Once you start exploring teas and trying different kinds, you’ll undoubtedly encounter Pu-erh Tea. And while the name sounds foreign (especially compared to “green” tea) and the taste can be a bit off-putting at first, there is lots to love about pu-erh tea.
Here are five basic things to know about pu-erh to help you feel a bit more knowledgeable and hopefully encourage you to try a cup.
1. Pu-erh Tea can actually taste good
When you first drink pu-erh tea, particularly if it’s an aged or shu pu-erh, it can taste musky, woodsy, or even almost like dirt. And, granted, some people like this taste. But if your more delicate palette is looking for something softer, sweeter, more floral, or fruitier, there are pu-erhs to suit you, too. But don’t look for them down the tea aisle at your Asian grocer–those are going to largely be the pu-erh teas that give it a bad taste reputation.
Instead, seek higher quality and look for raw (or sheng) pu-erh teas. Raw pu-erh tastes more like green tea, and is more subtle on the earthy notes. This is where you’ll get more of the light, vegetal, and floral flavors you’re used to as a tea drinker. You may even notice some sweetness to it.
If you like something with a bolder flavor and heartier mouth feel more reminiscent of coffee, that’s when you look for an aged pu-erh. Again, better quality will lend more complex flavors, such as cocoa, mushroom, or umami.
(For more on the taste comparison between raw and ripe pu-erh, watch this video)
I think pu-erh tea is a great accompaniment to meals, and is particularly enjoyable after a heavy meal (more on that below). You might need to try a few to find one that you really like. For a lighter flavor, try steeping the pu-erh tea for a shorter time or doing a cold brew. Alternatively, you could look into pu-erh plus herb blends to help round out the flavors.
2. Pu-erh Tea only comes from Yunnan
The name pu-erh comes from the Pu’er region in China’s southwestern Yunnan province. Because of this regional origin, technically only tea coming from this area can be called pu-erh tea. Tea made in a similar style but from Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and elsewhere, should not be called pu-erh, but rather “dark tea” (hei cha) or fermented/aged tea.
The Yunnan producers of pu-erh tea are attempting to enforce their regional naming rights similar to champagne from the Champagne region of France. As with the sparkling wine, climate, soil, growing conditions, and other subtleties all affect the final outcome of the product. Therefore, to get authentic Pu-erh, check that it comes from Yunnan.
3. Pu-erh Tea is fermented
All tea is oxidized. Only pu-erh (and other dark teas) are fermented. Tea, even white tea (though only very briefly), begins oxidizing immediately upon picking. This is an enzymatic reaction that happens when the leaves are severed from the plant, just as an apple turns brown when cut. When tea is fully dried, the oxidation process stops.
Fermentation happens to pu-erh because instead of being dried completely, it is partially dried, and then the slightly damp leaves are left in the humid climate of Yunnan. With raw pu-erh, the damp leaves are left to ferment briefly by the natural bacteria in the air (a process similar to making sauerkraut). With aged (or cooked) pu-erh, the leaves are piled and heat is applied to accelerate the fermentation and aging process. This process may be repeated to further the aging of the tea. Afterward, the teas are finally dried, ending both the fermentation and oxidation processes.
Fermentation changes some of the properties and compounds present in pu-erh tea, while still retaining many of the original catechins, polyphenols, and caffeine that have made green tea the darling of the health world.
4. Pu-erh Tea helps with digestion
Because of the oxidizing-fermenting process pu-erh goes through, it develops certain characteristics that distinguish it from other teas, among these is its digestion-enhancing properties. Research suggests that pu-erh tea increases activity of the digestive enzymes amylase and protease. Perhaps this is why pu-erh has long been favored in China as a digestive tea following a meal rich in starch and protein.
As mentioned above, pu-erh tea a great digestif, or after-meal drink. The earthy qualities can also help cut through some of the richness of a meal, and for that reason I particularly like to finish off a heavy meal with pu-erh tea.
5. Pu-erh Tea supports weight control
Much research has been done into the unique actions of pu-erh in regulating blood sugar, improving cholesterol ratios, preventing abdominal fat accumulation, and suppressing weight gain. Among the active compounds in pu-erh tea affecting these body systems are catechins, caffeine, Theanine, Chlorogenic acid, and Gallic acid. Various studies have suggested pu-erh is one of the most effective teas at aiding weight control, reducing waist-to-hip ratio, and improving metabolic markers.
Perhaps Chinese women have intuitively known this because it has long been their tea of choice to stay slim.
Whether you’re interested in broadening your taste experience, expanding your repertoire of tea knowledge, or are excited by the health benefits, pu-erh tea is definitely worth some exploring and taste-testing.
If you want to get started with pu-erh more slowly, consider pu-erh-based tea blends, such as BeLight Tea. Light, earthy, sweet–all the flavors with which you’d want to begin your pu-erh journey.