Pu-erh tea is the most complex, varying and least well understood type of tea, with varying production method, character and resulting taste profile. However this should deter would-be tea drinkers as this also makes it one of the most fascinating and rewarding! Below is a brief summary of pu erh, an overview of the variety and types of pu-erh tea, much like our small carefully curated collection!
The one defining character of all pu-erh tea is its origin; the region in and around Yunnan in S.W. China. It is then best described by the triangle of pu-erh drinking. Yunnan - the local people who grow and cultivate this tea mostly drink and prefer freshly produced pu-erh - young Sheng cha (raw tea); Taiwan - most prized is Lao Sheng cha (old raw tea), which has post-fermented naturally over many years (if not decades) surmised by 'yue chen, yue xiang' - the older the better; Hong-Kong - the most widely drunk and available pu-erh is Shu cha (ripe tea), because this is the best tea to aid digestion of their oil rich cuisine.
Sheng pu (raw pu-erh): is alive! Due to the natural presence of microbes post-fermentation slowly occurs over time through oxidation and microbial enzymatic reaction. This tea is not a stable product, but changes with aging. When young it tastes fresh and raw, somewhat green, with a bright yellow liquor and can vary immensely from sweet to bitter, floral to fruity, even smoky (often due to drying over fire on wet days). As it ages it looses the fresh raw bite and the tea liquor turns darker. A simplistic generality would be to say that it mellows, sweetens, thickens and gains improved character. Young sheng Pu-erh is cooling according to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), while aged Lao Sheng cha becomes neutral.
Shu pu (ripe pu-erh): post-fermented by a process called Wo Dui (wet pileup) - a comparatively recent method in pu-erh processing since 1973 in an attempt to recreate natural post-fermentation in a controlled environment. The tea is piled over 1m high, sprayed with water and covered by wet cloth. The pile is turned over regularly and heat builds up due to microbial activity accelerating fermentation, typically for 30-45 days depending on the required level of fermentation. It generally needs a few years after production to remove bad smells resulting from fermentation - mouldy, earthy or damp aromas. It also can improve with age gaining sweetness and texture. Shu pu-erh does not taste the same as naturally aged sheng pu-erh but has its own unique merits! Infused it has a deep burgundy coloured liquor and should taste rich, deep and mellow with a thick mouthfeel, dark stonefruit flavours and sweet aftertaste. Shu Pu-erh is warming according to TCM.
Pu-erh tea has received much research and press about its health benefits. It is widely believed to aid digestion by breaking down oily and fatty food, increase the metabolic rate, improve blood circulation, lower LDL cholesterol levels (due to naturally occuring statins) and reduce hangover symptoms by eliminating toxins. Pu-erh is also drunk and enjoyed for its cha-qi (tea energy) which can vary from subtle to strong and affect both body and mind!