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Welcome to Puerh Tea

Welcome to Puerh Tea. This site is dedicated to providing interesting and relevant information on this unusual tea.  Puerh Tea, Puer, Pu’er, Pu’er tea, Puer or Bolay tea is a broad leaf tea traditionally harvested from wild tea trees.   While white, green, oolong, black, and puerh teas all are harvested from the Camellia sinensis plant, Puerh Tea is brewed from the leaves of Camellia sinensis var. assamica.  Puerh Tea predominantly comes from the Southern Yunnan province of China.  Puerh (pronounced POO-air) is one of China’s most famous medicinal teas and has been enjoyed for over one thousand years.

The large leaves are either oxidized (cooked) or left raw, however even raw, or green, puerh tea is briefly fired to stop enzymatic activity in the leaves.  Puerh tea is sold as loose leaf tea or pressed into cakes and other shapes.  Like wines, Puerh tea is designated by the year and production location.  The leaves of the oldest trees are most sought after.  Correctly brewed Puerh tea has a rich, earthy flavor that is in a class of its own.  It has an extremely long shelf life and, depending on the variety, may be suitable for drinking at 50 years after harvest and beyond. Properly processed, aged puerh from high quality trees can increase significantly in value over time.  In recent years, this has led to higher prices for rarer puerh teas.  However, it appears higher prices fueled by speculation have subsided for the time being.

Many medicinal properties are ascribed to puerh tea and it is believed to be suitable for people of all ages.  While the tea is frequently purchased to aid in weight loss and to combat the ill effects of excessive alcohol consumption, studies indicate that the tea can reduce blood cholesterol.

Pu-erh, Puer, Pu’er, Pu’er tea, Puer or Bolay tea

Preparation of Puerh Teas

Today’s post is on the preparation of Puerh tea.  Puerh is traditionally prepared in the context of a Gongfu tea ceremony, a set of practices dating back to the 8th century.  Compressed leaves are separated from the puerh cake using a special puerh knife and one must be careful not to crush the leaves.   The leaves are then combined with approximately 4 ounces of hot water in a small teapot made of yixing clay, also called zisha clay.   These unglazed teapots absorb the flavors of puerh teas over time and become seasoned, enhancing the flavor of the brew.

The quality of the water, the temperature of the water, and infusion time are the keys to proper preparation of puerh.  Spring water is ideal, as excessive mineral content of removal of mineral content will taint the taste of the tea.  While some recommend using boiling water, connoisseurs allow the water to cool back from a boil to at an infusion temperature ranging from 200 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit.    Lower temperatures are generally reserved for higher quality, aged teas.  Prior to infusion, the teaset is rinsed with boiling water.   Then the tea is combined with the water at a rate of one ounce of water to one gram of tea.

The first infusion lasts 10-15 seconds and is discarded to wash the tea.  While there some difference of opinion regarding steeping times, ranging from 10 seconds to 2 minutes for the second infusion, there is a general consensus the subsequent infusions from the same leaves should receive longer infusion times.  While many westerners prefer puerh prepared with longer infusion times, and Tibetans may brew their puerh overnight, shorter infusion times allow the connoisseur to better appreciate the subtle flavors that differentiate one puerh tea from another.   Let you own taste be a guide, but a dark, unpleasant brew is a sign of excessive steeping time.

Puerh Tea in the News

Tea Cellar

We Love DC has an article on afternoon teas in fancy hotels in Washington DC.  Puerh tea gets a mention as the Park Hyatt Washington’s Tea Cellar contains the biggest collection of aged puerh teas in the United States, with teas dating back to 1949.  While the cellar has over 50 teas, vintage and reserve puerh teas teas fetch prices in excess of $800 a pound. The Cellar employs a tea expert to guide guests on a taste exploration of puerh and other teas.

A traditional tea table is set Saturday and Sunday from 2:30 pm to 4:30 pm each week.

Puerh Tea – From Tree to Cup – Part 1

As discussed previously puerh tea is brewed from the leaves of Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Once the raw leaves are harvested, the leaves are predominantly processed in one of two ways: direct compression into cakes of raw Puerh tea or ripening/aging prior to compression.

In either method, the first step is to convert the leaves to a product know as raw, green, or uncooked puerh (this product is also called máochá). The harvested leaves are set out in the sun or a well ventilated area to dehydrate and wilt. To stabilize the tea, the oxidizing activity of enzymes in the leaves must be stopped. This is achieved by frying the leaves. Finally the fried leaves are dried in the sun and are rolled into strands. These processed leaves are now know as máochá and may be sold as loose leaves, pressed into cakes, or aged. Unfortunately, to achieve optimum flavor, most puerh needs to be aged or artificially ripened.

Natural aging can take ten to thirty years and requires careful storage. The aging puerh must be exposed to proper ventilation, humidity, and temperature. Each of these factors will alter the rate of the tea’s oxidation due to microbial activity on the tea and age at which the tea achieves optimum flavor. Exposure of the tea to odors or direct sunlight can taint the flavor of the tea. While pressed, raw, aged puerh is most highly prized, there is an alternative to this long aging process by direct oxidation of the tea through a composting process know as ripening.

To ripen puerh the máochá is heaped into piles and moistened to encourage microbial activity. Different microbial species thrive at different moisture levels, so proper control of pile moisture is key to the ripening process. After a ripening time of up to one year, the ripened leaves are dried for pressing.

Puerh Tea Preparation on Youtube

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This video is a little controversial.  While there is some disagreement on the technique used to prepare Pu-rh tea, this is definitely an interesting video on proper preparation.

Puerh Tea – From Tree to Cup – Part 2 – Pressing and Packaging

The pressing of Puerh tea into cakes and the aging of the tea perhaps originated in the need to transport the tea conveniently from Yunnan to Tibet and northern China and in the natural aging process that happened in tea storerooms and during transport.

While Puerh Tea is predominantly pressed into cakes, an interesting variety of additional compact shaped may be used including squares, bricks, bowls, mushrooms, and melons. Most Puerh Tea is distributed in small cakes weighing about 357 grams. Regardless of the final shape, each of these forms is created by steam-moistening the máochá or ripened tea leaves to improve cohesion prior to compressing the tea into the desired form. Occasionally, cakes are made of older leaves mixed with the current year leaves. This mixing is, unfortunately, difficult to get information about as it is considered a trade secret.

Next, the desired amount of tea is placed within a cloth and under the press. This compression can be preformed mechanically or by hand with a hydraulic or lever press. Traditionally, a large rock was used for the pressing. A small piece of paper called a Nèi fēi will also be pressed in with the tea, as a sign of authenticity that resists easy tampering. The pressed tea must be allowed to dry prior to packaging and sale.

When sold individually, each pressed cake will come in a cotton wrapper printed with information on the production location and year of production. These wrappers also sometimes include interesting artwork. As mentioned above, the cake will have an impressed authenticity paper embedded in the tea with manufacturer information. Some cakes will also include a loose flyer with additional information about the tea. Pu-erh is also sold wholesale in larger bamboo containers called tong.

Puerh Tea Hardware

Puerh tea is traditionally prepared in YiXing (pronounced ee-shing) teaware.  This teaware is made from Zisha clay that is mined from deep underground sources in Huanglongshan and Zhaozhuangshan.  YiXing teapots are left unglazed.  Without the glassy coating found on glazed pottery, the porous clay absorbs the flavor, odor, and color of the Puerh Tea that is prepared in it.  Over many brewings, these teapots are seasoned and imbue a flavor that combines the present tea and notes of previous brewings.  It is common for connoisseurs to dedicate a particular teapot to a specific flavor of tea to harmonize the flavors of the tea and the teapot. The teapots are intended for single serving use and are quite small.  Each teapot is a work of art and will often contain a chop mark of the artist that created the pot.

Surprisingly, the tea cup is a fairly recent inclusion in the traditional preparation of Puerh Tea.  Prior to 1350AD, most Chinese teas would be consumed directly from the teapot.  In the Ming dynasty the gaiwan was added to the traditional teaset and is now one of the main ways that teas, including Puerh Tea are prepared and enjoyed in China.  Each gaiwan is a matched set comprised of a saucer, bowl and lid.  Unlike the the YiXing teapot, the gaiwan is glazed to prevent the teaware from becoming seasoned or discolored over time.  The base material for a gaiwan is most often porcelain.  Because porcelain quickly distributes heat, porcelain gaiwans are excellent for aged and fine puerh preparation at lower temperatures.  The gaiwan teaset permits tea to be infused directly in the bowl and then be enjoyed from the bowl or served into tasting cups.  While gaiwans are not as good as yixing pots for most puerh teas, the glazed gaiwan can be used conveniently for the preparation of many types of tea.

Puerh tea cake breaking on Youtube

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A video showing how to break/flake Puerh tea.  The complete breaking is unusual, as one will often simply break off what is needed to make a single serving of Pu-erh tea at a time.

Puerh Tea and Science

In an article titled, Comparative Safety Evaluation of Chinese Puerh Green Tea Extract and Pu-erh Black Tea Extract in Wistar Rats, Di Wang et al found that very high doses of aged Pu-erh tea extract were safe for laboratory animals.

Pu-erh teas are believed to be beneficial beverages for health since they possess several pharmacological properties such as antioxidation, hypocholesterolemia, and antiobesity properties, but their potential toxicities when administered at a high dose as concentrated extracts have not been completely investigated. In this study, the chemical components in Pu-erh green tea and Pu-erh black tea were analyzed and compared, and the safety of tea extracts was evaluated in Wistar rats. The polysaccharide, tea pigment, and flavonoid levels were substantially increased in the Pu-erh black tea, while the polyphenol and free amino acid levels were higher in unfermented green tea. Low toxicities of Pu-erh green tea extract (GTE) were observed at doses of 2500 and 5000 mg/kg/day with a 28-day subacute study. Serum biochemical data including alanine aminotransferase increased to 5000 mg/kg/day GTE males, and creatinine (Cr) increased in all 5000 mg/kg/day GTE groups and 2500 mg/kg/day GTE males. Slight bile duct hyperplasia in the liver was also observed. The target organs of GTE were considered to be the liver and kidney. Comparatively, no adverse effects were observed in Pu-erh black tea extract (BTE)-treated rats. In conclusion, a dose of 1250 mg/kg/day for GTE and 5000 mg/kg/day for BTE following oral administration could be considered safe under the conditions of this study.

Puerh Tea and Science Part 2

In an article titled, A study on chemical estimation of Puerh tea quality, Yuerong Liang et al found that the chemical composition of infused Puerh Tea and the sensory quality of the tea are correlated.

Chemical compositions and infusion colour differences of seven puerh tea samples and their correlation to sensory quality were investigated. The results showed that the puerh tea contained 37.1 mg g-1 caffeine, 15.7 mg g-1 amino acids, 67.0 mg g-1 polyphenols and 8.41 mg g-1 total catechins, on average. Among the 17 tested volatile compounds, n-valeraldehyde was not detected. The most abundant volatile was -ionone and the next was linalool oxide II. Infusion colour analysis showed that the puerh tea had deep hue with E ranging from 66.8 to 79.2. Spearman’s linear correlation analysis showed that total quality score (TQS) of the puerh tea was significantly correlated to concentration of amino acids, linalool oxide II and infusion colour indicator E. Five components were extracted from the 34 tested indicators by principal component analysis and were regressed on the TQS to produce six Pearson’s linear regression equations for estimating sensory quality of puerh tea, among which two were statistically significant, ie TQS = 57.47 – 0.18geraniol + 0.33polyphenols – 1.14n-caproaldehyde – 1.38linalool oxide I + 0.21caffeine (p < 0.01) and TQS = 57.42-0.03Citral + 0.33polyphenols – 1.14n – caproaldehyde – 1.40linalool oxide I + 0.20caffeine (p < 0.01).