Why Tea Addicts Go Crazy for Pu-Erh

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

In the war on rot, aging food is a tactical retreat. We can't beat nature at its own game, so we join it, and let microbes have their way with meat or cheese in the hopes of developing deeper, more complex flavors than the fresh versions can offer.

There's less rot involved when we age drinks like wine, beer, and whiskey, but it's still a testy alliance with nature—giving up the fresh, fiery tastes of youth for something deeper, layered, and more mature. Age, though it manifests in many forms, has a character all its own. You know it when you taste it; you're drinking time.

The Western world's long been keen on aging all kinds of drinks, but up until the last couple decades or so, the idea of applying the same principles to tea was largely unknown. Head over to China, though, and you quickly see that aged tea is as much a part of life as 21-year-old whiskey and prized vintages of Champagne.

Why age tea at all? Most tea doesn't so much age as turn stale and dead. But with the right environment, and the right tea, you get something utterly unique: a drink that slinks down your throat and hugs your belly, relaxes your muscles and calms your mind. The best aged tea is medicine you want to gulp, full of bitter chocolate or stonefruit or wet, sweet soil. And for the complexity of what you're drinking, it can cost way, way less per serving than that bottle of old Scotch.

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While you can age many kinds of tea (I'm sitting on some lovely oolong almost as old as my parents), none is more lusted after than the pride of Yunnan Province, a tea hundreds—if not thousands—of years in the making: pu-erh.

Pu-erh, which is processed in a special way to encourage microbial fermentation after the leaves are dried, ages more dynamically than any tea out there. It does not have fans. It has junkies who buy kilos of the stuff at a time to bliss out on days-long brewing sessions, only dropping out of their highs long enough to argue over the best pu-erh blends, growing regions, and storage methods. There are grasping amateurs who buy, gift, and drink the tea to gain social status among Chinese elite. And there are pu-erh investors, too, gambling on a particular tea's aging potential, who build booming futures markets and, in the case of a major bust in 2007, crash them.

Over in the West, pu-erh is a niche market within a niche market. But its devotees are growing. And if there's a tea that's ready for the big time outside Asia, this is it.

A Tea Like No Other

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For a tea to be called pu-erh, it must be made from the large-leaf subspecies Camellia sinensis var. assamica and grown in Yunnan Province in China's southwest, where Han Chinese as well as many ethnic minorities share borders with Burma and Laos. It's one of the few teas to be designated a protected origin product by the Chinese government, a rarity in an industry run wild with loose, unregulated terms and limited oversight.*

* Not that these regulations are all that effective; knock-off pu-erh is an enormous problem, just like in other famous tea-growing regions.

Those factors restrict the tea's general character and terroir to a set of parameters, but the real trick to pu-erh is what happens after it's picked. Fresh leaves get tossed by hand in giant woks long enough to halt the tea's oxidation, but not so long as to drive off all moisture and kill natural bacteria. The tea is then left to dry in the sun, but the bacteria live on, and over years and decades, they'll help completely transform the tea from a fresh, bitter green into something more dark, mellow, and rich.

Most tea farmers sell their dried tea directly to vendors or wholesalers, but with pu-erh there's usually a middle step. Farmers sell their finished loose leaves (called maocha) to processors who often blend leaves from several sources, steam them, then compress them under heavy weights into a variety of shapes, such as frisbee-like cakes, square bricks, and small concave nests. This Ming Dynasty-era practice was originally developed to make tea easier to transport over long distances, but these days is reserved for teas designed for aging; the compressed form makes for a more stable and portable aging environment as time does its thing.

A cake of pu-erh is in a constant state of change, and as you chip away leaves to drink over the months and years, no two brews will taste the same. Some pu-erh is delicious to drink when fresh: it's vegetal and fragrant with gentle bitterness and a tickling sun-dried pungency. Other pu-erh needs years of aging for profound bitterness or harsh, smoky flavors to mellow out into something smooth, sweet, and dignified. Half the fun of drinking the stuff is watching your tea grow and change as you do.

Drinking Time

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Left to right: ripe pu-erh, aged raw pu-erh, and fresh raw pu-erh

Though pu-erh is one style of tea from one province, it's tricky to make generalizations about how it tastes. Regional variations in terroir, processing styles, and age all come into play, and the world of pu-erh is maddeningly complex, even by fine tea standards. As Jinghong Zhang puts it in her excellent Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic, an elucidating academic treatment of the tea's socio-political-economic history, "Pu-erh tea has been packaged by multiple actors into a fashionable drink with multiple authenticities." But to paint with the broadest of all possible brushes, here's a very rough breakdown of the three major pu-erh categories:

Young 'Raw': This looks like green tea more than anything else, and it's either brand new or not old enough (under, say, two to three years) to develop any of the aged characteristics of more mature pu-erh. It can be floral and sweet or as bitter as amaro, but there's an undeniable youth and grassy freshness to the brew. Some pu-erh people hate the taste of bitter young sheng, but others specifically seek it out for those bitter qualities. And some of the best young sheng out there should be drank fast, like green tea; not all pu-erh ages well, and time can just flatten out its snappy, vegetal flavor without adding anything new.

Aged 'Raw': There are many schools on how to age pu-erh, but all involve controlled heat and humidity to smooth out the tea's rough edges and make for a darker, deeper brew that tends to register lower in your throat and body. Aged pu-erh raw usually has some woodsy, earthy qualities and camphor or dark fruit notes, but rather than specific flavors, the important thing here is the depth and body the tea develops. There's enormous range in how that character manifests; a seven-year-old pu-erh likely won't be as murky and moody as a 30-year-old one. So the only way to get a sense of how aging affects pu-erh is to drink a lot of it.

'Ripe': The deep, dark, basementy pu-erh favored by the likes of Hong Kong drinkers takes decades to mature, which is why in the 1970s, tea processors developed a shortcut: shou ('ripe,' as opposed to 'raw' sheng) pu-erh, in which dried pu-erh leaves are piled in rooms and left to effectively compost for months in the heat and humidity from their own biomass. The process cuts maturation time down from decades to months, though shou pu-erh usually winds up tasting less complex than good aged sheng, and it's typically made with lower grade leaves. But a good shou pu-erh can be thick and luscious as a latte with a rich, mushroomy sweetness that sinks to your belly, and it's usually cheaper than comparable quality aged sheng pu-erh. Note that you can age shou pu-erh just like sheng, but since it's already been 'pre-aged' in processing, its character will evolve far less over time.

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Fortunately, no matter what kind of pu-erh you have, brewing it is relatively straightforward. Like other fine Chinese teas, it benefits from using a lot of leaf in small pots, brewing for short times (15 to 60 seconds) over a series of as many as two dozen infusions with boiling or near-boiling water, adjusting as you go. (More on this kind of brewing right this way.) More than most tea, pu-erh is built for change, not just over months and years, but over a single brew session.

You can use a scale to weigh out your leaves to the gram, but I usually break off a six- to 10-gram chunk with a butter knife for a 100-milliliter gaiwan or clay teapot.* Even relatively simple fresh, young sheng pu-erh will develop in your pot as you keep re-steeping, and more mature aged teas can travel from dank and mushroomy to spicy-sweet to grapey-floral.

* Here's a video on how to break apart a pu-erh cake. There are plenty of online resources on the subject, but this one has the best soundtrack.

Buy it With Care

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Buying quality tea is always tricky business, but this is especially the case with pu-erh. The most challenging part of buying good pu-erh is knowing who to trust. Since it's such a trendy tea in tea circles, and vendors typically buy from other sellers or middlemen processors and factories rather than farmers directly (remember, those processors are the ones who press the tea into its final form), there's a lot of opportunity for someone to lie along the way and either upsell their goods or completely misrepresent what they're selling.

Do a little reading about pu-erh and you'll see some vaunted names come up again, such as famous teas like Menghai Factory's 7542 cakes or lusted-after antique 88 qingbings, or noteworthy growing regions like Yiwu and Laobanzhang. All justly celebrated, but without much regulation, there's no guarantee that the $300 aged cake you just bought is actually the tea being advertised. Even pu-erh experts can get fooled by fakes, a rampant problem in the industry.

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Pu-erh can get expensive. Since the tea is formed into a compressed shape, you have to buy it in fixed amounts. Small nest-shaped tuo forms are usually 100 or 250 grams, and cakes, the most common form, are over three quarters of a pound. While many vendors offer smaller samples of their pu-erhs, those samples come with a substantial markup. Oh, and those big name teas? Some of them can command astronomical prices: four or five figures for less than a pound of tea.

The good news, though, is that quality pu-erh costs less per-gram than many other quality teas that a) can't age well, so you have to drink them fast, and b) don't last nearly as many re-steeps as pu-erh, so while you may pay a higher upfront cost, even pricey pu-erh can come out cheaper per cup than some other celebrated tea styles.

So it's worth buying your pu-erh with care, which is why I typically do so from vendors who specialize in it and who either press their own cakes or have long-established relationships that have a proven track record of quality. To get you started, here are five reliable sources to seek out. If you're brand new to pu-erh, don't get too hung up on the terminologies and labels you'll find as you start shopping. Instead, set a budget, order some samples and maybe a couple cheap cakes to start, and drink with an open mind. The addiction comes later.

Pu-Erh Sources to Seek Out

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White2Tea's four-cake starter set

Crimson Lotus: Reasonably priced quality aged and fresh raw pu-erh as well as some good affordable ripe styles. The 2005 Changtai Top of the Clouds is a solid introduction to the complexities of aged pu-erh, as is the 2008 Bulang for deep, sweet ripe. Crimson Lotus also presses their own raw pu-erh for aging or drinking right now; the 2015 Hidden Song is a tasty fresh tea that will appeal to green tea fans, while the already enticing 2015 Slumbering Dragon will only get better with time.

White2Tea: Another boutique shop with a wide (but carefully selected) range of pu-erh: just-pressed and decades old, raw and ripe, budget-friendly and "second mortgage on the house" pricey. Many of the house pressings are great (the 2015 Tuhao as Fuck in particular; White2Tea also has the best pu-erh names in the business), and most interesting for pu-erh beginners will be the company's four-cake starter set, which at $40 for 400 grams of tea is an especially affordable way to get a sense of how picking season, age, and leaf grade all affect a tea.

Chawangshop: Wide, wide selection and some very friendly prices mean it's easy to go overboard at this China-based vendor, which also carries a good selection of other fermented aged tea to try beyond pu-erh. Not all the offerings are equally good—there's a $4 brick of tea that unsurprisingly brews up like horse food—but the house Chawangpu pressings are rather nice budget offerings to swig on a daily basis, such as the 2015 Hekai Gushu or the 2005 Bulang.

Yunnan Sourcing: With literally hundreds of pu-erhs available, Yunnan Sourcing sells more pu-erh than just about any Western-facing vendor. This is a good place to get a sense of just how varied the world of pu-erh is, from big factory pressings by Menghai and Xiaguan to more obscure regions to the company's own label. Learning about pu-erh means paying some tuition, and a comprehensive site like Yunnan Sourcing can help you see what's out there.

Tea Classico: On the more high-end side, with some 1980s and '90s pu-erh that's aged into remarkable maturity (and worth ordering samples of for a couple brews of deep tea education). The budget offerings, such as the 2013 Zhangjia, are worth looking into as well, good reminders that a pu-erh doesn't have to be expensive to be delicious.

Disclosure: Some vendors have provided samples for review.