What's the deal with Pu'er tea?

Pu'er is possibly the most complicated tea in the world—definitely the most misunderstood, and the most widely faked. Because of the different processing techniques and the aging factor, it is a tea that can change over time, for better or worse, having a life span similar to fine wine, except with Pu'er every few years or so you can break off a piece and brew it and enjoy it. Pu'er is made in a loose leaf form, or pressed into pucks, bricks and balls, so it’s also the only tea that hurts when it hits you.

What is Pu’er?
There are two types of Pu’er, (fermented, sometimes called ripe; and unfermented, sometime called green) and people often compare the two to each other, touting one type over the other. We think it’s like comparing red wine to white, where the source materials may be the same, but the process, intention, and end result are two entirely different things.

Pu’er starts just like any other tea, with the quality of leaf dependent on the trees (and their age), the soil and surrounding environment. Lately the Chinese Government has stated that only tea grown is Yunnan Province can be called Pu’er. This is a baby step toward something like France’s AOC certification; so don’t be surprised if sometime in the future they’re going to certify each mountain as well.

After picking, the leaves are placed in a large box ventilated with a fan to wither and lose some of its moisture. Then the oxidation of the leaves is halted by applying heat, sometimes in a large wok, sometimes in a drum dryer. If the ventilation is poor at this point the tea will pick up an undesirable smokey flavor. The leaves are then bruised and rolled into little green twists either by hand or machine, and then spread out in a single layer to dry overnight and then sun dried the next day. At this point we have what is called the Substance. The Substance is basically the raw material. It can be brewed immediately, or it can be turned into Unfermented Pu’er, or it can be sent into a really dark room to become Fermented Pu’er.

Unfermented Pu’er
To press into cakes, the Substance is put into a canister and steamed, and the softened tea is placed in a cotton bag and shaped by hand into a tight cake, and pressed by a giant press or a 60 pound concrete block with a person standing on top. This is why sometimes you’ll see the weave of cotton imprinted on the cake. The dimple in the cake is caused by the excess bag fabric being knotted up. The cake is then set to dry. This tea cake is now ready to drink, or ready to age. Over the years, the green leaves naturally oxidize and darken/redden in color, technically becoming fermented, and the natural aging process allows more complex flavors to develop over time, sort of like barrel-aging a good scotch.

See our video on how Pu'er is pressed.

Fermented Pu'er
The Substance is heaped in a dark room and sprayed with water (roughly 1/3 of the weight of the tea). Microbial activity occurs and the temperature rises, just like the process of making compost. Humidity should be controlled by ventilation or flipping the heap around, and sometimes sampling a cup of tea. This is the fermentation process that seems to aid digestion and help with many ailments, similar to the benefits of Umeboshi Plums and other pickled goods. If the microbial activity is not controlled, unwanted mold and other bacteria may grow, so like all the other teas, it's best to know where your Pu'er comes from.

What are the differences between the trees?
A tea tree left alone will grow as a tree, with a main trunk and branches. To keep tea easy to pick and cost effective, the plants have been turned into and maintained as tea bushes. These tea plantations can produce a lot of crappy Pu'er.

Wild, Old growth, or Ancient Arbor Pu'er is made from trees that were planted from seed many years ago (some of them are over 100 years old). The people who were looking after the tea trees either became distracted by war, or were forced to abandon agriculture as a way of living and the trees grew wild for many years, changing their flavor profiles and intertwining their roots with other trees and absorbing their fragrance (such as camphor). Basically, old growth trees are arbor trees that were forgotten about. Wild trees that have been found and are being harvested regularly are sometimes called transitional wild or domesticated wild, furthering our idea that tea, like many things old and complicated, is never a fixed idea. Tea is always in a state of flux, very much like life itself. 

Is Pu'er good for me?
The medicinal properties of Pu'er have been studied both in the East and the West for many years (the East for many more). Pu'er is known to slim the fats in the bloodstream and cut grease after meals. Pu'er also has polyphenols that can inhibit cholesterol absorption, and in some tests have even lowered cholesterol levels. In addition, Pu'er is great iced, or mixed with honey and ginger to ease sore throats and hangovers.

Brewing tips:
Because of the aging process, Pu'er picks up particles which can clog the pores of a Yixing teapot so we suggest to brew Pu'er in a gaiwan, but use a dedicated Yixing teapot to serve the tea instead of a pitcher. This allows the flavors and richness of a seasoned teapot to enhance the tea without harming the pot. If the Pu'er is compressed into a shape, gently crumble the tea into small clumps. Preheat gaiwan, cups and teapot with hot water. Use slightly under boiling water for aged Pu'ers (90°C / 194°F) and cooler (85°C / 185°F) for young Pu'ers. Fill the gaiwan with 5-8 grams of tea and add water so the tea is evenly saturated. Using the lid to prevent the tea from escaping, Immediately pour out this wash. Add more water and infuse for 5-10 seconds for the first steep, gradually increasing it to several minutes after the 5th or 6th brew. Pour tea into preheated teapot and serve. Infusion can be repeated six or more times, increasing the infusion time as necessary. Some Ancient Arbor Pu'ers we have tasted go on forever. We stop counting after the 20th brew.