Whether you are ready to explore the most fascinating of Chinese teas, have heard people talk about how healthy it is, or just want to know the difference between a sheng and a shu, this post is all about pu erh!
What is Pu Erh?
Pu erh (pronounced “pooh-air”) is fermented tea. It is only produced in China, in a southwestern providence named Yunnan. Pu erhs are unique in the tea world because they can be aged. The year of a “vintage” pu erh impacts its value. It can be sold in loose-leaf form or compressed into different shapes, including bricks, coins, tuochas, or round cakes wrapped in paper.
After the Camellia sinensis tea leaves are plucked, they are pan fried, which reduces the enzymes but does not eliminate them. The leaves may be dried either in the sun or under sheets. Both methods cause bacteria to grow that change the flavor and quality of the tea, known as fermentation. The particular fermentation process determines the type of pu erh, as discussed later.
The pu erh market is a world unto itself. Similarly to wines, the aging and fermentation process affects a pu erh’s perceived value, as does the area in which the tea is produced. Add to that the visual appeal and packaging opportunity of cakes, bricks, and the like, and you’ve got an obsession in the works. The very highest end pu erhs, which are rarely available outside China, attract collectors and connoisseurs who are quite particular about what makes a good tea and what doesn’t. Some of the rarest pu erhs have even been counterfeited.
Me, I just think pu erhs are fascinating. I’ve never tasted anything quite like them before or since, and their array of unique flavors – earthy, mossy, mineral – embody the reason I think tea is way cooler than people often realize. They’re the tea you wouldn’t expect to like, but they’re amazing.
Types of Pu Erh
There are two types of pu erh tea: raw and ripe. (They’re sometimes called “uncooked” and “cooked,” but that’s a misnomer. There’s no cooking in the process.) Although they fall under the same class of tea, their qualities are almost opposite.
Raw Pu Erh (Sheng)
A raw pu erh, known as a sheng, is is the older of the two varieties of pu-erh.
- Naturally fermented through sun drying process
- Flavors/aromas can be very complex, but are generally bright, clean (closer to green tea)
- Grassy, floral, vegetal, mineral
- Liquor is usually some shade of yellow
Shengs, considered the “true” pu erhs by many purists, are what the collectors and connoisseurs are obsessed with.
Ripe Pu Erh (Shu)
A ripe pu erh, or a shu, is a VERY recent innovation from about 1973. All pu erhs from before then are raw.
- Artificially fermented after drying and rolling.
- Piling – leaves are piled on the ground, sprinkled with water, and covered with sheets
- Flavor/aroma generally deep, smooth (closer to black tea)
- Earth, moss, stone fruit, malty, sweet
- Inexpensive shus can smell like fish – rinse leaves (see How to Prepare) to fix this!
- Liquor is very dark red or brown
Experts say that the best pu-erhs, which are difficult to find in the West, don’t taste earthy at all. Personally, I adore a shu that tastes like earth and damp moss. It sounds bizarre, but it’s one of the most fascinating teas I’ve ever had (and I’ve seen non tea-drinkers say the same after trying one!)
Why Drink Pu Erh?
It doesn’t taste like the name sounds. I promise. Actually, pu erhs have unique, full-bodied flavors that I haven’t found anywhere else. Raw pu erhs can be fresh and cleansing, and ripe pu erhs can be deep and comforting.
Need a coffee substitute? Because of their thick, smooth flavor ripened pu erhs are often said to make good coffee substitutes. Personally, I don’t think they taste like coffee at all, BUT they’re delicious, robust, and quite caffeinated without causing the jitters.
…It helps you lose weight? Many sources claim that pu erh, when consumed after meals, aids weight loss because its enzymes increase the speed of digestion and reduce fat retention. While there are studies to support this, I’m going to repeat that tea is always a supplement to a healthy lifestyle. (I’m also going to repeat my dieter’s tea warning. However, that’s not a problem with most pu erhs so much as stuff like this.)
How to Prepare
Rinse the leaves before steeping. To do this, pour hot (preferably near boiling) water over the dry leaves, let it sit for ten seconds, and pour the water out. A lot of people are turned off by their first pu erh because the leaves were not rinsed. My bitter sheng and fishy-tasting shu improved tenfold after I rinsed the leaves!
Measurement: 1.5 tablespoons (10 grams if you’re cutting from a cake or brick – they’ll often come with a little knife)
Water temperature: 200º – boiling
Steep time: 3 – 5 minutes, can go up to 10. Pu erhs are MUCH more forgiving of long steeps than many teas. They can also be resteeped.
Where to Buy
It’s much easier finding good pu erhs in China than in the United States, since not all American vendors offer pu erh. However, here are some places to start.
Adagio (has some surprisingly good flavored blends)
Arbor Teas (organic and fair trade options)
Butiki Teas (permanently closing, but selling their stock and have some good options)
Teavivre (based in China, but they ship worldwide)
What Everybody Ought to Know About Pu Erh Tea (a very detailed article with lots of pictures)
Intro to Pu’Er: An Investor’s Guide to Sheng (Written for a far more serious tea investor than I will ever be, but it’s a nice introduction to just how complex and varied pu erhs can be.)
Love pu erhs? Loathe ’em? Tell me in the comments below!