At the tea shop, we have budding interest curious in our traditional tea selection, including our special aged teas or hei-cha. In this brief article we are going to begin to touch upon what is pu er tea, a subcategory to hei-cha teas that are produced exclusively in Yunnan Province, China. At the shop, we are experiencing more and more interest in pu er from several different directions:
- Loose leaf tea is becoming more popular in the US, as doctors are advising people to cut back on their coffee intake and people are looking for a more healthful, sustained energy beverage.
- The interest in traditional tea parallels the movement of craft beer, natural wine, single origin coffee & bean to bar chocolate and people are more interested in discovering the vast world of the tea plant.
-The recent popularity of the book, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See, has created specific interest in the aged teas of Yunnan Province, pu er.
So, what is Pu Er?
Pu Er, Pu'er, Puerh (different Pinyin, but the same tea) is a town in Yunnan Province, China where historically tea farmers would bring their tea to be traded in the far regions of Tibet and Mongolia. Now pu er is the name of a category of post-fermented teas specific to Yunnan Province, whose oxidation is not enzymatic and whose special bacteria fermentation & processing allows for improvement in flavor overtime. Pu er can be separated into two styles of production:
Sheng: "raw" or "green" tea leaves from centuries old trees (camellia sinensis assamica) heated slowly and most often pressed into cakes, which slows oxidation and develops flavor. Ambient yeasts and bacteria in a storage environment of varying temperatures and humidity, take the tea on an interesting journey of development. Sheng pu er is fermented from 10 to 50 years and not considered mature or vintage until 30 years have passed. Flavor profiles can be very vibrant fruit, mint & spice.
Shou: "cooked" or "ripe" tea leaves from gardens are processed in a similar way as sheng pu er, but exposed to rapid 45-60 day fermentation in pile heaps for an accelerated aging process. Humidity and moisture is under careful watch and is adjusted as needed to encourage fermentation. Shou pu er may be pressed into cakes or sold loose. This style of Pu Er was developed in the 1970s in response to the increased interest in sheng pu er. Their flavor profile may improve with some aging, but they are ready to drink after processing and often times have very earthy qualities of leather, forest floor and vanilla.
This month, our tea of the month is 2012 Menghai, a pile fermented shou pu er that has been pressed into mini cakes or nests, called tuocha.
This is just the beginning of our discussion on aged tea and specifically, pu er. There is so much more to speak about in terms of culture, styles and pu er as medicine. More to come in further articles.