Having had little experience with pu-erh tea, I recently decided I must see what this tea is all about, so here I look at two different types—a raw pu-erh and a “cooked” one. It’s a drop in the bucket, I know, but it’s a start!
And from all that I’ve read, a clay pot is the best way to maximize the experience.
So, several months ago I ordered the 2019 Puerh Beginner Package (no longer available) offered by Andrew of Liquid Proust Teas—although he points out that this is more his pet project to introduce people to pu-erh. I figured that I didn’t have much to lose since the package was only $5—and that was for the shipping!
Pu-erh (or pu’er), if you haven’t had it, is a microbially fermented tea produced in Yunnan, a province in southwest China.
As green tea ferments, the levels of polyphenols, catechins, and flavonoids in the tea decrease while levels of theobromine and soluble polysaccharides increase (Gong Jia-shun et al.). Interestingly, theobromine is generally found in only very low levels in tea and coffee but in higher levels in cacao beans. It is a mild stimulant and diuretic, relaxes blood vessels, and may work together with caffeine as a psychostimulant.
Pu-erh is also said to aid digestion and so is often promoted after a heavy meal—or to prevent or mitigate a hangover.
And pu-erh is a huge category, encompassing both loose leaves and compressed cakes.
Additionally, pu-erh may be produced from leaves that were minimally processed but then aged for many years. Or it may be produced from tea leaves subjected to bacteria, heat, and moisture—a combination that speeds up the “ripening” process so that in around a year, the tea is ready for either immediate consumption or for further aging. The fermentation and aging give pu-erh its characteristic complex flavor—spicy, earthy, and woody, with tones of mushroom.
I received nine teas from Andrew in October but didn’t have a chance to try them until recently, when I sampled two of the teas with my family. Although none of us cared for the first one we tried, my expenditure was well worth every penny for this 2006 7536 sample of raw pu-erh!
To me, the aroma of the dark leaves, some still compressed in cake form, had a pleasing note of honey. Maybe we were supposed to keep this tea around and let it age, rather than immediately drink it, but we were curious.
So, I did a 15-second rinse and then brewed the leaves in a 6-oz Yixing clay pot. I never rinse my tea leaves but since the first brew of the previous tea we tried tasted more like dust than anything else, we figured we really are supposed to do that rinse.
The aroma of the brewed tea was vegetal and straw, and although I didn’t find that honey note in the aroma in this first brew, I did detect it in later brews.
The flavor, although subtle, was bright, if that makes sense. The vegetal flavor had a bit of sweet earthiness, and the first brew was definitely astringent.
I loved that every brew was different, with a range of astringency and vegetal notes as we played around with water temperature and brew time. All of us preferred using freshly boiled water for ten-second brews, although the brew time partly depended on the amount of leaves we had in the pot—which was, actually, the entire sample of tea provided.
Granted, none of us knew quite what we were doing but because there were no guidelines, we simply experimented until we found what we liked. Purists may be appalled but we had fun—and isn’t tea all about sociability, appreciation for tea, focus, and learning?
Still, having done no research going into this, I am rather pleased to note that what we ended up preferring was also what White2Tea (1/15/15) recommends for young raw pu-erh:
For taste testing, and in order to understand the full breadth of a tea’s characteristics, we recommend using water at a full boil for steeping. Water at a full boil paints a more accurate portrait of a tea’s personality, both the flaws and the merits.
Looking at the brewed leaves, you can see why:
- higher temperatures work well—because they help the rolled leaves unfurl
- repeated steepings are possible—because whole leaves retain more flavor, which is released in each brew, especially as the leaves slowly unfurl
At one of the early brews, we even had a floating stalk, considered lucky in Japanese tea lore! (See 2018 post about this.)
I next compared this to Tuocha Pu-Erh from TeaHaus, which brews up more like what comes to mind when I think of pu-erh. The nearly black leaves are compressed into nests or tuo that are individually wrapped.
This version has been microbially fermented, so is “cooked,” or shou; it will improve with age.
I brewed it in the same clay pot as I used for the raw pu-erh, doing a quick rinse, although it probably wasn’t necessary for shou, and then a 15-second brew with freshly boiled water. Pictured here is the second brew, which is a very dark, dense, brown color.
The aroma is wonderfully sweet and earthy, with a flavor that matches! It’s an extremely smooth cup, vastly different from the raw pu-erh. Although both types had that sweet earthiness, this one is much deeper, more complex, a bit spicy, embracing notes of leather rather than straw, with little astringency.
You can see that this pu-erh does not unfurl into full leaves but comprises leaf pieces, so may not yield the seemingly endless re-brews that we got out of the raw pu-erh.
I did find that I prefer the raw pu-erh—because it’s less like a pu-erh perhaps?! But being able to re-brew either pu-ehr and experience multiple taste profiles is partly what makes this tea type such a fun tea experience!
And although I must admit that my go-to teas remain in the oolong and green families, at least at this point, I do look forward to delving deeper into the world of pu-erh.
–”Changes of chemical components in pu’er tea produced by solid state fermentation of sundried green tea,” by Gong Jia-shun et al., Journal of Tea Science 2005(4).
–”What is the best water temperature to brew pure tea?” White2Tea, 1/15/15.