What is Pu Erh Tea?

Picture of Cup with yellow teapot and various chinese black pu-erh tea leaves on bamboo mat background
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Pu-erh tea can keep freshness for as long as fifty years, because it’s a post-fermented black tea. It was created and sold at a Chinese market in Yunnan, and may even have roots thousands of years old. After the leaves have been dried and rolled, it goes through a process just like wine, beer, or cheese where it’s left for microbes to develop its rich flavor.

The Long History of Pu-Erh

Thousands of years ago in the Yunnan province of China, pu-erh tea was sold from Pu’er City. It’s a large leaf that grows on Dayeh trees -some trees are even said to be 500 to 1,000-years old -and are harvested mid-spring, but can be harvested all year.

Authentic pu-erh tea is grown on these trees in warm regions in Yunnan, and this origin and tea has a rare protection by the Chinese government -although knock-off pu-erh does run rampant. 

Pu-erh dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty (years 618-907), the Ming Dynasty, and was finally popularized during the Qing Dynasty (years 1644-1912). The transportation from Pu’er City on horseback to these locations and other regions of the world would sometimes take months along routes named the Tea Horse Roads.

Fun Fact: The oldest pu-erh, The Golden Melon Tribute Tea, was sent to the emperor of Beijing 150 years ago.

Pu-Erh Now

If pu-erh tea is pulled out of the cabinet for a gathering nowadays, there may be a few ‘oo’s’ and ‘ah’s’ from those there, because of the rising attraction to the drink made by mainstream media.

So, why is it so popular today? Just think about how long some of the best pu-erh have aged to its amazing flavor by now. If leaves were picked, dried, and fermented nearly 50 years ago, then it would be delicious in our year today.

Many of the pu-erh from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s are still out there, but those between 1920 and 1960 are believed to have all been purchased or used during 2008 when the market surged for it.

How the Process Impacts Flavor

During transportation on the Tea Horse Roads the tea would age and ferment from Pu’er City, and would improve the flavor and health properties of it by the time it got to its destination. Pu-erh needs to be stored properly in order for it to ferment correctly. Farmers and sellers would pack the leaves into tight bricks or different shapes to make for easier distribution -and this also helped the natural fermentation alter the dark color and taste.

Depending on the temperature it’s grown, how long it’s been aged for, and where it was aged will result in its flavor being earthy, sweet, or bold flavor.

The Raw Process

There are two ways to find pu-erh tea: raw or cooked. This matters on the processing amount from the time the leaves are picked to the time they are aged.

For the raw process to begin the leaves are picked and left to ferment in a large pile -usually in a room or the outside. Then the leaves are partially fried in a pan of sorts to stop the bacteria enzyme from developing, but not enough to dry them out. After lightly rolling and kneading the tea like dough, it’s stored in a dry area with enough moisture for oxidation to happen.

After that, the tea is ready to be pressed into its shape, often called a cake. Pressing pu-erh into a tight formation allows the fermentation and longevity of the tea to last.

Young, aged, and ripe

There are a few options to get the raw leaves: young raw, aged raw, and ripe. Young looks similar to green tea, and is aged under three years. It has a sweet, fruity flavor and aroma -and is often bitter.

Meanwhile, aged raw pu-erh requires just the right amount of heat and humidity to get it to its final earthy, wood-like flavor. This can come from the range in the aging process from seven year to 30 years.

The ripe version is left in its moist compost-like pile for months in the heat, which leads to a deep, dark flavor. In the 70’s these leaves were cooked to escalate production to at least 40 days. After withering, the leaves are mixed with a culture of bacteria to mimic the rest of the fermentation process. Instead of taking decades to mature, it would only take mere months. 

Brewing Technique

Steeping pu-erh can be done in any teapot or cup of choice, but it’s usually done in small teapots with a large Tbsp of pu-erh brewed in every 8oz of water. More leaves will result in a richer texture.

When taking the tea out of a cake, it can be easily poked out with a knife or spoon. The cakes should be re-wrapped and kept from other odors.

After that, the leaves can be separated slightly before adding them into a pot. If measuring to the perfect quantity, try about 7g of pu-erh per 150mL of water, or 5g per 100 mL.

Whichever canister is used, the water should be brought to 205 degrees Fahrenheit. The leaves are to be quickly rinsed in order to bloom and awaken the flavors, and after immediately removing the rinsed water, it’s best to let the leaves sit for 10 seconds before adding another bout of 205 degree water.

Pu-erh is best when steeped for short amounts of time -up to 15 seconds -but can be brewed numerous times. Some pu-erhs can be steeped for up to 12 rounds in one sitting. Each time the pu-erh is brewed it develops another layer of soothing flavor, richness, and scent.

Caffeine Intake

Due to the long fermentation process, most of the caffeine is broken down and destroyed the older the pu-erh gets. Also, depending on how long the tea is steeped for it’ll gather a higher caffeine amount, but will lessen each time it’s steeped.