Pu'er Tea

All tea is made from the Camellia sinensis plant, which is further classified into two variants: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. These two plants are also known as Chinese tea and Indian tea, respectively. Despite its name, Indian tea doesn't exclusively grow in India: other countries that produce this variety of tea include China and Kenya.

Pu'er tea (also known as pu-erh) is a fermented drink made from leaves of the Camellia sinensis var. assamica tea plant (Kim, 2009). While both pu'er and black tea come from the same type of plant, it's how pu'er tea is fermented and aged that makes it unique. 

Overview.

The first section of this article provides a summary of the general flavour of pu'er tea, preparation and health benefits. The second section covers my pu'er tea recommendations to help you explore the world of pu'er tea, whether you are a novice or an expert. The third section provides in-depth coverage of the different types of pu'er tea, how it is produced, and specific health benefits. The fourth and final section is a summary of the article's key points.

Flavour, Preparation, and Health Benefits of Pu’er Tea.

Flavour Profile of Pu'er Tea. 

Pu'er tea has a broad spectrum of flavours: sweet, bitter, floral, mellow, woody, astringent, sour, and earthy are all notes that may be in a pu'er tea's profile. Those unaccustomed to pu'er tea are often quick to notice the strength of the flavour and the "dirt-like" taste.

How To Correctly Brew Pu'er Tea.

Pu'er tea is a hearty tea; you should prepare it with water that is 95 °C (200 °F) and steep for four to five minutes. Because pu'er is not a delicate tea, it can tolerate boiling water. However, using water that is just below the boiling point may help minimize the bitter taste of the tea.

Summary of Health Benefits of Pu’er Tea.

Pu'er tea has a range of health benefits attributed to it, including supporting heart health, protecting bones, preventing cancer and facilitating weight loss. These health benefits and others have different degrees of scientific support.

Tea Recommendations and Personal Thoughts.

Mackenzie Bailey

Founder of The Tea Tribe

It is my experience that those who gravitate to pu'er are usually discerning tea drinkers and bold novices. To create the most value for readers, I recommend products that I believe speak to each of these two groups.

Pu'er For Discerning Tea Drinkers
Beneath an Emerald Sea by Crimson Lotus Tea, is a juicy pu'er that hits the taste buds just right. The flavour is robust, clean, floral and dynamic, and the tea evolves as you seep it multiple times. The first steeping creates a medium thickness in the mouth, with a delightful blend of fruity and floral notes, along with hints of cream and caramel.

I also recommend 1970's Vintage Wild Gushu Camphor Loose Leaf Puerh (Ban Sheng Shou), from the Chinese Tea Shop. When infused, the tea has a clean deep cherry amber hue; the taste has a comforting woody, earthy flavour, with camphor notes.

Organic Aged Pu'Erh by Genuine Tea is a tasty, affordable pu’er tea. The flavor notes of wood and oak emerge in your palate, and the flavour alludes to scotch.

Pu'er For Bold Novices
If you enjoy sweet, rich, full-bodied tea, I recommend two pu'er blends from the Canadian tea retailer DavidsTea. Both serve as a safe and delicious point of entry into the world of pu'er: English Toffee and Hot Chocolate. 

Comprehensive Discussion of Pu'er Tea. 

An Overview of Pu'er Tea.

Pu'er tea is produced from Camellia sinensis var. assamica, and is generally made with a "large leaf" variety of the tea plant (Tian, 2013).

Pu'er is a traditional beverage in China, particularly in the southern areas (Zhou, 2005). Ripe pu'er tea is a unique microbial post-fermented tea originating from Yunnan Province, China (Tian, 2014), and gains its name from the government jurisdiction, Pu'er (now Xishuangbanna) (Qiong, 2014). Historically, pu'er tea distribution was limited to the mountains of southern Yunnan, (Tian, 2013), however, within the past two decades, pu'er has become one of the most consumed teas in China (Tao, 2014).

Pu'er is divided into two kinds of tea: "ripe" or "raw," depending on the different fermentation processes used, the unique sensory characteristics, and their chemical composition (Pedan, 2018). Ripe pu'er tea is a microbial post-fermented tea made from raw pu'er tea (Tao, 2014). Over time and throughout post-fermentation, microbes improve the quality of the pu'er tea (Tian, 2013).

History and Origin Of Pu'er Tea.

Yunnan's location is in a mountainous region of China, with only a small percentage of farmable land. Despite this, Yunnan province is renowned for producing pu'er tea (Yunnan, Wikipedia, 2019). The Yunnan province shares a border with Tibet, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, as well as three neighbouring Chinese provinces: Guangxi, Guizhou and Sichuan. The strategic location of the Yunnan province, with its proximity to many borders, developed and supported a flourishing trade of pu'er tea.

Originally, pu'er tea was made for border trade with other ethnic groups. These early pu'er teas were crude, of various origins, and were intended to be sold at a low price. During this time, there was no standardization of the production process.

In the 1950s, after the Second World War, things began to change. Hong Kong experienced a sudden spike in demand for pu'er tea, possibly attributable to the significant increase of mainland refugees, those accustomed to drinking pu'er tea.

Time and innovation responded to the increase in demand, and in the 1970s, an improved darkening process was taken back to Yunnan. This new process accelerated pu'er tea production and created a finished product within a few months; the tea produced was considered by many to taste like tea aged naturally for 10 to 15 years. This artificial ripening method caused a boom in the production and demand for pu'er tea.

In recent decades, pu'er demand has come full circle. Now it is becoming more popular to sell pu'er as a raw product without the artificial accelerated fermentation process.

Production of Pu'er Tea.

Pu'er is a fermented tea known as 'dark tea' and falls into two separate categories: "raw" Sheng Cha and "ripe" Shou Chá. Both are created from máochá, a tea processed from Camellia sinensis var. assamica that is largely unoxidized.

Plucking the Tea Leaves.

Growing conditions, such as elevation and seasonal conditions, can cause variations in concentrations of the different compounds found in pu'er tea (Liu, 2018). The first step in producing raw or ripened pu'er is picking the required young leaves. Plucked leaves are treated with care to prevent bruising and undesired oxidation, after which the leaves are dried in the sun or a ventilated space.

Stopping Oxidation.

The next step in the process is called "killing the green" during which the tea leaves are dry-roasted in a giant wok. This process is an essential step in pu'er production because it stops most enzyme activity and prevents full oxidation.

Bruising and Controlled Oxidation.

After pan-roasting, the leaves are rubbed, rolled and formed into strands to lightly bruise the tea, which is then left to dry in the sun. The intentional bruising of the tea leaves causes minimal oxidation, contributing to the unique characteristics of pu'er tea.

Once dry, the 'maocha' gets transported to a tea factory where it is either pressed into raw pu'er, or processed further through fermentation to create ripened pu'er. At this point, if raw pu'er is being produced, two things can happen: it is sold as looseleaf raw Sheng Cha, or aged two to three years, then pressed and subsequently sold as matured raw Sheng Cha.

Fermentation.

If ripened pu'er is being made, then the process continues. The next step in production is exposing the tea leaves to bacterial and fungal fermentation in a warm, humid environment under controlled conditions. This technique is called Wò Dūi ("wet piling") and is similar to composting.

During this stage piling, wetting, and mixing of the máochá occur consistently, ensuring an even fermentation. The exact fungal and bacterial cultures present during the wet piling stage vary across factories. In the pile-fermentation process of pu'er tea, the optimal conditions are high temperature and low pH (Zhang, 2016). Thermal degradation seems to be beneficial for the preparation of pu'er tea in enhancing its antiviral activity (Chen, 2015). The ripening process usually lasts for 45 to 60 days. Poor control in the fermentation process produces poor quality ripened pu'er, identified by badly decayed leaves and smell and texture suggestive of compost.

Ripened pu'er tea contains bacteria strains, some of which are closely related (Wang, 2015)(Niu, 2016)(Niu, 2018). Research has found four dominant fungal species involved in the piling process (Zhang, 2016), and led to the discovery of new bacterial strains found in ripened pu'er (Wang, 2018). The highest quality ripened pu'er comes from factories that have expertly regulated all variables in the process, chief among them humidity and the growth of Aspergillus fungus (Tian, 2013).

Pressing the Tea.

Once ripening has occurred, the next step in pu'er production is pressing the tea. Pressing occurs by either a machine or a massive stone. This process is what allows pu'er to be bought and sold in a range of shapes - cakes, bricks, bowls, and pearls.

Sale, Aging and Ongoing Post-Fermentation.

The final stage occurs after the pu'er tea is brought to the market in what is called solid-state fermentation, which occurs naturally when pu'er tea remains packaged and unconsumed (Pu'er tea, Wikipedia, 2019). The relationship between storage time and quality is complicated and involves changes in polyphenol and microbial content (Tian, 2013).

According to many orthodox tea drinkers, the longer the pu'er tea is aged, the better it tastes. This premise about ageing assumes that during the storage process, the tea doesn't get exposed to undesirable bacteria and mould.

Science offers tools that can detect the type and mixed ratio of old pu'er tea (Xu, 2019), as well as accurately infer the extent a pu'er tea has been aged (Ning, 2011). Authentication is vital for pu'er teas, particularly aged pu'er, because it sells for comparatively high prices, especially in Europe (Pedan, 2018).

Two Ways To Brew Pu'er Tea.

There are two common ways to brew pu'er: a simplified western approach, and the traditional Gung Fu style.

Western Approach. 

Place your loose leaf pu'er tea into a tea strainer, pour water that is 95 °C (200 °F) over the leaves and allow the beverage to steep for three to five minutes.

Gung Fu Style. 

The Gung Fu style of preparing pu'er is known as 'small pot brewing' and is the traditional Chinese way of making pu'er. In small pot brewing, a gaiwan or Yixing teapot is traditionally used.

A gaiwan (or zhong) is a Chinese lidded bowl, without a handle, which is used for the infusion of tea. The gaiwan was invented during the Ming dynasty; it consists of a bowl, lid, and saucer. Brewing pu'er in a gaiwan and then pouring it into cups lets you experience the flavour over multiple steeping and at different stages in the extraction process. 

Steps in Gaiwan Brewing

  • Boil the water
  • Place one tablespoon of pu'er into a gaiwan.
  • Fill the gaiwan with hot water.
  • Rinse' the tea (steep the tea for 5 seconds, then discard the water).
  • Once again, fill the gaiwan with boiling water.
  • Steep the pu'er tea in the gaiwan for 5 minutes.

Health Benefits of Pu'er Tea

Many health benefits are attributed to pu'er tea, including reducing blood lipid levels, weight loss, antibacterial effect, aiding with digestion and detoxification (Qiong, 2014). However, more research is required to support these claims. 

Heart Health.

Drinking pu'er tea may help lower the risk of heart disease. Pu'er tea helps produce Lovastatin, which is commonly used to treat high cholesterol. A Chinese study found pu'er tea helped reduce LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and increased HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), which is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease (Cao, 2010).

Research also suggests that pu'er post-fermented tea protects against metabolic syndrome, a collection of health conditions related to poor diet (hypertension, impaired glucose tolerance, elevated lipids and obesity). One study found polyphenol and caffeine-rich pu'er tea improved diet-induced metabolic syndrome, and was shown to be associated with the remodelling of the gut microbiota (Gao, 2017). 

Bone Health.

Studies conducted on animals show polyphenols in tea, including those contained in pu'er, may help promote bone mass and strength. Polyphenols also include antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties, which may help reduce pain and discomfort (Straith, 2017).

Cancer Prevention.

Studies suggest pu'er tea can help combat cancer and may even prevent the growth of new cancer cells. One study demonstrated ingredients in pu'er tea target specific tumour cells with minimal side effects (Zhao, 2011). A second study found pu'er tea capable of preventing the growth of cancer cells by inhibiting cell proliferation (Xie, 2017). As with all research, one or two studies are not enough to make a conclusive inference, and more research is needed.

Weight Loss.

Chinese medicine has long been a proponent that pu'er tea improves digestion, with some claiming that the polyphenols and antioxidants contained in pu'er support fat breakdown. One study concluded pu'er tea helped reduce lipid levels and promoted weight loss (Qiong, 2014).

Strictinin is one of the active ingredients responsible for the antiviral, antibacterial, and laxative effects of pu'er tea. This means that pu'er tea can act as a mild natural substitute for antibiotics and laxatives (Hsieh, 2016).

Other studies found that pu'er tea represses the synthesis of fatty acids, which may help reduce fat creation. However, the weight loss aspect of pu'er tea requires further research. In the lives of tea drinkers, you should consume pu'er tea in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise.

Summary.

Pu'er tea is made from the Camellia sinensis var. assamica plant. You prepare pu'er tea with water that is at, or ideally just below, boiling point and steep it for four to five minutes. Pu'er tea can have a variety of flavours ranging from nutty, earthy, caramel-like to astringent.

Pu'er tea comes in two main varieties: raw and ripe. Raw pu'er is less processed than ripe pu'er, which is fermented to change the flavour. Because this process varies across factories, there can be a wide range of pu'er taste and quality.

In cases where there is variability in product quality, word of mouth recommendations should be given more weight. For those new to pu'er tea, try a pu'er blend so that you don't risk getting stuck with a strong tasting tea you don't like. For the experienced and adventurous, buy a tea brick that is highly acclaimed by tea drinkers.

Pu'er tea may be worth including in your daily diet because of its espoused health benefits: improving heart and bone health, weight loss and anti-cancer.

Now, share which pu'er tea you enjoy!