Although referred to simply as “hei cha”, or black tea in China, pu-erh is classified as a post-fermented tea and not a black tea. To us, this is one of the most fascinating teas around, and often the most polarizing with people claiming it has an acquired taste.
Pu-erh tea types
There are two types of pu-erh – raw (sheng) and shou (ripe). They are both initially processed like a Chinese green tea (plucked, withered, fixed, rolled and dried). However, the next stage (ageing/fermentation), determines whether a raw or ripe pu-erh is produced.
Raw pu-erh is the classic, old-fashioned pu-erh that was first produced in the town of Pu’er, which is situated in the Yunnan province of China. After it is dried, this type of pu-erh is compressed into cakes and left to age naturally. Raw pu-erhs are aged for about 20-40 years to maturity. The tea can be drunk earlier, however, just like many fine wines, maturing raw pu-erh can create an exceptional tea. This ageing process also explains the high prices raw pu-erhs command on the market.
Ripe pu-erh is produced from a much newer, “shortcut” method. Fermentation occurs when the dampened leaves are piled in a controlled environment (temperature and humidity) and covered in a cloth, which speeds up the fermentation to just months instead of the 20-30 years it takes to age raw pu-erh naturally. Oftentimes, poorer quality tea leaves are used in the production of this type of pu-erh too.
The difference in the fermentation process results in two very different tasting teas. In general, ripe pu-erh does not have the same flavour complexity as a raw pu-erh. However, that is not to say that ripe pu-erh is inferior to raw pu-erh. A good ripe pu-erh can be described as having deep and dark, coffee-like flavours, sometimes even mushroom-like!
The real pu-erh
Just like Champagne which comes from the region of Champagne in France, or Parma ham which comes from the province of Parma in Italy, real pu-erh is produced from the Camellia sinensis var. assamica and in the Yunnan province of China. Unfortunately, fake pu-erh is a big problem in China. When looking for authentic pu-erh, it is advisable to buy from trusted sources.
Health benefits of pu-erh
Ever wondered why traditional dim sum restaurants serve pu-erh tea? The microorganisms present in pu-erh tea aids in digestion. Studies have also shown that it can suppress the body’s ability to store fat and lower cholesterol.