Exploring Pu-Erh

Last year I posted about starting to learn more about Pu-erh. I posted several reviews but kept putting off my summary article until I just gave up. I saw my old post the other day and thought I should finally write it up!

What is Pu-Erh?

The short answer I used to give was “fermented tea.” That’s mostly true, but that description refers mostly to only one of the two types of Pu-Erh. A more correct answer would probably be “aged tea.”

There actually are lots of different variations of Pu-Erh tea, but they are all aged, and fall into two categories: “Raw” and “Ripe.” Technically, they are both also fermented, but one is actively fermented, and one undergoes a much slower natural fermentation as it ages over many years.

Flavor-wise the two varieties differ quite a bit, but typically provide a full amount of caffeine, similar or more than a cup of black tea. They also both have a lot of complexity due to the aging or fermenting process.

Ripe Pu-Erh

This is what I thought all Pu-erh tea was prior to my research last year. It’s easier to produce and takes less time, so it is usually cheaper. Ripe Pu-Erh was invented in the 1970s and involves manually fermenting or “cooking” the tea. This is done by piling the tea in large piles, wetting it, and covering it. This causes the temperature to rise and microbial activity to increase, which ferments the tea faster. This fermentation adds a lot of complexity to the tea as well as earth flavors. It also can give it quite a pungent smell, which I why I usually describe it as “stinky tea.” If you are familiar with gardening it is essentially a partially composted pile of tea leaves. Once it has reached the proper fermentation, the tea is packaged and often pressed into bricks or rounds.

Last time I checked all the Pu-erh tea at adagio.com was ripe Pu-erh. This also explains why it was all I thought Pu-erh was for a long time as that was where I first started ordering it.

My Ripe Pu-Erh Reviews:
Fengqing Golden Buds Ripened Pu-erh Cake Tea 2013
Ripened Cube Toucha Pu-erh Mini Brick (2006)
Fuding Shou Mei White – 2011
Ripened Aged Pu-Erh Mini Tuocha
Pu Erh Spice
Pu Erh Dante
Pu Erh Chorange

Raw Pu-Erh

“Raw” Pu-erh is a tea that is picked and processed, but then packaged into round bricks of tea and left to dry and age naturally. It does undergo some fermentation, but not the harsh and rapid transformation or Ripe Pu-erh. It is often aged for many years, from what I saw shopping around is at least 5 years before it is sold. That is certainly the minimum though, with some tea not being sold until it has aged 10, 15 even 25 years! This tea had less of the pungent aroma and typically doesn’t have the dark earthy tones of ripe Pu-erh.

My Raw Pu-Erh Reviews:
10-year aged Raw Pu Erh Brick
Fengqing Ancient Tree Raw Pu-erh

A Complication?
One thing to note is that Pu-erh is also a region, located in the southern Yunnan province. Like French champaign and Kentucky bourbon, the region claims that only Pu-erh coming from that region is Pu-erh tea. I don’t really have an opinion on that, but it did make learning about the tea a little tricky sometimes, so I thought I would mention it.

An Introduction to Pu Erh

Last week I reviewed Pu Erh Chorange, which was the first time in a long time I had made any Pu Erh tea. It’s something I tried once a long time ago, didn’t really care for and then moved on. About two years ago though, I started to get into drinking it again and picked up a sampler from Adagio with a few different varieties, and really liked most of them. If you are unfamiliar with it, it is a tea whose leaves are allowed to ferment, giving it a lot of character (and “aroma”)

I’ve been struggling with what to write about here other than just reviewing teas, and think that Pu Erh might be an interesting topic to explore, so I will be focusing on it for the next few weeks. I’ll be reviewing some more samples I have and hitting up my local tea shops to hopefully find a few more. I’ll also explain how the tea is made and maybe a little bit of the culture behind it. (What can I say, I get excited about weird things sometimes.)  I’ll be updating this post with links as I write so it can be a starting place for anyone interested in learning more about Pu Erh.

Pu Erh Chorange – 3.5/5

Image  Source

Green, Black, Red – What’s the difference?!?

The most common questions I get from people are about the different kinds of tea. What is the difference between green and black tea? What is white tea? Have you ever heard of red tea?  It seems to be a fairly universal question, so I thought I would try to tackle it.   Below is a summary of some of  the most common types of tea: black, oolong, green, white, herbal, red, and mate.

Before I get into the types of tea, I should probably explain the difference between “true” tea and herbal teas (tisanes).  All of the “true” teas (black, oolong, green, white) come from the same plant: camellia sinensis.  That’s usually pretty surprising to people given the differences in look, smell, and especially taste of the different types, but its true!  What separates the types of tea is how they are harvested and processed, as well the area they are grown in.  With that out of the way, here we go:

Black Tea

This is probably what most people think of when they picture tea.  It makes a dark brown, slightly reddish, liquid when brewed, and is the tea with the highest caffeine content.   It is the most heavily processed (oxidized) of the traditional teas and is the usual culprit for many people associating tea with a bitter aftertaste.  It typically has dark, roasted, or earthy flavors, and is brewed at the highest temperature (≈212 degrees) of all of the teas.   Because of its strength, it is often served with creme and sugar similar to coffee.  It’s most popular in European countries, and is also probably the most popular in the US. It’s other claim to fame is that it is traditionally used as the base for most iced tea.  Popular varieties you may have heard of are Earl Grey and English Breakfast.

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is relatively unknown in the West compared to the other teas, although it has gained some ground with its reputation as a “slimming tea” that helps with weight loss.  It is also oxidized in preparation, although the amount of processing varies greatly based on the variety.  It typically will have a blend of the grassy sweet flavors of green tea with the darker roasted flavors of black tea, with one or the other coming through stronger based on how long it was processed.  It is prepared between 180 and 212 degrees, and has a moderate amount of caffeine.

Green Tea

Green tea is a relatively well known tea.  If has a moderate amount of caffeine, and gets its name from the color of its leaves as well as the brewed liquid, which varies from green to a light greenish yellow.  It is very popular in Asian countries and there are a multitude of varieties.  It’s taste is typically a smooth, grassy, slightly sweet flavor and it is often paired with fruit.  It is prepared at a moderate temperature (≈180 degrees) typically for between 3-5 minutes.

White Tea

Another of the lesser known teas, white tea is the least caffeinated and is also processed the least.  White tea comes from the youngest buds and leaves of the tea plant. It gets its name from the young buds which often still have silver-white hair on them, which are not seen on other teas. White tea has very subtle flavors, often lightly sweet or grassy. Like green tea, it is prepared at a lower temperature (170-180) but for a longer time (5-7 minutes) than green.

Herbal Tea

Herbal tea, also called tisanes, is a catch all category for any tea-like drink not made from the camellia sinensis plant.  It can contain a variety of things, including fruits, herbs, spices, flowers, and other unique plants.  Some forms of herbal tea you may have heard of that are popular in the West are jasmine or chamomile tea.  Some forms of this tea, most notably rooibos and mate tea, are well known in their own right, but are still technically herbal teas. Appearance, flavors, steeping temperatures, and times all vary greatly with the different varieties of herbal tea.  Many are caffeine free and are used as a relaxing drink.

Red Tea (Rooibos)

Red tea is a little tricky, becasue in the far east, black tea was traditionally referred to as red tea.  Typically in the West however, red tea refers to an herbal tea: rooibos (pronounces ROY-bos).  Rooibos gets it’s name from the Afrikaans word meaning “red bush”  It comes from a small bush native to South Africa has been a very popular drink there for centuries.  It doesn’t contain caffeine, and produces a red liquid when brewed.  It tastes similar to black tea, with a little bit more sweetness.  It can be served with milk or sugar, although it traditionally is served with a slice of lemon and sugar or honey.

Mate Tea

Mate tea is a herbal tea that originates from South America, most notably Argentina and Uruguay.  It is one of the few herbal teas that contains caffeine and is known for being an “invigorating” drink.  It has distinct earthy flavor, but is also sweeter than most traditional teas.  In South America it is traditionally enjoyed from a gourd with the leaves still in it, through a filtered straw called a “bombilla.”

Book: The Way of Tea

The Way of Tea

The Sublime Art of Oriental Tea Drinking
by Master Lan Kam Chuen

This is my first book review, so please bear with me, and any feedback is always appreciated!

In search of a way to learn more about tea and its history, the first book I chose was “The Way of Tea” by Master Lan Kam Chuen.  Overall I found it to be a good introduction to tea, and I learned a lot that I didn’t know before.  The book was broken into four sections: Tea Story, Cultivating Tea, Tea Time, and Healing Teas.

Tea Story was all about the history of tea and how it became to be so popular.  This was an interesting section that went into the basic history and lore of tea without getting into so much detail that it felt like I was reading a history textbook.  It deals primarily with China but also included sections detailing the various tea customs from other areas like Korea, Thailand, and Russia.  It also has a fairly short section on how the tea trade grew in popularity in Europe.  I really liked all of the pictures of ancient artifacts and paintings here.

The second section, Cultivating Tea, deals with the different types of teas and how they are prepared.  This was probably my favorite section.  It begins with an overview of the tea plant itself (Camellia Sinesnsis).  It also has a detailed section about the process of preparing tea, both historically and today.  It concluded with a fairly detailed explanation of the differences between the types of tea (green vs. black etc).

The third and fourth sections were only of passing interesting to me.  the third dealt with the traditional “Kung fu” tea ceremony that many practice when drinking tea, and included detailed instructions.  This was kind of neat to page through, but I had no real interest in trying to learn how to do this.  The fourth section is an overview of different herbal teas and what types to drink for certain ailments.  While I don’t discount the possibility that some of these may work, it isn’t a subject I am overly interested in right now.

Overall, I thought this was a good book.  It provides a nice introduction to tea culture and history without getting so heavy that it isn’t fun to read.  The illustrations and photographs were awesome, and I would recommend you at least page through it to see some of them.

Well that’s it – my first book review on teageek.org, let me know what you think!

(Teageek.org Founder)

Book Reviews

Besides drinking tea, one of the things that I wanted to do this year was learn a little more about tea – its history, how its prepared, what the differences are between the different types, etc.  Along those lines I am planning on reading a few books about tea and thought that I would share my thoughts on them.  If you know of any good ones, be sure to let me know in the comments.  Right now I am reading The Way of Tea and should be done soon.  Hopefully will have the first one up within a week or so.

-brent swisher (Teageek.org Creator)