Aged Pu’er Tea (Pu’erh/Pu-erh/Pu-er)
What is aged tea and why do we pay premium prices for it? While you can age many kinds of tea, pu’er is by far the most sought-after and the one we’re asked about most. It also happens to be one of our favourites, so we’ve decided to shed some light on Yunnan’s prized possession.
To begin, it’s important to note that there is a BIG difference between aged tea and just plain old tea. Similar to wine, some young teas are chosen for their ability to age well and improve tremendously with time, while others simply grow old and stale and are just not worth drinking. Provided the quality of the tea is good to begin with and conditions are properly monitored, most oolongs, pu’ers and black teas can all age quite well.
Aged Pu’er: The Process
Pu’er is created from máochá, a mostly unoxidized green tea processed from a large leaf variety grown in the Yunnan province of China. Pu’er is typically made in 2 steps.
- First, the leaves are roughly processed into maocha to stop oxidation (sheng/raw).
- From there it may be further processed by fermentation (ripe), or directly packaged.
Note: This process can be expedited today. Mass-producers can convert máochá into ripened pu’er by manipulating conditions to approximate the result of the aging process with prolonged bacterial and fungal fermentation in a warm humid environment under controlled conditions, a technique called Wò Dūi, invented in 1973.
The takeaway here is that aged pu’er requires intense microbial fermentation after the leaves have been dried and compressed, hence “post-fermented tea”. Vintage aged pu’er that has been left to age naturally is the most highly regarded of the pu’ers.
People really go nuts for this stuff, and it’s not just because of its uniquely deep and earthy flavor. (Not that we should, or even can, generalize puer’s flavor – its profile is vast and varying, and is in a constant state of change. As you chip away at the cake over time, no two brews will taste the same. But, provided the tea is of high quality, you can usually expect a super-smooth tea with minimal astringency).
So what’s the big deal?
What if we told you proper aged pu’er could also get you proper drunk? This is no joke. Apparently, “pu’er drunk” is a very real thing, and people buy kilos of the stuff and have day-long brewing sessions, blissing out (and probably peeing a lot). Somewhat ironically, it is also known for counteracting the nasty side effects of heavy alcohol consumption, so make sure to keep some around for the holidays. Or just skip the booze and chug pu’er instead!
But wait, the narrative doesn’t end there. Taste and buzz aside, pu’er has a rich history and is deeply rooted in Chinese culture – both old and modern – making it something of a cult product.
Pu’er Boom and Bust
In the early ’90s, at the start of China’s economic upswing, a revival of old, tea-drinking traditions was witnessed. Pu’er, with its artisan aging process and strong link to Chinese history, became of particular interest to tea connoisseurs and eventually, to wealthy Chinese investors. The sudden interest in pu’er tea revived tea production in Yunnan, and the beverage was marketed as “the essence of rural virtue” – in effect, liquid nostalgia. As China’s economy boomed in the 2000s, eager investors latched on to pu’er, this “drinkable antique”, which was sure to add to their portfolio and general image of refinement.
However, the sudden interest in pu’er came with mounting concerns about food safety, as “modern” tea production embraced use of pesticides and generally unsustainable farming practices to meet the rising demand. By 2006-2007, investors triggered a “pu’er boom”, causing prices to skyrocket and the market to be flooded with poor quality tea. Eventually this led to a crash, causing pu’er prices and sales to plummet for several years before normalizing again.
Today, the production of pu’er has mostly returned to the old revered, artisan approach. Farming practices in Yunnan are more regulated and environmentally conscious, prices have increased again – though nowhere near boom prices – and sales are modest. Basically, all is good in the tea world again and everyone should be drinking pu’er with absolute abandon.
Other teALCHEMY products that also contain pu’erh tea:
- Detox Tea
- Double Black Diamond
- Velvet Touch
- Double Black Diamond
- Velvet Touch