Pu-erh Tea

By Ken Carlson

“I wouldn’t trade my [you fill in the blank] for all the tea in China.” We’ve probably all heard someone utter this phrase at some point. China is well-known for its rich and diverse history of tea, and Pu-erh Tea—produced primarily in mountainous Yunnan Province—is one of the most celebrated of China’s teas.

Yunnan Province is located in Southwestern China and is home to Shanren, a musical group touring this fall as part of Arts Midwest World Fest. While Yunnan Province might be best known for Pu-erh Tea, its mountains are home to people from nearly half of China’s 56 recognized ethnic groups, home to nearly half of the birds and mammals in China despite being only 4% of China’s total land area, and a source of rich and varied mineral deposits.

Rural Xishuangbanna
Rural Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province photo by Taco Witte, CC-BY-2.0

Pu-erh Tea is a variety of fermented dark tea—not to be confused with black tea, which is not fermented. The tea leaves can come from three different cultivation methods:

  • Cultivated tea bushes, from the seeds or cuttings of wild tea trees and planted in relatively low altitudes and flatter terrain. The tea produced from these plants is considered inferior due to the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer in cultivation, the lack of pleasant flavors, and the presence of harsh bitterness and astringency from the tea.
  • “Wild arbor” trees grow on older plantations that were cultivated in previous generations but have gone feral due to lack of care. These trees are typically cared for using organic practices, which include scheduled pruning of the trees, and are generally considered to produce teas of better flavor. Despite the good quality of their produced teas, “wild arbor” trees are not as prized as the truly wild trees.
  • Teas made from leaves of old, wild trees, grown without human intervention, are the highest valued Pu-erh Teas. Such teas are valued for having deeper and more complex flavors, often with light camphor or “mint” flavors, said to be imparted by the many camphor trees that grow in the same environment as the wild tea trees.

Puerh cha
Puerh cha photo by Ignat Gorazd, CC-BY-2.0

Pu-erh is produced from broad leaf tea trees rather than small leaf trees, and Pu-erh leaves are picked as one bud and 3-4 leaves—compared with green tea, which is picked as one bud and 1-2 leaves. This means that older leaves contribute to the qualities of Pu-erh Tea. Leaves are harvested in spring, summer, and fall, with spring leaves being the most highly prized.

Actually producing Pu-erh Tea is a rather complicated process of drying, fermenting, oxidation, pressing, and aging, with varied methods at nearly every step of the way that influence the tea’s flavor. The end product is a hard cake or brick of tea. And like other teas, Pu-erh is reputed to have wonderful health benefits including an ability to promote weight loss, reduce serum cholesterol, and provide cardiovascular protection.

Good quality Pu-erh Tea is said to be exquisitely rich, earthy, and mellow. Heat some water to an optimal 185 degrees Fahrenheit and enjoy a cup. Who knows? You might be willing to trade for this Chinese tea after all!

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