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What is Pu-erh Tea?
True tea aficionados know that their beverage of choice can be just as interesting as fine wine and single-origin coffee. However, even the biggest fans of a cuppa may be intimidated by new types of tea. Pu-erh (or pu'er) tea, the most famous aged tea, can be especially difficult to grasp as its flavors are impacted by many different factors, including age and storage condition. Some low quality ones might turn out “funky," but this exquisite tea deserves more than just one taste.
So what is pu-erh tea and how do you get started if you are a beginner? In this guide, we cover pu-erh tea's history, types, and flavors to get you started.
A Royal History Behind Pu-erh Tea
For hundreds of years, pu-erh has been regarded as a high-end tea among all Chinese teas. Pu-erh was a tea of emperors—to satisfy their refined taste. During the Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng, the 2nd Qing Emperor, made pu-erh as a tribute tea. Emperors would select regions to produce tea to be given as a gift to the royal court. These "tributes" were considered the highest commendation.
Fu Yi, the last of the Qing Emperors – and in China's history – stated that drinking pu-erh tea was like "being a member of the royal family."
Trivia: Pu-erh Tea was first discovered in Yunnan. Province of China.
Sophisticated Aging Process with Fermentation
Pu-erh is dark and fermented – similar to red wine – and is perfect for those seeking a robust, elegant, well-rounded, and flavorful brew. This fermentation process characteristic of dark teas and the resulting aromatic flavors are part of what makes pu-erh stand out from other teas.
The nuance of pu-erh tea is primarily due to microbial fermentation, which is responsible for the sophisticated aging process closely associated with pu-erh. In contrast, other tea leaves lose flavor over time, pu-erh ages like fine wine or scotch, while microbes do their work to develop layers of depth and flavor. Increasingly sophisticated aromas develop during each year of storage. From there, the tea becomes smoother and more defined. The older the pu-erh, the more expensive it tends to be.
As pu-erh ages, the natural fermentation continues. And this healthy fermented tea is known for its physical and mental health benefits. Study shows that pu-erh tea extracts play a key role in weight loss.
A Wealth of Flavor
Pu-erh is undeniably rich in both flavor depth and range. Terroir, age of the tea tree, vintage, and storage conditions can impact taste and contribute to the variety of flavors you'll find in a single brew. And we will explain more about these factors in the next section.
While these layers of complexity can be overwhelming at first, pu-erh is by no means an "exclusive" experience to be appreciated only by experts. For example, you can brew it with boiling water, so you do not need a temperature-controlled kettle to start brewing and tasting.
There's a diversity of flavors in single steeping. And expect the taste to evolve in your subsequent steeps after your first cup of pu-erh.
You will experience a combination of the following flavors in pu-erh tea:
4 Factors that Impact the Taste of Pu-erh
True pu-erh comes from the Yunnan Province in southwest China and is made from Camellia sinensis var. assamica. However, despite this tea’s singular origin, the world of pu-erh is complex with multiple factors influencing the taste of pu-erh.
1. Terroir - Where the Tea is Growing
Terroir refers to the composition of the soil where the tea is growing. Similar to how certain areas of the world are known for their wine, coffee, or cocoa, the same applies to tea. The mineral content of the soil, the spring water feeding the tea, the weather condition in the area are significant influencers of the flavor.
It’s also important to think about the foliage, flowers, or fungus in the region. Mansa Tea focuses on sourcing from the most exceptional terroir in the Yunnan Province, such as the ancient tea mountains in Xishuangbanna.
2. Age of the Tea Tree - How Old the Tea Tree is
As with any aging process, the age of the plant often determines the level and depth of flavor. Young trees yield the freshest and youngest leaves and this results in a higher production rate but less flavor.
More mature trees have more time to absorb minerals from the soil thus yielding a more robust tasting tea leaf. Mansa's teas are handpicked teas from at least 100-year-old ancient trees.
3. Vintage - Which Year the Tea was Harvested
Pu-erh enthusiasts prefer drier weather because less rain produces better loose leaf tea leaves and helps with sun-drying. Rainfall and more relaxed weather result in a slower drying process and a smokey flavor profile.
4. Storage Conditions - How the Tea has been Stored
Traditionally, pu-erh tea has been stored in humid environments as the humidity helps with the fermentation process and ages pu-erh teas faster. Also, these were the weather conditions of the locations where pu-erh has been popular historically, such as Hong Kong and Guangdong. Lately, dry storage pu-erh has been popularized as the slow fermentation process limits the development of "funky" flavor that some tea drinkers do not favor. Such storage condition also results in a slower aging process.
Regardless of the storage methods used, the goal is to ensure the tea experiences controlled temperature and humidity environment to maximize the unique flavor of each tea.
Three Types of Pu-erh Tea
If you’re a beginner pu-erh drinker, it’s a good idea to try each of the different types of pu-erh before exploring your favorite in more depth. Recalling the aging process discussed above will help you to categorize these types of pu-erh more easily. The three categories have different tastes, colors, steep times and longevity.
1. Young Raw Pu-erh: This tea is less than five years old, and it most resembles green tea. Young raw pu-erh can be floral and sweet, with youthful and grassy freshness, or quite bitter, but not always! For example, Mansa Tea's Yiwu Wild Tree Raw Pu-erh (2018) is well-balanced and smooth with a lingering floral scent and a lightly roasted nut flavor. It tastes best when brewed in gong fu style–a few seconds is long enough to get the desired light-yellow color without extracting the bitter tannins from the tea leaves.
2. Aged Raw Pu-erh: The long history of this tea dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty when inhabitants of the region needed tea that wouldn't spoil on long trips between villages. They found that their tea improved in flavor by becoming more mellow and smooth as it aged. When brewed, it can look slightly red or orange, but the color depends on the age and storage conditions. Highly sought-after by pu-erh enthusiasts, aged raw pu-erh develops woodsy, earthy qualities, dark fruit notes, and depth as the bitterness decrease over time. Both types of raw pu-erh are also called sheng pu'er.
3. Ripe Pu-erh : Ripe pu-erh teas are processed using the high-humidity wet-piling method to speed up fermentation. Tea factories in Yunnan developed this hastened fermentation method to meet the spike in demand for pu-erh tea in Hong Kong in the 1950s. This type of tea typically yields a dark red or black liquid. Ripe pu-erh tea can taste like very aged raw pu-erh, although the naturally aged raw pu-erh usually has a more complex flavor profile. It's safe to assume that most pu-erh teas served without specifics as to whether it is raw or ripe are ripe pu-erh teas. Ripe pu-erh is also called shou pu'er.
How to Get Started on Pu-erh Tea
So many variables impact the flavor profile of pu-erh; it's easy to get overwhelmed. We at Mansa Tea have done the hard work for you and found the right combination of aged teas to impress new tea drinkers and experts.
Whole pu-erh tea cakes can be expensive, so Mansa offers smaller portions of different types of pu-erh. We recommend starting with our best seller Menghai Old Tree Ripe Pu-erh (2009) tea to start your pu-erh tea journey. All of the orders come with a free sample for you to help expand your aged tea knowledge.
To learn about pu-erh tea’s caffeine content, read here.
This post is part of our Aged Tea 101 series. Sign up to get the full series!