What is Pu-Erh Tea (Puer Tea)?
Puer tea (frequently spelled “Pu-erh”) is the only tea cateogry defined by geography – because it lacks a tangible definition otherwise. Even some of the features that define what is accepted as official “puer” tea can seem arbitrary. All the information listed here will be outlining what is generally accepted as Puer tea and not get lost in the weeds of the debate.
There are two types of puer tea - Sheng (“raw”) and Shu (“ripe”). All puer starts out as raw puer, which could be loosely described as a very simple green tea. Unlike green tea, raw puer tea is then processed so that further oxidation occurs very slowly over time (details below). At this point raw puer is a finished product that can be bought/sold/served like any other tea, but because the processing leaves the the elements of change intat within the leaf, it is often stored over the course of years, sometimes many years, and it metamorphosizes into a very different tea than it started out.
The other type is Shu or “Ripe” puer, which starts out as raw puer, but then goes through an “accelerated post-fermentation” process designed to achieve a similar outcome to aged raw puer. “Pile fermentation”, as the process is known, produces a finished product in approximately 6-8 weeks. This process would define ripe puer as a “dark tea” and it bears no resemblance to raw puer, unless raw puer is aged 10+ years - and even then, only maybe resembles it.
Where Does Puer Tea Come From?
Village of Bama in Yunnan
Puer tea is generally recognized as coming from southwest Yunnan province, specifically the regions of Lincang, Xishuangbanna, and Puer (formerly known as Simao). Any tea made outside this region, even if the process is the same, is not generally considered puer (though there is debate about this issue). Because of the exclusivity of these regions, all authentic puer tea comes from the Camellia sinensis var. assamica plant that grows natively in the region. At a technical level, any tea plant growing anywhere in the world can be made into any type of tea since the process defines the style. Puer tea is a rare exception because it blurs the lines that define specific tea types which brings outsized importance to the terroir of the plant.
Puer vs Pu-erh
The proper pinyin spelling is “Puer”, but in the west you will often see it spelled as “Pu-erh” or “Puerh.” These different spellings are all referring to the same thing - puer. The old spelling “pu-erh” comes from the Wade-Giles system of romanization for the Chinese Mandarin language that predates the use of pinyin. The pinyin system replaced Wade-Giles in the 1950’s and is the official method recognized and used by China.
How it’s made (Sheng Puer or “Sheng Pu-erh”)
Raw puer by traditional definition is a simple green tea. It’s picked, pan-fired, rolled, and dried. But there are nuances that make it very different from what we would consider traditional Chinese green tea and facilitate the ability for change over time. Here’s a list of the notable differences.
Because it’s a simple product, raw leaf matters. The specific location of those plants and whether they are wild tea trees or cultivated bushes play significant roles. For the most expensive puer you are often paying for leaves picked from wild trees from a very specific location. Less expensive puer is generally made from cultivated plants. The one isn’t always better than the other, but enthusiasts usually pay attention to where the raw leaf comes from.
The leaves are roasted in a large wok to prevent most enzymatic oxidation further down the line (a process known as “kill-green”), but they are not subject to any further hot-air drying to fully de-enzyme the leaves, like green tea.
Puer is sun-dried, not machine dried, which makes the drying process imperfect and preserves the elements for post-fermentation.
After drying, the tea (now referred to as “mao cha” or “rough tea”) is a finished product that can be:
- Packaged up as-is and sold.
- Pressed into cakes or other shapes and sold. The pressed cake is officially considered a “finished product” and they do look very nice.
- Sent off to become shu or “ripe” puer.
How it’s made (“Ripe” or “Shu” Puer – sometimes spelled “Shou Puer”)
As stated above, “Shu puer” (“ripe puer”) starts out as raw puer, which is then subjected to an “accelerated post-fermentation” process, which is the defining aspect of all “dark tea.” The purpose of this process for ripe puer is to mimic the results of well-aged raw puer (which takes many, many years) and condense that into a matter of 6-8 weeks. Ripe puer achieves this through a technique called pile-fermentation.
Ripe puer pile-fermentation
Finished raw puer is piled up into long rows or single piles, wetted, and covered with a heavy cloth. This starts a microbial fermentation process that will last for one week. The amount of tea used in each batch is a key decision since each pile is its own micro-climate and the amount of tea used will affect the results. The temperature is carefully monitored to remain around 160 degrees. This process is not dissimilar from composting, though we hesitated to mention that. If it reassures you, we drink ripe puer all the time.
After one week the heavy cloth covers are removed. Then a machine is used to break up the piles for proper air flow and re-piled so it can air dry. This pile is turned approximately once each week until the process ends about four to five weeks later. At this point, ripe puer is a finished product that can be packaged up loose or sent off to be pressed into shapes before being sold (similar to the raw mao cha).
What is with that Pu-erh tea taste?
Puer tea, raw or ripe, has an unusual flavor profile that is unfamiliar to many in the west, but once you get hooked, you never go back.
Raw puer tends to have a profile of wild fruit and grain (emphasis on “wild”). There can sometimes be heartier, gamey, borderline smoky aspects to them, but all these adjectives are a bit of stretch, except for the use of “wild.”
The shu puer outcome is universally dark, earthy, and smooth. You can steep the leaves as long as you like and not a drop of bitterness will come through. But there is also a leathery, compost, barnyard character to them (and we mean this with sincere flattery) that some find to be an acquired taste.
How to Prepare Puer Tea
There is no right or wrong way to make puer tea. It can be steeped many ways and with many different steeping tools. Here are two basic approaches to it:
Western steeping method:
Gongfu preparation of raw (sheng) puer
This is for when you are steeping a lesser amount of leaves for a longer period of time (usually for a single mug or a teapot). This is the most common method in the United States and is symbolized by the tea bag. If you are using loose leaf tea (and we suggest you do) our suggested portions for black tea are:
For Raw Puer:
3-4 grams of dry tea leaves per 8-12 ounces of liquid. Steep for 2-3 minutes with freshly boiled water. Always adjust to suit your tastes. Re-steep the leaves if desired.
For Ripe Puer:
3-4 grams of dry tea leaves per 8-12 ounces of liquid. Use water that has just been brought to a boil and steep as long as you like since the tea will not get bitter. If you steep the leaves for short periods of time, there will be more opportunities for re-steeping of those same leaves. But long steeps will not leave much flavor in the leaf to extract later.
Traditional Steeping method:
This uses a larger quantity of leaves in smaller amounts of water for shorter periods of time. The leaves will yield many steepings this way. There are numerous ways to do this and they are a lot of fun to explore (and zero reason to be intimidated). The below instructions are a good baseline to start from if using a gaiwan, but can be adjusted based on the equipment you are using:
Use approximately one gram of tea per fluid ounce of near boiling water in your gaiwan. Steep the leaves for 5 seconds and decant. Discard this brief initial steep, which is known as a rinse. Re-steep the same leaves now for approximately 15-30 seconds. Decant into your cup or serving pitcher and enjoy. Repeat as much as the leaves continue to yield satisfactory results – increasing the steep time of each round. Take notice of not only the flavor in the cup but the aroma and the appearance of the steeped leaves. This is all part of the experience. Adjust any above-mentioned factor to suit your tastes.
How Much Caffeine is in Puer Tea?
All tea comes from the same plant (Camellia sinensis), so all tea has caffeine, including puer. There are three factors you control that determine how much caffeine ends up in your cup:
- How much leaf you use (more leaf equals more caffeine available to extract)
- How hot you steep it (the hotter the water, the more caffeine extracts into your cup)
- How long you steep it (the longer it steeps, the more caffeine is extracted from the leaf)
Health Benefits of Puer Tea
Tea is one of the healthiest beverages in the world, especially as a preventative approach for long-term physical and mental health. TeaSource doesn’t make any claims about its teas as prescriptive solutions to any particular health issue since this is not our area of expertise.
Here are a couple articles if you are interested in learning more about the health benefits of tea:
From the NIH:
From “Medical News Today”:
The health benefits of tea, though considerable, are not the foremost purpose for drinking it. Tea is for your enjoyment - in whatever way you choose to do that. And that enjoyment is good for you all by itself.