Puerh is a compressed, post-fermented green tea that is grown and processed only in the Mekong river area of Yunnan Province in China. Puerh leaves are processed into Raw or Green (Sheng) and Cooked or Black (Shou) puerh.
Puerh is worthy of the attention of the true Lussorian as aged examples are the most coveted of all tea types. This is one of the few teas that improves with age, and 40 or 50 year old examples can fetch enormous prices. Puerh collectors buy the tea as an investment and trade in it as a commodity. 2003-4 a `Puerh bubble` pushed prices up to stratospheric levels and sparked widespread counterfeiting. Teas from this period are still regarded with suspicion. Despite the controversy, the market for fine puerh remains robust: in 2009 two kilos of aged puerh were sold at auction for $160,000.
The best quality aged Puerhs can be infused up to 60 times to produce an astonishing range of subtle and complex flavours, ranging from earthy and musty to sweet and fruity. For this reason, Puerh inspires widespread devotion among aficionados and has suffered from almost equally devoted counterfeiting by unscrupulous producers. However, today it is possible to enjoy authentic and reasonably-priced Puerh. The golden rule is to buy from a reliable source. One such is cantonteaco.com.
Puerh is produced from a number of varietals of the broad-leafed Yunnan tea cultivar, known as Da Ye (Camelia Sinsensis Assamica). Varietals are further sub-divided into Ancient, Tall, Wild and Small-Leafed. Spring- and Autumn- picked teas are the most prized.
To make raw Puerh, the tea leaves withered in the sun or by heating for a few hours, and then lightly fired in large woks. The leaves are carefully hand-rolled to bruise them and start the oxidation process, then rested and dried again. The prepared raw Puerh leaves, known as Mao Cha (`rough tea`), are then either stored to be sold as loose puerh or sent for pressing into blocks. Loose Puerh ages more quickly than compressed puerh. To make compressed puerh, the leaves are steamed, wrapped in cloths and pressed into bricks or cakes, known as tuo(`nest` but more like a hockey puck, beeng (disc-shaped), or jin (mushroom). The puerh is then stored for a minimum of 1 – 2 years to post-ferment, which is a process akin to composting, during which time exposure to the humid air allows microbes and bacteria to act on compounds in the tea to create the characteristic complex earthy-to-floral flavour spectrum.
Cooked puerh undergoes a process known as `wet-piling`, whereby the leaves are left in damp piles in a humid environment to imitate the natural ageing process. This process can take between six months and a year. Frowned upon by some purists, cooked puerh can offer a very rewarding experience of this extraordinary tea type.
The history of puerh is fraught with myth and controversy: Some Chinese sources date the first puerh production back to 200BC, others much later. Yunnan was the starting point for the ancient `Tea-Horse Roads`, from where tea and horses were traded with Tibet and Northern China. Block tea was originally made because it was easier to store and transport. One theory is that the action of the horses` sweat on the compressed tea led to the development of the post-fermentation process. It is more likely the humid climate of Yunnan on the stored teas created the post-fermentation process on its own.
Puerh is best made in the traditional Chinese Gong Fu (Great Skill) method. The correct choices of water, brewing vessel, tea quantities, water temperature and infusion times are the subject of furious debate among aficionados.
A small 140ml yixing (ZiSha) clay teapot is the preferred vessel for brewing puerh. A small, broad-bladed knife is used to gently separate the tea leaves from the cake or block, keeping them as whole as possible. Spring water is best, but any water with a pH of just over 7 is fine. Puerh should be brewed with boiling water. Puerh experts tend to use large amounts of tea in very small teapots – as much as 5g in 50ml yixing – infused for just 10 to 15 seconds each time, building up to 40-50 seconds in later infusions.
In China, Puerh is widely used for medicinal purposes to combat ageing, heart disease, toxins in the blood, cancer, and digestive problems and as an aid to weight loss and circulation. However most connoisseurs enjoy puerh for its delicious, complex flavours.
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