Pu'er Tea

A History of Pu’er Tea

For a tea that has been around for thousands of years in China—originating along The Silk Road and dating back to the Eastern Han Dynasty—Pu’er remains a unique and sought after tea in both eastern and western markets. Reaching peak popularity in the Qing Dynasty, it continues to be a desired tea for its ease of transport and ability to improve with age. Through a tasting of eight Pu’er tea varietals, Rishi Tea & Botanicals treated us to an informative presentation on the history & processing of Pu’er tea and best practices for tea buying, storing and brewing!

rishi tea demonstrating

The Unique Aging of Pu’er Tea

Over the years of harvesting Pu’er farmers found that the leaves improved as the tea fermented with time, or fermented through the roasting process, which increased its popularity. The aging capabilities of the tea trees deep in the jungles where Pu’er is found also impacted the desire for the tea. Some trees are said to be thousands of years old and still produce a great amount of leaves. Unlike grape vines that yield less grapes as they age, tea trees maintain their ability to yield a solid amount of leaves thousands of years later.

Pu'er teaPu’er belongs to the category of “dark teas” in the west, and “black teas” in China. It can be confusing as teas that are considered “black teas” in the west are actually referred to as “red teas” in China. It’s clear though that Pu’er is best categorized in the dark tea group as these teas are also known as “aged,” “vintage” or “post-fermented.”



Harvesting & Processing Pu’er Tea

Map of ChinaPu’er tea can be made and categorized in two different ways, but it must be from the large-leaf Assamica variety of the Camellia Sinensis tea plant and made in the Yunnan province of China to be named Pu’er. The Sheng category of Pu’er means that the tea is “green,” “raw,” or “uncooked.” The second category,  Shou, is also known as “black,” “cooked,” or “ripened.” Both of these will go through the normal tea production process of picking the leaves, rolling & forming by hand or machine, sun-drying, steaming, and shaping the leaves.

The only difference between the two categories is that Shou has an extra step of “cooking” the leaves, which means to pile them and help in the fermentation process. This process breaks down the enzymes naturally, which creates heat and helps to “cook” the leaves, in turn adding a different dimension to each cup of tea.

loose tea leavesAfter the entire process is completed for either category, the tea leaves can be left as loose leaves or shaped into different forms—most commonly a tea cake—which makes it easier to transport. After 3 months, Pu’er tea can be brewed for drinking, but additional years of aging will allow the tea to develop its uniquely aged flavor.

Similarly to the importance of terroir for wine, each cup of tea reflects the terroir of where it came from. Terroir can greatly impact flavor in tea as tea leaves soak up anything from its environment. When it comes to Pu’er tea, each farmer and estate has a different way of producing the tea based on millennium old traditions, location, harvest time, how long the leaves were “cooked” for—or if they were at all—and so on. The aging and fermentation process can also impact the flavor and impart different depths to each cup and brew of tea. Tea leaves are sensitive to any change in environment, so anything can really impact the flavor of the tea.

Tips to Buying, Storing and Brewing Your Pu’er Tea

Buying your tea from a trusted source is vital to the quality and consistency of Pu’er tea. Similarly to how Champagne can only come from one region in France, only Pu’er tea from the Yunnan province can be called Pu’er. It’s important to buy from a source that is trustworthy in order to ensure that what you are buying is actually Pu’er.

It is also extremely important to purchase organically-made teas. In the same way that the quality is vital, organically-made teas are shockingly harder to find, but necessary. As tea can (and does) soak up anything from its environment, if the tea is not organic, it will absorb pesticides and harmful substances that is then brewed directly into your cup.A student drinking tea

Storing your Pu’er tea in a cool, odor free and dry location will prolong the life and quality of your tea. Leaving your tea exposed to air is harmful to the tea and can make it oxidize faster—although this can add flavor, it will shorten your tea’s life—so be sure to repackage your tea after each use. It is also important not to touch the leaves frequently with your hands—using a tea pick or a measuring spoon is best practice.

Each Pu’er tea that you buy will be different, so the temperature to brew, steep time, and so on will vary. When brewing your Pu’er tea, consult with your tea shop beforehand to brew correctly.

Rishi TeaA special thanks to Rishi Tea & Botanicals for sharing their vast knowledge on Pu’er Tea. They are the largest importer of certified organic specialty Green, White, Black and Pu’er teas from Yunnan, China in the USA, so be sure to check out their online store here.

The Exploration of Tea with Rishi Tea

Written by: Vanessa Da Silva
ICC Wine Studies Coordinator
Certified Sommelier

Justin, a self-described crazy person (when it comes to tea) has spent the last 2 decades not only sourcing some of the finest teas in the world but also, painstakingly retracing the historic roots & practices which have shaped the tea trade over the last 1,200 years! Justin, along with Keiko Nicolini & an entourage (truly) of trained tea enthusiasts, walked us through the cultivars & techniques of these rare & artisanal teas at a recent demo in ICC’s New York campus.

There are so many things we overlook when considering tea. Here are 5 teas that will make you thirsty:

Woojun Green Tea, South Korea – This tea is crafted in South Korea by Mr. Lee Chang Yung & his family. This is the first young leaves that are picked for the season, and Mr. Yung hand fires the tea leaves in a wok in small batches to bring out all of their beautiful fresh aromas. This tea, picked just in mid-April, was bursting with fresh spring flavors of grass & just bloomed fresh white flowers.

White Peony King Organic White Tea, Fujian province, China – Rishi was Organic, long before the USDA Organic seal came into play in 2002. They have built their career on sourcing from environmentally responsible tea farms across Asia. This White Peony King was described as the “Grand Cru of tea” and it well delivered. The tea was smooth & delicate with aromas of magnolia, hints of honey, and a savory saline quality full of umami.  It’s a generally overlooked fact that white tea is the ‘freshest’ of teas. With very minimal processing, most white teas are just allowed to dry out to fully express their pure & delicate flavors.

Four Seasons Spring Oolong Tea– As the name suggests, this tea produces leaves at least 4 times yearly always offering a fresh ‘spring’ taste.  Within this category, we tasted two teas of the same cultivar (variety), made in the same way, but one grown in Taiwan & the other in Thailand. Now, we wine-enthusiasts are very familiar with tasting notes in wine & the idea of ‘terroir’; however, I had no idea that Tea could show similar variations based on where they are grown. These two blew me away. The Taiwan-grown tea (where this variety originated) was incredibly fresh reminding me of hydrangeas, fresh lychee fruit, and white raspberries.  In contrast, its Thai counterpart, showed a distinct nuttiness of toasted almond skin, along with bright sweet basil & sage. The comparison was a big eye opener & finding two Oolongs to compare could be a lot of fun!

Vintage Ancient Pu-erh Palace Organic Pu-erh Tea, Yunnan province, China – This tea was another eye-opener as the concept of vintage tea is completely new to me. Pu-erh teas are among the few that benefit from long-term aging, a minimum of 2-years is required before they are suitable for drinking as the teas are fermented and need to mellow out. These teas were from the Menghai Broad Leaf cultivar and we tasted the 2012 and 2009 vintage. The 2012 (just 5 years old) was strong and tannic with notes of bittersweet chocolate; whereas, the 2009 (now over 8 years old) was smooth and luxurious with notes of dark roasted coffee, cocoa, and black cherry.

Flowery Jin Xuan, Organic Oolong Tea, Doi Mae Salong, Thailand – There were so many dynamic Tea throughout the day, it was difficult to narrow down to just 5, but this was a personal favorite. This ball-rolled Oolong is oxidized to give a greenish-golden hue. It has a beautifully silky mouth-feel that made it seem almost milky (which is why this cultivar is often referred to as ‘Milk Oolong’. The tea was pleasant & smooth and smelled exactly of fresh blooming lilacs, which brought me right back to my childhood in rural Maine.

In addition to all of this, we learned that it takes around 35,000 tea leaves (each plucked by hand) to make just 1 kilo of dried tea!

The passion & expertise from the team at Rishi was infectious around the room, I heard question after question from our graduates being met with enthusiasm. It is clear that this is merely scratching the surface in what is becoming an area of interest in more & more restaurants.