The Western world has long been interested in aging all kinds of beverages, but until the last two decades, the idea of applying the same principles to tea was largely unknown. Head to China, however, and you'll quickly see that aged tea is as much a part of life as 21-year-old whiskey and prized vintages of champagne.
Why age tea? Most teas don't age so much as they become stale and dead. But with the right environment and the right tea, you get something completely unique: a drink that slides down your throat and hugs your stomach, relaxes your muscles and calms your mind. The best aged tea is medicine you want to swallow, full of bitter chocolate or stone fruit or moist, sweet earth. And for the complexity of what you're drinking, it can cost much, much less per serving than that bottle of old scotch.
While many kinds of tea can be aged (I'm sitting on a delicious oolong almost as old as my parents), none are more coveted than the Pride of Yunnan Province, a tea that required careful hundreds, even thousands of years of manufacturing: pu-erh.
Pu-erh, which is processed in a special way to encourage microbial fermentation after the leaves dry, ages more dynamically than any tea. It has no fans. There are junkies who buy kilos of product at a time to revel in multi-day brewing sessions, only coming out of their highs long enough to argue over the best pu-erh blends, growing regions and storage methods. There are avid enthusiasts who buy, gift and drink the tea to gain social status among the Chinese elite. And there are also pu-erh investors, who bet on the aging potential of a particular tea, who build booming futures markets and, in the case of a major collapse in 2007, trade them off. collapse.
In the West, pu-erh is a niche market within a niche market. But its followers are growing in number. And if there's one tea that's ready for the big time outside of Asia, it's this one.
A tea like no other
For a tea to be called pu-erh, it must be made from the large-leaf subspecies Camellia sinensis var. assamica and grown in Yunnan province in southwest China, where the Han Chinese as well as many ethnic minorities share borders with Burma and Laos. It is one of the few teas to have been designated as a Product of Protected Origin by the Chinese government, a rarity in an industry run amok with vague, unregulated terms and limited oversight.*
*Not that these regulations are that effective; Pu-erh is a huge problem, just like in other famous tea producing regions.
These factors limit the overall character and terroir of the tea to a set of parameters, but the real trick of pu-erh is what happens after it is picked. Fresh leaves are tossed by hand into giant woks long enough to stop the tea from oxidizing, but not so long as to drive out all the moisture and kill the natural bacteria. The tea is then left to dry in the sun, but the bacteria survive, and over the years and decades they will help completely transform the tea from a fresh, bitter green to something darker, mellow and rich.
Most tea producers sell their dried tea directly to vendors or wholesalers, but with pu-erh there is usually an intermediate step. Farmers sell their finished bulk leaves (called maocha) to processors who often mix leaves from several sources, steam them, then compress them under heavy weights into a variety of shapes, such as cakes resembling frisbees, square bricks and small concave nests. This Ming Dynasty-era practice was originally developed to make tea easier to transport long distances, but nowadays it is reserved for teas designed to age; The compressed form allows for a more stable and portable aging environment as time does its work.
A pu-erh cake is constantly evolving, and as you chip the leaves to drink over the months and years, no two brews will taste the same. Some pu-erh is delicious to drink when fresh: it is herbal and fragrant with a sweet bitterness and a ticklish sun-dried spiciness. Other pu-erh needs years of aging for deep bitterness or harsh, smoky flavors to mellow into something soft, sweet and dignified. Half the fun of drinking this stuff is watching your tea grow and change as you make it.
Although pu-erh is a provincial style of tea, it is difficult to make generalizations about its taste. Regional variations in terroir, processing styles, and age all come into play, and the world of pu-erh is maddeningly complex, even by fine tea standards. As Jinghong Zhang says in his excellent Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic, an elucidating academic treatment of tea's socio-political-economic history, "Pu-erh tea was packaged by multiple actors into a beverage fashion with multiple authenticities.” But to paint with the broadest brush possible, here is a very rough breakdown of the three main categories of pu-erh:
Young 'Raw: It's more like green tea than anything else, and it's either brand new or not old enough (less than, say, two to three years) to develop any of the aged characteristics of a more mature pu-erh. It can be floral and sweet or as bitter as amaro, but there is an undeniable youth and herbaceous freshness to the brew. Some pu-erh people hate the taste of bitter young sheng, but others seek it out specifically for these bitter qualities. And some of the best young sheng should be drunk quickly, like green tea; Not all pu-erh ages well, and time can simply flatten its bright, herbal flavor without adding anything new.
Jing Mai Shan Sheng Puer, 2019
Aged “raw”: There are many schools of how to age pu-erh, but all involve controlled heat and humidity to smooth the rough edges of the tea and achieve a darker, deeper brew that tends to s 'register further down your throat and body. Aged raw pu-erh usually has woody, earthy qualities and notes of camphor or dark fruits, but rather than specific flavors, the important thing here is the depth and body that the tea develops. There is a huge range in how this character manifests; A seven-year-old pu-erh probably won't be as cloudy and moody as a 30-year-old. So the only way to get an idea of how aging affects pu-erh is to drink a lot of it.
Liu Xing CHAWANG 六星茶王, 2014
The deep, dark, underlying pu-erh favored by Hong Kong drinkers takes decades to mature, so in the 1970s, tea processors developed a shorthand: shou pu-erh ("ripe"). ", as opposed to "raw" sheng), in which dried pu-erh leaves are stacked in rooms and left to compost effectively for months in the warmth and humidity of their own biomass. The process reduces the maturation time from decades to months, although shou pu-erh generally ends up having a less complex taste than well-aged sheng, and is usually made with lower quality leaves. But good shou pu-erh can be thick and luscious like a latte with a rich mushroom sweetness that flows down to your belly, and it's usually less expensive than aged sheng pu-erh of comparable quality. Note that you can age shou pu-erh just like sheng, but because it has already been "pre-aged" in processing, its character will evolve much less over time.
YiWu Zheng ShanDa Ye Zhuan, 2005
Luckily, no matter what type of pu-erh you have, brewing it is relatively simple. Like other fine Chinese teas, it benefits from using lots of leaves in small pots, steeping for short periods (15 to 60 seconds) over a series of two dozen infusions with boiling water or almost boiling, adjusting as you go. (More on this type of brewing here. More than most teas, pu-erh is designed for change, not just over months and years, but over the course of a single tea session. infusion.
You can use a scale to weigh your leaves to the nearest gram, but I usually break off a six to 10 gram piece with a butter knife for a 100 milliliter gaiwan or clay teapot.* Even a young, fresh sheng pu-erh relatively simple will develop in your pot as you continue to steep, and more mature aged teas can transition from moist and mushroomy to sweet-spicy to grape-floral.
Buy it carefully
Buying quality tea is always a tricky business, but this is especially the case with pu-erh. The hardest part of buying good pu-erh is knowing who to trust. Since it is a trendy tea in tea circles and sellers usually buy from other sellers or middlemen, processors and factories rather than directly from farmers (remember , these processors are the ones who press the tea into its final form), there are plenty of opportunities for someone to lie along the way and sell their products or completely misrepresent what they are selling.
Do a little reading about pu-erh and you'll see vaunted names coming up, such as famous teas like Menghai Factory's 7542 cakes or the coveted ancient Qingbing 88, or notable wine regions like Yiwu and Laobanzhang. All of this is rightly celebrated, but without a lot of regulation, there's no guarantee that the $300 aged cake you just bought is actually the tea advertised. Even pu-erh experts can be fooled by counterfeits, a problem endemic in the industry.
Pu-erh can be expensive. Since the tea is in compressed form, you need to purchase it in fixed quantities. Small, nest-like forms of tuo typically weigh 100 or 250 grams, and cakes, the most common form, weigh more than three-quarters of a pound. Although many suppliers offer smaller samples of their pu-erhs, these samples come with a substantial markup. Oh, and those big name teas? Some of them can fetch astronomical prices: four or five figures for less than a pound of tea.
The good news, however, is that quality pu-erh costs less per gram than many other quality teas that a) can't age well, so you have to drink them quickly, and b) don't last as many years. re-brewed than pu-erh, so while you may pay a higher upfront cost, even expensive pu-erh can come out cheaper per cup than some other famous styles of tea.
It is therefore worth purchasing your pu-erh carefully, which is why I usually do so from suppliers who specialize in this area and who press their own cakes or have long established relationships with a proven track record in quality material. To help you get started, here are five reliable sources to research. If you're brand new to pu-erh, don't get too hung up on the terminologies and labels you'll find when you start shopping. Instead, set a budget, order samples and maybe a few inexpensive cakes to start, and drink with an open mind. Attachment comes later.