Most Westerners have no idea what pu-erh tea is. But, if you ask almost anyone in China or the Far East, you’ll find that the tea is quite famous and highly-praised. Not only is it loved for its dark, fermented flavor, but also for having many health benefits.
Almost no scientific studies exist on pu-erh tea (pronounced “POO-air”). However, research suggests that helps to promote weight loss, lowers your risk of heart disease and may help reduce your risk of cancer.
What is Pu-Erh Tea
Pu-erh tea is known as “black tea” in China and most of the Far East. The tea originated during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) in the Yunnan province of China and named for a city in southern Yunnan. The tea plants in this region are famous for having large, soft leaves spaced wide apart on large, tough stems.
Pu-erh tea comes from the camellia sinensis leaf strain called Dayeh. It grows on ancient trees that may be as much as 1,000 years old that grow in the earth’s more temperate areas. The leaves can be picked almost the entire year but mid-spring is considered the most opportune time for harvesting.
Various environmental factors and conditions can impact the flavor profile of pu-erh teas. This results in a varied and rich experience for a tea drinker’s palate, from fruity, smooth, grassy, peaty, musky, herbal, and earthy in flavor.
The distinct flavors of pu-erh teas come from the different ways the leaves are sun-dried after the leaves have been picked. They are usually made into a base tea called maocha prior to the fermentation process. Following that, the dried leaves are then aged and packed into cakes or bricks.
Different types of teas use different methods of processing. For instance, green tea is not normally fermented; while black tea is fermented fully; and oolong tea is just partially fermented. Pu-erh tea, however, is post-fermented. This means that after pu-erh teas are fermented, they are then stored for a long period of time to lock in their strong and unique flavor.
The longer pu-erh tea ages, the stronger and smoother its flavor will be. This also creates a sweet aftertaste that many find very pleasurable and inviting. Because of this strong flavor, pu-erh teas can be steeped and then re-steeped several times without compromising the taste.
Most people who first try pu-erh tea are not used to the special aroma and flavor of the tea. The first time many try it, they find that the tea tastes very different from their usual Green tea or Oolong tea. The unique flavor of pu-erh tea develops during the pile-fermentation process (Wodui).
During Wodui, tea leaves are piled on top of one another to begin the fermentation process. The pile is than covered by a piece of fabric and saturated with water. Then, the pile is heated to speed up the fermentation process. Microbes produced during the fermentation process cause a chemical reaction, bringing the special earthy and somewhat fishy taste into the finished tea.
If it is your first taste of pu-erh tea, the taste may be confusing and, unfortunately, so unusual that some have problems accepting it. This, however, is the normal and unique flavor of pu-erh tea. It is often suggested that you begin with mini Tuo cha or loose pu-erh tea and then gradually work your way into adapting to the unusual flavor.
Types of Pu-Erh Tea
There are two major types of pu-erh tea: raw pu-erh and ripe pu-erh. Each of these different types of tea is distinguished by the way that it’s fermented. The term, raw pu-erh, refers to loose tea leaves, tea cakes, or bricks, made from raw materials without any further processing.
Raw pu-erh tea can be enjoyed immediately and is famous for having a fresh, floral, or fruity flavor. Or, when aged in a natural environment, it will achieve a smoother and a more mellow and complex flavor.
Ripe pu-erh tea offers a modern alternative to having to wait from 10 to 30 years for the raw pu-erh teas to mature. It is only then that the tea attains the aged flavor that is so popular among many Chinese.
How to Distinguish
Raw pu-erh is green in appearance and has white buds. The taste is greener or grassier with a more noticeable bitterness and astringency. The flavors, textures, and complexity of raw pu-erh tea is much greater. When raw pu-erh tea ages, it becomes darker in color, less bitter, and smoother in taste. Of course, the storage conditions play a big factor in determining how the tea develops over time.
Ripe pu-erh tea is darker in color, in terms of both the dry leaves and the soupy color. The ripe fermentation process creates a taste that is sweet, smooth, somewhat earthy and fragrant.
While ripe pu-erh tea is usually a bit cheaper than the raw variety, purchasing the cheapest version available is not recommended. Due to the nature of ripening pu-erh tea, some flavors that might be less than desirable have turned up on shelves in recent years. This can often be a normal occurrence, but most experts advise paying a little more to get a better and cleaner quality of tea.
Pu-erh may have the most varied shape of the six major species of teas, from mini Tuo cha, bricks, cakes, and gourd-shaped. It is generally thought that pu-erh teas are made into different shapes so that they can be stored more conveniently.
The different methods of storage can influence pu-erh tea’s flavor and aroma. If the tea becomes exposed to the air or is not kept completely sealed, it could change and weaken the flavor. As an example, when the tea cakes are pressed, the air is forced out creating smaller areas between the tea leaves. Therefore, the process of oxidation will slow down accordingly and it will take a longer time before the tea is ready to drink.
You will find pu-erh teas for sale online and in fine tea stores around the world. It comes in both compressed brick form and as loose leaf tea.
Caffeine Content in Pu-erh Tea
If you are worried about your caffeine intake but want to have a strong pick-me-up in the morning, forget about coffee and try pu-erh tea instead. Although the caffeine in coffee helps to give you a boost and increases your mental alertness and sharp thinking, there can be harmful side-effects when it’s consumed in large quantities.
Pu-erh tea generally has a darker color than most other teas, and that leads many to assume that it’s a stronger tea and heavily caffeinated. However, pu-erh teas have lower amounts of caffeine content compared to many other teas, including black tea.
Pu-Erh Tea vs Coffee
Try pu-erh tea instead of coffee for your morning pick-me-up. Pu-erh is similar to coffee and has a smooth, strong flavor. However, pu-erh tea contains somewhat less caffeine than coffee and therefore has fewer of the harmful side-effects.
Tea in general, especially loose teas, are a delicious and healthy alternative to coffee and all the harmful caffeine-enriched drinks on today’s market. Drinking pu-erh tea can be an excellent alternative to coffee for anyone who wants to consume smaller amounts of caffeine each day.
Health Benefits of Pu-Erh Tea
Due to the especially unique post-fermenting process of pu-erh tea, in addition to the existing nutrient levels that are inherent in the tea, there are many benefits of drinking pu-erh tea. These include reducing cholesterol, and strengthening the immune system, aiding in weight loss. Pu-erh tea is also used for improving mental alertness and to enhance one’s thinking.
Pu-erh tea helps you to lose weight by increasing the speed of your digestive process. Pu-erh tea increases your body’s speed of digestion and encourages the fat in your stomach to move faster to the colon. This gives it less time for absorption into your body. With less direct fat to feed on, your body turns to stored fat for energy and the result is that you lose weight.
Promote Healthy Heart
A Chinese study reported that drinking pu-erh tea reduced bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and prevented many obesity-related diseases. At the same time, drinking pu-erh tea also increased good (HDL) cholesterol levels that have often been associated with lowering your risk of heart disease.
Pu-erh tea contains polyphenols that help the body in eliminating free radicals and preventing new cancer cells from developing.
Even though pu-erh tea contains caffeine, drinking the tea helps reduce stress and its associated inflammatory properties. The phyto-chemicals theanine and GABA in pu-erh tea help you relax by increasing your production of melatonin. This not only helps reduce stress during the day but also aids in helping you get a better night’s sleep.
Reduce Headache and Migraine
The oxidative properties in pu-erh tea reduce your chance of having headaches and migraines by increasing you body’s blood flow and circulation. This helps reduce your chance of having headaches and migraines and even the chance of some serious illnesses.
Protects Bone Health
Pu-erh tea also contains unique microorganisms and simple sugars that help your spleen cleanse your blood and help restore your body’s essential functions. It also helps protect your bone health. The polyphenols in pu-erh tea help you develop greater bone strength and higher bone mass to minimize many serious bone conditions in later life.
Since pu-erh tea has a high level of antioxidants and vitamin C, a cup each day may help prevent illnesses like flu and the common cold. Since pu-erh tea is fermented and comes from the camellia sinesis plant, it has higher levels of these antioxidants and disease-fighting catechins than you will find in many other teas.
Side Effects of Pu-Erh Tea You Should Know
Because pu-erh tea’s processing includes both fermentation and then a long period of storage or “aging” under high humidity, it can begin to smell musty or taste stale because of mold and bacteria.
Drinking more than five cups of pu-erh tea per day can cause side effects. Even though pu-erh tea contains less caffeine than most other teas, in large amounts, caffeine can cause side effects. These can range from mild to serious headaches, sleep problems, nervousness, diarrhea, vomiting, irritability, tremors, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, heartburn, convulsions, dizziness, ringing in the ears, and confusion.
- If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, the small amounts of caffeine in pu-erh tea should not be harmful. However, don’t drink more than two cups in one day. Overuse of caffeine can cause miscarriage or harm to the baby including premature delivery and low birth weight.
- If you are breastfeeding, caffeine passes from the mother into breast milk, so nursing mothers should be especially careful to monitor their caffeine intake to make sure it doesn’t get too high. Caffeine in large amounts may be unsafe during breastfeeding. Caffeine can also cause irritability, sleep disturbances, and increased bowel activity in infants during breastfeeding.
- Do not drink pu-erh tea if you are taking amphetamines because they speed up the nervous system and can add to the effects of even the small amount of caffeine in the tea. The effect can be an increase in heart rate and possible serious problems with high blood pressure.
- Pu-erh tea can also have a negative effect if you are taking stimulant drugs such as nicotine, cimetidine, cocaine, or ephedrine. There can also be moderate interactions with adenosine, and certain antibiotics, estrogens, and medications for asthma or depression.
- Do not drink alcohol as it tends to increase the amount of caffeine from the tea to enter the bloodstream. Remember also that birth control pills can often decrease your body’s ability to break down caffeine.
Remember Your Dose
The appropriate dosage of pu-erh tea depends on many different factors such as your health, age, and other conditions. There is not enough scientific information available to determine an appropriate range of doses for most adults and humans to consume pu-erh tea. It’s always a good idea to remember that any natural product may not always be safe. Dosages can be quite important, so make sure that you follow all relevant directions on product labels. Whenever in doubt, consult your physician, pharmacist, or other healthcare professional before using any products you may be uncertain of.
How to Choose the Best Pu-Erh Tea
One of the most common questions about pu-erh tea is which one you should try. Pu-erh is not a single tea but comes in many different forms. Some are soft and sweet, others are rough and abrasive. To further complicate matters, one person’s experience may not be exactly the same as another’s. There can be different brewing parameters, different types of water used, and other factors that can affect the tea that you drink from your cup.
The easiest way to decide the pu-erh tea that’s best for you is to think about what are the kinds of tea that you already like. Do you prefer a fruity, fragrant, or floral tea or one that’s smoky or grassy? Is the texture of your tea important, or is how bitter it is or isn’t a major concern?
An easy method to get a handle on the type of pu-erh tea you’ll most likely enjoy the most, and to be sure you’re getting the best quality tea, is to go through a specialized vendor. Unfortunately, the best examples of pu-erh teas are typically not the ones that you find in wholesale catalogs or in retail stores. Large retailers or any large seller that carries hundreds of different teas will probably not be as passionate about pu-erh tea as people who either live in or travel to Yunnan several times each year to the source of the tea.
If you aren’t able to find a specialized vendor of pu-erh teas, then seek out the best one you can find and sample the product to find out if a particular vendor or producer has the taste and style of tea that suits you. If you find one you like, then that’s the one you should be drinking.
It could easily just take some time to find out which pu-erh tea speaks to you, but it will be impossible unless you invest the effort and a bit of money to get a sense of what’s out there in the marketplace. No one is going to be a better judge of what you should be drinking than you yourself.
Where Best Pu-Erh Tea is Grown
It may be helpful to learn the different regions where pu-erh tea is produced to get a more complete handle on how it is grown and produced:
This is where raw pu-erh generally tends to be fairly gentle and soft in texture. It has an especially distinct fragrance that you will immediately recognize after more experience with the tea. While it is fairly light when initially produced, it has a reputation for aging well over time.
These teas from the Yiwu region are easy to accept and are not considered bitter to most tastes. There are many villages that are famous for their teas and their high prices, but there are also many other villages that produce teas that aren’t as expensive. The tea from this area is generally considered affordable with most of the trees located just up the hill from the main town of Yiwu.
The Menghai region is considered the home of ripe pu-erh teas. Most of the tea that’s produced in the area around Menghai is used for ripe pu-erh production, but the county also includes the Bulang mountain range.
Tea that is grown within this long chain of mountains is usually considered stronger and more bitter with a smoky flavor that becomes more noticeable over time. The teas that are produced in this region will often have good potential for aging, but the taste can be a little aggressive when the leaves are young.
The raw tea grown on this individual mountain within the Puer/Simao prefecture is quite floral in nature with a scent that’s likened to the Chinese magnolia. The tea from this area will also be honey-like sweet, especially when it ages, but have a bit of a rough texture. Some drinkers love the taste while others do not, so it’s recommended that you try it for yourself and make your own decision.
The Lincang area is a large tea growing region located north of Yunnan. Although it is not as famous as some of the other areas, its reputation has been growing recently and now some of the most popular (and expensive) teas of the region are grown there.
Teas from the Lincang region will generally exhibit a higher fragrance with fruit and floral notes. These teas also tend to have a higher astringency which may for some be a disadvantage.
This is not a complete breakdown of every growing region in Yunnan, but it does cover many of the most noteworthy sub-regions and villages in the area.
Researching these regions is the best way to understand all the intricacies and variances about the areas where pu-erh tea is grown and produced. Higher prices can often be a good method to sort out the better quality teas. A vendor’s reputation for honesty and integrity is usually the best method to make the decision of which vendor to buy from.
Where to Buy Pu-Erh Tea
After you have done your research, the final question is where should you buy your pu-erh tea? If you are in a city with a highly-recommended tea shop, you may be in luck. It’s there that you will have an opportunity to taste the different types and varieties of pu-erh tea for yourself and make your own decision which one is the best to your liking.
If you must order online, then do extensive research first and read the customer reviews for every vendor you consider. Begin with a realistic budget and try to stick to it. Many of the sellers in China can be quite good, but be aware that shipping charges can be higher than you may anticipate.
The quality of teas through Amazon or eBay are reportedly variable and not the best even though they are often quite convenient. Other sources you might consider are Yunnan Sourcing, Tea Urchin, White2Tea, Liquid Proust, and Puerhshop.
Drinking Pu-Erh Tea
There can be considerable variation of tea quality from one region in China to the next. Differences between the trees, the processing, even when the tea was picked can influence the quality of what you buy. When in doubt, you may be able to find samples from some vendors and when you find a tea that’s extraordinary to your taste, order more.
Pu-erh tea is now attracting more and more attention. Enthusiasts say it is a genuinely special tea that has a rich, deep flavor that is completely different from almost all other kinds of teas. Pu-erh tea achieves these intricate flavor profiles because it is processed in such a unique way.
Pu-erh teas are complex and mature. Drinking pu-erh can actually be fun because of the immense differences between vintages, blends, and producers. Enjoy a good cup of pu-erh tea soon. Sip it slowly so that you will be able to enjoy the intricacy behind all of the many layers of flavor.