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Imagine a type of tea that, much like a fine wine, improves with age and changes in taste throughout the duration of its lifetime.
Imagine a tea crafted from the leaves of trees that are hundreds and even thousands of years old.
Imagine a tea that some tea connoisseurs would be willing to pay more than $1,000 for mere kilograms.
This is Pu-Erh.
What Is Pu-Erh Tea?
Pu-Erh is a tea that is made from the leaves of a tea plant known as Dayeh, which is a strain of Camellia sinensis var. assamica native to the Yunnan Province in China.
Pu-Erh, named after the town in which it originated, was consumed as far back as 25 A.D. (although the Pu-Erh tea collectors seek out may be traced back to the 1970’s) and has been growing in popularity over time due to its supposed health benefits and unique production process, but mainly due to the incredible, deep, and unique tastes.
Why Is Pu-Erh Treasured Among Tea Enthusiasts?
Pu-Erh is highly valued by tea enthusiasts because of the way that it is processed. Rather than being sold as a dry, loose leaf tea, Pu-Erh is most often packed into cakes after undergoing a fermentation process that helps to develop the tea’s flavor.
The tea leaves of the Dayeh tree are harvested early in the morning and allowed to dry indoors for a day or two.
Once dried, the leaves are then either pan-fried or machine-dried so they will retain their freshness when they are brewed by the consumer. The tea is then taken, broken up, and allowed to dry in the sun for three days.
This is typically the end of the production process for teas such as green or black tea. Pu-Erh producers take this process a few steps further by “piling” the tea.
Pu-Erh leaves are piled on top of each other, dampened, and allowed to undergo fungal and bacterial fermentation. This is what gives the tea its bold, mature, earthy flavor that tea drinkers seek out. Tea that is allowed to ferment is known as ripe Pu-Erh while tea that does not go through this process is known as raw Pu-Erh.
Additionally, the cake shape that Pu-Erh teas are packed into continue to age and mature even after they are made and distributed.
The general rule for quality Pu-Erh is that the older Pu-Erh cakes produced by some of the original Pu-Erh factories in China are more valuable.
Some of the factories that have produced valuable Pu-Erh include the Xiaguan tea factory, the Menghai tea factory, and the Changtai tea factory.
5 factors that affect the value of Pu-Erh tea and attract tea enthusiasts:
The higher the Dayeh trees are grown, the better the tea. In areas such as mountains, tea plants receive more direct sunlight during the day and experience cooler temperatures throughout the night. This allows the leaves to truly develop and becomes higher quality tea than that made from plants in lower regions.
Quality of Soil
It is important for Dayeh trees to be planted in mineral-rich soil to ensure maximum quality and development. It is generally better to have tea leaves that come from older trees that are growing in mineral-rich soil. However, younger trees can also produce higher-quality Pu-Erh leaves if they are growing in mineral rich soil, which is typically found in mountainous areas.
Age of Tea Plants
Pu-Erh is produced from four different age categories of tea plants. Garden tea is produced from tea trees that are very young and small.
Garden tea is considered to be low-quality because of the age of the tree and because of the low areas in which they are often grown. Young tea is produced by tea trees that range from 100 to 200 years old and is of medium quality.
Old tea is produced by tea trees that exceed 200 years but are not yet in the thousands. Old tea trees produce some of the higher quality Pu-Erh teas and are less rare than the last category.
The last category, wild tea, is produced by tea trees that are often thousands of years old and found in forests. Tea made from these trees is considered highly valuable.
Number of Times Plucked
The best time to pluck Dayeh leaves is considered to be once during mid-spring. If leaves are plucked more than once a year, the tea tree will not have time to regrow leaves that contain essential minerals and flavor.
Therefore, Pu-Erh teas brewed from leaves of trees that have been overplucked will be lacking in the flavor and quality that tea aficionados are chasing.
Man-made fertilizers and pesticides often have an effect on the quality and taste of the Pu-Erh product. Natural farming methods are more desirable if drinkers wish to have the highest quality teas.
For example, any type of additives that improve the growing time of tea trees or eliminate any naturally occurring bacteria in the soil will actually ruin the taste of the tea. Tea leaves that are slowly and naturally grown will brew the best tea.
How Can I Go About Purchasing Pu-Erh?
For tea drinkers who are rather new to tea or to Pu-Erh, it is recommended that you start drinking Pu-Erh that comes from younger tea plants.
Like any tea, you must first try it to make sure that you enjoy the taste of the brew. While I did state above that the taste depends on the leaves and the process they are put through, the earthy flavor is similar across the board for most types of Pu-Erh.
Also, some inexpensive Pu-Erh teas may come infused with chocolate or fruit flavors to “improve” the overall taste.
Experienced tea drinkers should research the store from which they intend to buy Pu-Erh from and research the manufacturer of the tea product.
Always keep the current market prices in mind and look for the best price using the categories above.