Pu-erh, aka. Pu-er or P’uerh (po-lay or bo-lay in Cantonese) is a special tea that got its name from the town of Pu-erh in the southern part of the Yunnan province of China. The Yunnan province of China is on the Tibet border, and Pu-erh was the largest market for tea trade. The production of Pu-erh is unique and has been a state secret until relatively recently. Pu-erh is plucked from large-leafed tea trees propagated from trees as old as 1800 years, and of the primitive Da Yeh variety. The trees can be plucked almost year round and grow at high altitude. Though the exact procedure for processing the tea is still sketchy for outsiders, as I understand it, the leaves are then lightly pan-fired then dried in the sun (where they semi-oxidize), then lightly steamed, and pressed into forms. The tea is sometimes loose, but is normally pressed into bricks, circular cakes, or hand-formed tuo cha (birds-nest shaped). The tea is then aged in humid caves within the region which cause the leaves to slowly re-oxidize and develop a thin layer of mold (Pu-erh is the only tea that is purposefully aged).
The brewed tea is full-bodied, musty, earthy, often with a deep maltyness, and a long finish. Good Pu-erhs are smooth and sweet, while poor grades are often harsh and bitter. The aging process makes the tea richer and smoother while causing the tea to slowly oxidize darker and darker. Many Pu-erhs range in age from 5-35 years, but it is not uncommon to find a 60 year old. I often recommend it for coffee drinkers who are interested in expanding to tea because it is so full-bodied. The tea even looks like coffee as it is dark brown / black but with a red tinge. There is also green Pu-erh which has a slightly different processing method.
The first consumption of Pu-erh tea dates back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1066BCE – 221BCE). The tea was originally consumed and prized for its health benefits and medicinal value, and the bricks were used for currency. In addition to all the health benefits of most teas, Pu-erh has been shown to increase the HDL / total cholesterol ratio (a good thing). Pu-erh is also a digestive aid (very nice after a big meal), and is popular in Europe as a diet aid. Preparation methods for Pu-erh vary. Tibetans are know to boil it overnight to brew, while some Chinese brew it for ten to twenty successive steepings of about 3 minutes each (purple clay (Yixing) teaware recommended). I recommend steeping with water right off the boil for between five and ten minutes. The steeping time varies to taste and one should experiment with different times because 1) the tea can taste quite different brewed for different lengths, and 2) Then you’ll have to try it several times and Pu-erh is know to take some getting used to. We have a very nice Pu-erh at the shop formed into mini tou-cha if you are interested in trying this unique and mysterious tea.