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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 starated.
A Royal History Behind Pu-erh Tea
For hundreds of years, pu-erh has been regarded as a high-end tea. Pu-erh was a tea of emperors—to satisfy their refined taste. During the Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng, the 2nd Qing Emperor made pu-erh 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 was like "being a member of the royal family."
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 due largely to microbial fermentation, which is responsible for the sophisticated aging process so closely associated with pu-erh. Whereas 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.
As pu-erh ages, the fermentation continues. The more aged a pu-erh, especially if it is a raw pu-erh, the more expensive it tends to be.
A Wealth of Flavor
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. Enjoying a pot of pu-erh can be as simple or as in-depth as you like, but learning to understand some of the flavors you may experience is a great place to start.
Pu-erh is undeniably rich in both flavor depth and range. Terroir, age of the tea tree, vintage and storage conditions all can impact taste and contribute to the variety of flavors you’ll find in a single brew.
There’s a diversity of flavors in a single steeping. After your first cup, the taste will continue to evolve in your subsequent steeps.
Pu-erh is usually a combination of the following flavors:
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 tea leaves and it helps with the sun-drying process. Rainfall and cooler 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 three 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 2018] Wild Lao Raw Pu'er is well-balanced and smooth with a lingering floral scent and a light roasted nut flavor. It tastes best when brewed in gong fu style–just 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 a tea that wouldn’t spoil on long trips between villages. They found that this tea actually improved in flavor as it aged. As raw pu-erh ages it becomes more mellow and smooth. When brewed it can look slightly red or orange, but the color depends on the age and storage conditions. This is the type that was consumed years ago and is highly sought-after by pu-erh enthusiasts. Aged raw pu-erh develops woodsy, earthy qualities, camphor or dark fruit notes, and the depth and body as the bitterness decreases 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 high-humidity wet-piling method to speed up fermentation. Due to a spike in demand for pu-erh tea in Hong Kong in the 1950s, this hastened fermentation was perfected until it was reintroduced to Yunnan in the 1970s. This type of tea typically yields a dark red or black drink. It can taste like very aged raw pu-erh although the naturally aged raw pu-erh usually has a more complex flavor profile. This is the type that is usually served when the type of pu-erh is not specified, but its similarity to aged raw pu-erh makes it highly desirable. Ripe pu-erh is also called shou pu'er.
How to Get Started on Pu-erh Tea
There are so many variables that 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 alike.
Full pu-erh tea cakes can be expensive, which is why Mansa offers smaller portions of different types of pu-erh. We recommend starting with our best seller [Menghai 2009] Old Tree Ripe Pu'er 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.
This post is part of our Aged Tea 101 series. Sign up to get the full series!