Tuesday, 20 October 2015

A beginner's Guide to Puerh tea

Puerh or Pu'er is a type of tea produced in Yunnan province of China. The tea derived its name from the town (Puerh City) in Yunnan where the tea was traded during imperial China. Good quality puerh tea has a deep, rich flavor that many consider to be earthy or mushroomy. Bad quality puerh often tastes muddy or mouldy and is unpleasant to drink. 
A collection of puerh tea

Puerh tea comes in two varieties: Green or raw tea (sheng cha) and ripe or cooked tea (shou cha), depending on how the leaves are processed. Both Green and Ripe varieties follow the same steps of Withering - "Kill-Green" - Rolling/Forming - Drying and Steaming/Shaping. The Ripe variety has the additional step of processing (Piling/Heaping) which is heaping the leaves in a pile to facilitate fermentation. Both varieties are then stored for aging. Puerh tea develops its unique flavor and characteristics due to these different methods of manufacture.

Traditionally, puerh tea was processed as the green variety where leaves were harvested from tea trees hundreds of years old. The newly processed tea was harsh in flavor and taste. The new tea was undrinkable as a result. However, when the green tea was allowed to age, the tea leaves underwent microbial fermentation. This fermentation process removed the harsh characteristics of the green tea and turned it into a dark tea which is mellow with rich and complex flavour. Unfortunate the natural ageing process takes many years to accomplish. In 1973 a new process of artificial fermentation was developed. This involved heaping the tea leaves into a pile and applying water to accelerate the ageing process. It is the heaping of the leaves into a pile and the application of water that start the natural enzymatic breakdown process of fermentation. The heat created in the process “cook” the leaves and ripe puerh is sometimes referred to as “cooked” puerh. This new process produces the Ripe variety of puerh tea which only requires weeks to accomplish. The new processing method opens a new wave of tea products for immediate consumption and add complexity, depth and smoothness to the tea.

An interesting aspect of puerh is that it is in a constant state of change. As you chip away the leaves from a cake to drink over the months and years, no two brews will taste the same. Some puerh tea is delicious to drink when fresh: it's vegetal and fragrant with gentle bitterness and a tickling sun-dried pungency. Other puerh te needs years of aging for profound bitterness or harsh, smoky flavors to mellow out into something smooth, sweet, and dignified. Half the fun of drinking the stuff is watching your tea grow and change as you do.

Other unique characteristics of puerh tea is its many shapes and diversified packaging. Puerh commonly comes in compressed forms such as bricks, cakes (which are disc-shaped), mushrooms and 'tuo cha' (which are shaped like tiny bowls). These compressed shapes enable the tea to be transported to other regions of the world. They also facilitate the storage of puerh in large quantity. The tea can be packaged into different sizes from few kilograms to several grams.

Puerh tea is also available in loose form (like other loose-leaf teas). It can also be packed into pomelo fruits or bamboo stalks. In s to supermarkets, the tea is available in teabags for the average consumers.

Generally speaking, puerh tea in the market today can be broadly classified into three types as discussed below.

Young 'Raw' Puerh: This tea resembles any green tea in the market. It's either too new or not old enough to develop any of the aged characteristics of some mature puerh. It usually has a harsh and grassy taste and its bitter nature generally turns away tea drinkers. However, there's an undeniable youth and grassy freshness in this tea that others specifically seek it out for collection. With time, this new tea could well turn into a mellow mature puerh of great value.

Aged 'Raw' Puerh: When green puerh tea is stored under controlled heat and humidity for several years, its harshness and crudeness smoothen out and the tea becomes a darker, deeper and more mellow tea. Aged puerh tea usually has some woodsy, earthy qualities and fragrance like camphor or fruit and flowers. Other than specific flavors, an interesting about puerh tea is the depth and body the tea develops. There's enormous range in how that character manifests; a seven-year-old puerh cake won't be as good as a 30-year-old one. So the only way to get a sense of how aging affects puerh tea is to drink a lot of it.
Raw puerh made in 2001

'Ripe' Puerh: This puerh replaces the natural aged puerh that takes decades to mature. The leaves are piled in rooms and left to fermentate for months in the heat and humidity from their own biomass. The process cuts ageing time down from decades to months. However, ripe puerh usually ends up tasting less complex than good aged raw puerh. But a good ripe puerh can be thick and luscious as a latte with a rich, mushroomy sweetness that sinks to your belly, and it's usually cheaper than comparable quality aged raw puerh. Note that you can age ripe puerh, its character will evolve far less over time as the tea has been pre-aged during processing.
Ripe puerh brick of late 70s
Finally, some tips on brewing your very own cup of puerh tea if you are beginner.

First you need to gently pry off some tea leaves from this compressed cake. You can use a puerh knife (available from most puerh retailers) or another small, dull knife to do this.

Once you have weighed some (around 10 grams) puerh tea leaves, you then place the tea leaves in a brewing vessel (teapot), pour near-boiling water over them and then quickly discard the water.
This step is to 'rinse' the tea leaves to remove dust that has settled on the tea during the aging process. It also removes the dust that formed on the tea during fermentation.  Tea experts say that the rinsing step 'awakens' the leaves (prepare them for infusion).

After rinsing the puerh tea, you are ready to brew it to enjoy its flavor and character. Then you pour very hot boiling water over the tea leaves for 15 to 30 seconds.  Then your pour the tea soup into drinking cups for tea appreciation. In subsequent brews, increase the infusion time before decanting the tea from its brewing vessel. Usually up to 6 infusions can be achieved before the tea leaves are removed from the vessel.

Collection of variety of puerh tea

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