Korean tile-roofed residences. . . . When newly built, hanok are redolent with the bright scent of a coniferous forest; as they age, the fragrance softens toward pu-erh tea and damp bark. (Swanson 2018)


Built of natural materials—wood pillars, wood and stone floors, clay walls, tile roofs—these buildings are neither outgassing toxins nor harming the environment (assuming that the felled forests are replanted). Paper made from mulberry tree bark covers interior surfaces (walls, ceiling, doors, windows), serving as insulation, allowing ventilation, adjusting humidity, letting in diffused light, and acting as an air purifier.

These houses have been developed for comfortable living in both hot and cold weather. A large wooden floor, maru, is ideal for southern parts of the country that are warm, while floor heating, ondol, was developed for more northern areas. In this system, stone flooring is heated, with the warm air naturally rising. This led to the Koreans’ practice of removing their shoes indoors and sitting on the floor.

The hanok’s courtyard boasts no gardens or decoration. Rather,

the courtyard was also left unfettered based on the idea that by leaving it empty, it would be able to hold all things. (Antique Alive)


It has to be pretty amazing to live in one of these lovely traditional homes with their elegant simplicity and woodsy fragrance. But seeing as my chances are pretty much, well, nil, I guess I’ll have to resort to pulling out some pu-erh and pretending I’m in another time and place.

And indeed, my chocolatey brown to dark slate-colored pu-erh (or pu-er) leaves have an aroma that reminds me of walking through an autumn woods with that slightly damp but pleasing smell. Sort of mushroomy, a bit pungent, a little spicy. (Pu-erh can be loose leaves like these, or pressed into a cake or brick.)

Yunnan Pu-erh leaves next to Korean Sam-Taegeuk symbol (heaven, earth, humanity)

But although the Korean hanok develops the aroma of pu-erh, the tea itself is a specialty of China’s Yunnan Province. Unlike other black teas that are oxidized, this unique tea is microbially fermented.

puer brew

After the tea leaves are harvested, they are tossed in woks to stop the oxidation process—but not so long that the leaves are completely dry because that would kill all the bacteria that is normally found in them.

That retained bacteria ferments the leaves, meaning that carbohydrates are converted to organic acids (think wine, cheese, and coffee, all of which depend on fermentation).

This results in pu-erh, a dark cup with an earthy and rich intensity.

A hanok’s central courtyard has been described by architect Cho Junggoo as the place

where ground, nature and sky meet in your life. (Swanson 2018)

An apt description of pu-erh. . . .

–”Hanok (traditional Korean house)—a place of subtle beauty and quiet dignity,” Antique Alive, http://www.antiquealive.com/Blogs/Hanok_Traditional_Korean_House.html.
–”Home again,” by Sonja Swanson, This Boy’s Life, The New York Times Style Magazine, Sept. 9, 2018.
–”Outgassing,” by HHI staff, Healthy House Institute, healthyhouseinstitute.com.

Note: Yunnan Pu-erh shown above is available at TeaHaus.

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