Monday, August 18, 2008

The Mysterious World of Pu Er Tea

The Mysterious World of Pu Er Tea

Just miles from the border of Laos and Burma, is an area known as Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province. This rugged country is known for producing China’s most mysterious tea: Pu Er.

It’s mysterious and fascinating because of the unusual method of processing, the fact that it gets better with age (20-30 year old Pu Er is smooth and expensive), its unusual molded shapes (circular rounds, bell-shapes, small nubbins shaped like small mushrooms, and rectangular bricks), and its magical ability to reduce cholesterol.

Yunnan Province is in southwest China, and its 20 million people are separated by the steep mountains that rise up sharply, similar to the famous limestone karst peaks of Guilin. Pu Er tea is named for the Pu Er area where the tea has long been traded and sold. The village markets are a fascinating scene, for unlike elsewhere in China, where most farmers dress in the same green Mao coats and yellow straw hats, one sees numerous minority peoples speaking different languages and wearing black tunics embroidered with brilliant reds and pinks. The tea they produce and sell in these markets is the mysterious Pu Er tea. Here are the facts you need to know.

After the tea is picked, it is fired in large dry woks to stop oxidation. This tea is then slowly oxidized through dry storage natural aging, or quickly oxidized through wet storage fast aging, or undergoes “wo dui” oxidation, where the tea is piled in a warm room and covered with a damp cloth.

Yunnan Pu Er (stronger tasting, good for multiple infusions)

Organic Pu Er (mild, slightly sweet tea)

Pu Er Tuo Cha (tiny nests of compressed tea)


Pu Er can be categorized as follows:
Sheng (raw, uncooked) Pu Er: Green tea is slowly aged and oxidized in dry storage. Some of this tea, called young, green Pu Er, is aged for a shorter time and then consumed.

Shou (mature) Pu Er: Green tea is oxidized quickly by piling in heaps and covering with a damp cloth in a hot room. This is the “wo dui” method, and generates heat within the pile just as piles of damp leaves do in the fall. (Another method is to store the tea in a damp room for a long period of time (called wet storage), but this often creates molds which many consider unhealthy.)

Pu Er is either pressed and steamed into molds or sold as a loose tea. The pressed tea is shaped into bricks, round “nests” or into round wheels. In recent years it’s been popular to even press Chinese words into the tea.

The processing of Pu Er tea is unique, and we wonder if it began when teas were pressed into bricks or rounds to be transported on horses long distances to Tibet and Central Asia. Along the way, the heat and dampness of the animals may have triggered an oxidation, which resulted in a smooth tea that got better with age.

Although people in Yunnan and Tibet boil pieces of tea in a pot and add milk and a little salt, you might not find that recipe very appealing. Pu Er tea can be appreciated like oolong tea by brewing in tiny teapots with very short, multiple infusions. Or you can steep in mugs or larger teapots as well. Experiment with different aged teas (10 years old is mellow, 20 years is even better!), and try different amounts of tea and steeping times. The liquor of good Pu Er tea is chestnut brown and clear (not muddy).

If you have pressed Pu Er, break off pieces of tea and steep. Some Pu Er lovers will steam the pressed tea first for about three minutes, break up the softened tea, and allow to dry for a couple of hours (in the shade) and store the loose tea in a container. Unlike most tea, Pu Er can be stored in a loose jar without losing flavor. In fact, a little air helps the tea to continue to age and mellow.

With all honesty, the flavor of Pu Er tea is definitely an acquired taste. Reminiscent of the smell of damp earth or moss, only a few will really learn to appreciate Pu Er tea. But if it really does help digestion (that’s why it’s the preferred tea served in Cantonese dim sum restaurants), and reduces cholesterol levels in your blood, it’s certainly worth giving it a try.

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