Puerh is a valued commodity amongst tea connoisseurs, especially well aged puerh teas. As a result a mystique has grown around it. Sometimes based on fact and sometimes a simple marketing ploy. |
In China, all forms of tea have been grown and consumed for centuries. There are some sources who claim that Puerh in particular has been drunk for 5000 years. This may or may not be true but certainly the origins of this fine drink have been lost in the mists of time. What is thought to be certain is that it originated in the Yunnan province of China and there are some trees that are said to be over 1000 years old that are still used to produce this type of tea. Yunnan itself is a mountainous region in the south of China, bordered by Tibet, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Since transport was difficult, the processed leaves were pressed into bricks of tea of various shapes as more could be carried out on the horses and mules. This format has continued right up to the present day.
The shape of the bricks can vary considerably but one of the most common is the round shape. This arose so that they could be packed into banana tree trunks for safe transport. Other shapes include dish shape, rectangular and pagoda. A recent trend of for the 'mini tuocha' and variations. The one I have bought online from In Nature teas was bullet shapes and the one from Davidstea was like a miniaturised conventional puerh brick. The bricks have always been wrapped in paper or something else to protect them - these modern miniature versions were no exception. very convenient for slipping into a pocket for brewing up at work!
Historical accounts of this tea have been found from the Tang dynasty roughly 600 to 900 AD. It seems that this was when the fact that puerh improves in flavour with age was discovered. During the transport, which in the extreme took many months, the colour of the leaves darkened and the flavour of the brewed tea became fuller and smoother. We now know that this was caused by partial fermentation of the leaves during transport. The main trading centre for these unique leaves from Yunnan province was the town of Pu-erh, so all teas that were bought and sold there became known as puerh tea. Logical really!
The character of the tea arises from a variety of factors, discussed in a different article. The processing begins with gentle pan frying. This begins the drying process and inactivates a large proportion of the enzymes present in the leaves, but not all. The leaves are then sun-dried and compressed expertly into the brick forms and wrapped. Some moisture from the air can still get in which activated the fermentation process created by the undamaged enzymes, slowly changing the character. The young puerh can be brewed but it has a very different character to the more superior aged versions. It tends to be a bit of an acquired taste and gets a 'bad press' thanks to the sale of poor quality puerh which has a strong earthy taste and deteriorates with age rather than improves.
A process was invented in the early 1970s in which the ageing of the leaves was accelerated artificially. This means that there are essentially two types of puerh, raw and ripe. The raw is left to age naturally over a period of years and is the more expensive variant and also therefore the most sought after. If you can invest in some raw tea, it will slowly improve as the years pass. It is said that once it has aged for 10 years or more it will be at its best. The more commonly available and cheaper version does not improve with age and is generally an inferior product.
So to sum up, this is a true connoisseur's tea that is well worth seeking out. If you want to avoid disappointment, spend a bit more money than you would really like to and get a genuine, quality, naturally aged brick, it will not disappoint unless you are used to drinking bogstandard teabag teas.
Don't settle for second best, make sure that you buy quality puerh tea. And whilst you are at it, loose leaf Chinese white tea is reputed to have the best health benefits of all.
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