Pu-erh Tea

Puerh is the Ancient Ancestor of All Tea, and grows only in one place on the planet – Southwestern (Yunnan) China. It is historically a large leaf variety of Tea that grows as a TREE, some of which even exist today as 1000+ year-old wise elders still offering up their leaves to humanity.  Many Puerh trees 300-800 years-old are regularly harvested in Yunnan.   The majority of authentic Puerh in the mainstream market comes from thousands of trees under 200 years of age.

These Trees grow to more than 150 feet high, and will send a tap root down as deep as the tree is high. This allows the leaves to be fed by deep Earth minerals and pure Himalayan-fed aquifers, while growing on mountains in a tropical to sub-tropical climate – adding a dense microbial atmosphere to the medicinal qualities that Puerh has at its utmost manifestation. Indeed, Puerh (and all Tea for that matter) began as a medicine reserved solely for the Emperors of China.

When one tastes a truly exceptional Puerh, one can feel the positive effects on the digestive tract, the heart and the blood system; it is as if one is tasting Immortality itself. Puerh is historically known - even now, scientifically - to aid in digestion and regulate blood pressure, among many other things. Worldwide, Puerh is still regularly used in Chinese Medicine practices to reduce dampness, detoxify the body, and for general heart and digestive health.

Puerh is often caked into disc, bowl or brick shapes to aid in the gradual aging/fermentation process, and sold in these various shapes.  Puerh is traditionally produced as a RAW tea (Sheng), then drank or put away for aging.  Sheng Puerh is a kind of Green Tea, with much more astrigency (if drunk young) or is enjoyed after at least 10 years of aging or more, having oxidized slowly (aging = fermentation) which causes the edginess of the tea to transform into a smooth malty-ness. The older the Tea, the darker the leaves and liquor. Well-aged and clean produced Sheng Tea is some of the world’s most expensive and coveted teas, commanding thousands of dollars for a single disc (Beeng) for certain vintages and productions, akin to the rare red wine collector’s market.

The newer version of Puerh (Shou) – available first in the early 1970’s - is ‘pre-fermented’ ('pile fermentation process) at the time of production, and is a dark, earthy, sweet Tea referred to in China as “Black Tea” (*see note on Black vs. Red Tea*). Most people who have tried Puerh, especially in the West, are more familiar with Shou Puerh, since it is more accessible, and widely marketed. Newly pressed cakes of Shou Puerh can be drank immediately upon production, or also stored for many years to increase depth and richness.

Newer (raw) leaves from an Ancient Tree (200 to 1000 years or older) can be drunk immediately and is enjoyed as one of the most sought recent production Chinese Teas. Conversely, newer raw leaves from YOUNG trees are much too astringent and bitter, and not recommended for drinking until aged for many years.

Authentic Aged Puerh has become so rare and so desirable, that prices for pressed cakes have skyrocketed in the past several years, and many of these rare vintages are only available through private auction. This has also led to the rise in counterfeiting of famous vintages of certain Shou Puerh productions.

Indeed, recently a (perfectly preserved) brick of Puerh discovered in a Qing Dynasty archaeological site, was sold on private auction for over a million dollars (JUST TEA!!!) Such is the state of the current Puerh Market. It’s rarity and Wonderous attributes make it one of our planet’s most valuable herbal elixirs.

Puerh Storage and the Aging Process

Shou Puerh cakes are usually drinkable whether new or aged. Aging adds body, depth and smoothness to the leaf, and brings the Puerh up to a medicinal level – if stored properly. This is one reason Puerh is often compared to Red Wine, as with age, comes ‘maturity’ and ripeness.

Proper storage and aging of Puerh is one of the ‘lost Arts of Tea’ in that very few know how to NOT damage the Tea during this process. Since Puerh is stored in breathable wrapping (often Mulberry paper) and stacked ( times 7) in Banana leaf or bamboo leaf outer wrappings for long-term storage, it is all very porous, and no foreign smells must enter; correct balance of humidity is also required. Lots of humidity will cause the Puerh to take on a “wet” taste and musty odor. Overly dry conditions will cause the Puerh to become stale and will ruin it.

In recent years, Taiwan has become a favored place to store Puerh, due to its climate and mix of mountain and sea air quality. Yunnan storage of Puerh also can yield deliciously aged Tea as well. And for some, who prefer the more ‘wet’ taste, Hong Kong has long proven to be a popular place to store Puerh.

Note on Current Puerh Market Quality – MUST READ!!!

Due to increased popularity in the last decade or more, many Puerh producers have chosen to create cuttings and cultivars from old Trees, planting rows of bushes to increase yields in an effort to meet high demands. Although this is not traditional Puerh, this new ‘form’ of Puerh has flooded the market and many people are currently confused about what is ‘authentic’ Puerh and what is becoming commonly known as ‘bush’ or plantation Puerh. From bushes, producers can only make Shou Puerh, as the leaves are no where mature enough to produce material suitable for Sheng Puerh. Much of this new generation of ‘bush’ Puerh is over-fermented and only echoes an authentic Shou Puerh from mature Trees.  In comparison tastings, one can easily tell the difference.

As with too vast a number of current Tea production in China and elsewhere, chemical fertilizers and pesticides are often used to produce this ‘bush’ Puerh to ensure high quantity harvests. Recently, a local ‘bush’ Puerh producer in Kunming guessed that roughly 90% (probably 95%) of ALL NEW PUERH on the market – especially in the last several years – is of this ‘bush’ Puerh variety. It is likely that a majority of new Puerh lovers -West or East - who’ve been drinking for years, have yet to experience an authentic Puerh made from mature Trees.

And as with many other popular items, China has also become one of the leading counterfeiters of “aged” Puerh, printing labels to look old, putting ‘time’ stamps on tea packaging to appear much older than the actual goods, or mimicking “old tea” characteristics with new tea to fool a largely unaware market. This current trend in Puerh has made sourcing authentic Tea, and especially proper, clean and REAL aged Puerh very challenging. According to this, we strive to educate our community about Puerh, and are continually sourcing Tea that has a known provenance, is properly stored, and of high quality leaf origins.

PuerhMJ Greenmountain