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Tea 101: All about Puerh tea

There’s nothing like a warm pot of silky ripe Puerh after a heavy meal or a long day. As well as being a probiotic digestive aid, it has a grounding, calming quality to it that always helps me centre and find a sense of balance again.

Let’s get the kettle on and delve into the exotic world of Puerh tea!

What is Puerh tea?

Puerh tea (普洱茶 Pu’er cha) is like Champagne in that it can only be grown in one region of the world: Yunnan, China. Essentially, it is tea made from the Puerh Assamica (大葉種 Daye Zhong) cultivar that grows in that region. Tea has been growing natively in Yunnan for thousands of years. In fact, it is said that the tea plant originated in the Sichuan-Yunnan-Myanmar region.



There are two main categories of Puerh tea: 

  1. Raw Puerh (生普洱 Sheng Pu'er) is greener and more astringent. It can be enjoyed when it is young and fresh, or after being left to age and ferment over time.
  2. Ripe Puerh (熟普洱 Shou/Shu Pu'er) is darker, earthier and more mellow, with a rich, creamy mouthfeel. 

These two types of tea are distinct because they are fermented. Ripe Puerh is fermented during processing, while raw Puerh is fermented slowly and naturally as it ages over decades. Aged Puerh is highly prized by tea collectors, and the best batches can sell for more than US$10,000 a kilo!

Personally, I am of the view that aged Puerh doesn’t necessarily taste better and the sky-high prices are driven by speculation. In truth, there are plenty of reasonably priced Puerh teas on the market that are equally as good, if not more interesting and experimental than the expensive ones.

Today, drinking fresh, green raw Puerh is a popular trend. However, we at Plantation prefer the more earthy and warming qualities of ripe Puerh. 

Puerh tea: How it’s processed

Both raw and ripe Puerh begin as a minimally oxidised 'unfinished tea' (毛茶 mao cha) which is fired at a lower temperature and for a shorter duration than other types of tea, to allow heat-resistant spores to survive. It is also sun-dried for the same reason – to preserve the spores needed for fermentation.

A quick clarification between oxidation (which all teas go through) and fermentation (unique to Puerh or “dark tea”) here:

  • Oxidation: an enzymatic process where cells break down when exposed to oxygen, just like how a half-eaten apple turns brown after being left for a while.
  • Fermentation: a metabolic process that involves bacteria and microorganisms converting sugar to acids, gases and alcohol—just like for yoghurt, cheese and beer. 

After being wilted, kill-greened, rolled and dried, raw Puerh is typically steamed and pressed into round cakes for sale, to be stored in a dry place while it continues to oxidise and ferment over time. Well-aged cakes often hit eye-watering prices at auctions and are passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms.

Ripe Puerh undergoes an additional step called wet-piling (渥堆 wo dui), where the tea is piled to about a metre high, sprayed with water and covered with a thermal blanket to speed up the fermentation process. It can take between 45 and 60 days for the bacteria to break down the cell walls, after which the tea is compressed into bricks or cakes, or left loose and dried. 

Because it is so rich in microbes, ripe Puerh serves as an ideal digestive to enjoy after heavy meals or in the evening.

Ripe Puerh: a Hong Kong invention

While fermented tea has been around for centuries, ripe Puerh as we know it today only emerged in the 1960s when raw Puerh-loving Hong Kongers found a way of speeding up the fermentation process by storing their raw Puerh cakes in basements or seaside warehouses with very high humidity, so they could enjoy the flavour of a 30-year-aged tea sooner.

It was so popular that factories started experimenting with ways to ferment the tea faster, in a controlled environment. Yunnan tea producers picked up fermentation tips from dark tea producers in Liu Bao, Guangxi, and adapted them to suit Puerh’s unique microbial ecology, ending up with the wonderfully rich and earthy brew we love today.

Health Benefits of ripe Puerh tea

Puerh is the perfect cleansing tonic to help digest heavy, oily food. As a fermented tea, it is full of healthy probiotics that help improve blood sugar control. Studies have shown that Puerh tea may help synthesise fewer new fats while burning more stored body fat— which can help with weight loss.

Our collection of ripe Puerhs

We source our ripe Puerhs from the Puerh and Xishuangbanna regions in Yunnan.

Classic Ripe Puerh Tea & Tea Bar
A high quality ripe Puerh from the Puerh region with small leaves that release flavour quickly and fully, giving a rich, hearty brew with a silky texture and a satisfying earthy flavour.

Tangerine Puerh
These Puerh-stuffed tangerines are as delicious as they are nutritious. Dried tangerine peel is often used as a tonic for coughs and colds, so this is a great tea for when you’re feeling under the weather.

Rice Scent Aged Puerh
A comforting ripe Puerh with a distinctive rice scent, this tea is mellow, sweet and comforting. A tea that makes you feel at home wherever you are.

Brewing ripe Puerh tea

Ripe Puerh is very easy to brew! Because the tannins are completely broken down in the fermentation process, it doesn’t get bitter or astringent. So it’s just a matter of finding your preferred strength of flavour: use a higher temperature and/or longer steeping time for a stronger flavour, and vice versa for a lighter flavour. 

It also tends to be a very generous tea, with flavour lasting 10 to 12 infusions in a typical gongfu session!

We recommend brewing our ripe Puerhs at 98-100°C. You don’t have to worry too much about over-steeping as the flavour will be strong, but not bitter or unpleasant.

Storing your Puerh

Unlike green tea, Puerh should not be stored in an airtight container, as the ageing process requires some air flow. Both raw and ripe Puerh should be stored away from direct sunlight and away from strong smells (e.g. away from the kitchen).

Our White Ceramic Tea Canister, handmade in Dehua, an area in Fujian province famous for its Blanc de Chine white Chinese porcelain is a good option for loose Puerhs, oolongs and white teas, as it protects tea from the sun, and has a non-airtight seal.

 

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