Pu’er is the seasoned tea-drinker’s drink of choice. Its dark, complex flavors are produced from an ancient, unhurried tea making process developed in the tea forests of southern China, the original source of all the world’s tea. Here is a brief introduction to the ways of pu’er.
1. Pu’er is the traveler’s tea
Pu’er tea has been traveling by pack animal along mountain trade routes, into China’s borderlands and beyond for more than a centruy. Its pressed block form makes it easy to transport. And tea-lovers like our very own Jeff Fuchs have continued this tradition into the 21st century, always having a block of pu’er on hand for a long journey.
2. When pressed, pu’er comes in many forms. Have a look at some of the most common:
3. Pu’er is a dark tea, not a black tea
Though it is often considered so, pu’er is not actually a black tea, — in English anyway. The confusion here comes in translation. In Chinese, pu’er is a hei cha (黑茶) which literally translates as ‘black tea,’ but is actually translated as ‘dark tea.’ This is because the English term ‘black tea’ already refers to hong cha (红茶), which literally translates into English as ‘red tea.’ Still confused? Here’s a cheat sheet:
Hei cha (黑茶). Literal translation: black tea. Actually called ‘dark tea’ in English.
Hong Cha(红茶). Literal translation: red tea. Actually called ‘black tea’ in English.
4. What sets pu’er apart from all other tea varieties? The fermentation process.
The difference between a sweet, earthy tea and a more bitter variety is all in the details. So it’s time to get technical. Pu’er starts out like all other teas, as a leaf from the Camellia sinensis plant. It’s then withered and fried, and at this stage, it’s essentially the same as green tea (though these are generally grown in different regions). But it’s here that pu’er (and its dark tea cousins) begins to set itself apart from any other tea variety. The leaves are steamed so as to be less brittle, and then pressed — usually into a block or disc shape — and left to dry again. These blocks are left to age anywhere from a few months to 100 years.. It’s this fermentation process that gives pu’er tea its special flavor.
5. There are two main varieties of pu’er
For years, there was nothing more to pu’er than the process described above, but then in the 1970’s, the demand for pu’er tea skyrocketed. A pu’er company invented a variation on the fermentation process called wo dui (渥堆) which produces flavors similar to a decade long aging process, in just a few months.
Some say that this modernized fermentation process is a great way to achieve the flavor of pu’er without the wait, but others hold fast to traditional methods, even claiming that this processing method produces unwanted flavors which must air out before the tea can be drunk.