When I first wrote about the art of tea, I mentioned pu erhs, and several people asked me what they were.
It's no wonder. Pu erh teas have only been freely available in the U.S. for a score of years, and so are little-known and even less understood. Some of them have a unique flavor most commonly (and accurately) translated as "dirt," but describing all pu erhs that way would be no more accurate than describing all cheeses as being cheddary. The variety of flavors available in pu erhs makes them perhaps the most diverse of the groups of teas.
A new pu erh may be drinkable, but it is as likely to be bitter or astringent. Pu erh teas, though, are not merely dead dried leaves; they are chemically and biologically active. Pu erhs are supposed to age. Think cheeses and wines. The leaves continue to undergo oxidative and enzymatic changes, and they harbor microflora that further digest and ferment them. Pu erhs are eminently drinkable within a few years, but it can take anywhere from 10 years to 60 years for them to become truly brilliant. And, just as with cheeses and wines, many of them become totally forgettable.
Pu erhs come in four major types. Each type has its own broad flavor characteristics. Uncooked is traditional. The leaves are packed together, either loosely or compacted into bricks and bings (discs), where they start to age. Over the long run, uncooked pu erhs are more likely to produce the most spectacular teas.
Cooked pu erh is either gently heated or allowed to heat more from fermentation. This greatly accelerates the aging process producing a mature beverage much more quickly, but also denatures some of the chemical/biological components, so a cooked pu erh ages much less later. Like the uncooked versions, it can be aged as loose-leaf or compacted.
When it comes to brewing, pu erhs are practically bulletproof and thrive on vigorous brewing. They are one of the few teas where the universal recommendation is to start with boiling water. Brewing times range from 1 to 5 min., typically, but it's pretty much impossible to overbrew these teas. A half hour steep may produce a brew stronger than one would like (and so need a bit of dilution), but it will be flavorful, not bitter.
Pu erhs are designed for multiple infusions. I had one very nice pu erh that was only good for three brewings and I felt kind of, well, cheated. Another one was still doing well on the eighth pot. The flavor can change with each successive brew. A pu erh may be intensely dirty and smoky on the first pour and by the fifth be so grassy and fragrant that you'd think it was a floral tea. I can have one pu erh pot that I'm drinking from for the entire day, and it's like I'm drinking a whole bunch of different kinds of tea.
This unique characteristic, combined with the wide variety of flavors that pu erhs have to begin with, makes it pretty much impossible to characterize them as a group.
The ongoing aging process that makes pu erhs so fascinating is responsible for my comment last time that they are simultaneously some of the best bargains you can buy and an easy way to go bankrupt. For proper aging, the leaves are kept slightly warm (room temperature or a bit above), definitely dry, away from light, and open to air, because many of the reactions are aerobic ones. Paper's a common wrap. If you find a bing that is sealed in airtight plastic it's likely to be very cheap and of low quality.
Low grade but entirely drinkable bings in the 12 ounce range are available for prices between $5 and $15 in many Chinese markets. At that price, one can afford to experiment. Jon Singer picked up a very cheap bing in a market a dozen years back. Some of it was put aside and forgotten until about a year ago. When brewed up, it was so complicated and subtle that Jon and I couldn't describe it. We could pick out a slightly lemony flavor note, but it was like trying to pick one single instrument out of a large orchestra. It was as far from smoky and dirty as you could imagine.
Jon sent me a couple of these very cheap bings. They are drinkable, if uninspiring, and I've put one of them in the back of the cupboard to see what it is like in another decade or so. It'll probably be lousy, but what the heck, it was $6.
Excellent bings and bricks go for $30–$60 when relatively young; my absolute favorite pu erh is a 500 gram brick that cost me $40 (that's enough for the better part of a year's worth of steady tea drinking). Daniel at Cha Guan (see my earlier tea post) was so proud of this find that he made it his shop's signature tea until it ran out. It's so smoky on the first pour it's like drinking a campfire, and it changes wonderfully with successive infusions. I was suffficiently impressed that I ordered a second brick and that is in the back of a cupboard. I'll see what happens to it in another decade. Truth is, I'm only a third of the way through the first brick after a year and a half.
Here's where financial madness can set in. You can acquire huge numbers of bings at individually reasonable prices. Before you know it, you have a substantial fortune tied up in dried camellia leaves (with the risk of finding down the line that you have the caffeinated equivalent of vinegar.) Happily, I do not have the collector allele in my genome. Still, one is tempted, especially when someone like Roy Fong comes back with a taster's set of eight bings, designed to appeal to a variety of palates and situations and which he has even greater hopes for when aged. A mere $350. I resisted. But I thought about it.
You don't want to know what will happen to the prices of some of these when they are fully aged, if they turn out to be as good as hoped. Really, you don't. Small amounts of the very best aged pu erhs sell for princely sums. I've never tried them; I never expect to. Fortunately, I am entirely happy with my modestly priced, delicious brews.
Sometimes, Ctein's off-topic columns on TOP grow on you, and get better with age. If you don't like them now, set them aside for a little while. Who knows what might happen?
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Mano: "Here in China (hello from China), puer tea is widely considered to be top dog, though a few years ago there was a scandal that this prized symbol of Chinese culture was actually being produced in Africa and sold in the country with fraudulent credentials. Back then you could spend the typical worker's entire year salary on a quarter kilo brick of the tea; after the African issues and other problems with hoarders and speculators the price of the tea dropped like a rock. Now anyone can get a decent aged tea for an affordable price, and it has become very common. In fact I may have a few bricks of it sitting in the back of some cupboard in my kitchen. People like to give it to each other as gifts, which get given again to other people because no one can drink all of it."
Featured Comment by Fabian: "I will check back in a decade or so, to see if I hate this article by then. Today, though, I found it to be a very interesting and inspiring read. 'Drinking a campfire' certainly sounds like something worth testing! Thanks, Ctein!"
Featured Comment by Bob Rosinsky: "I never did get the 'tea' thing. My grandfather used to drink Lipton Tea. He'd plop the tea bag into a cup and add a couple of little saccharine tablets to it to sweeten it up. He was an odd man."
Featured Comment by Jerry Lewis-Evans: "Pu erh, or a phrase sounding phonetically similar, was a phrase that cropped up on various live Frank Zappa albums. It seemed to be one of those band 'in' jokes, but being from England I always took it to be a phrase that you would say while holding your nose to indicate an unpleasant smell! Maybe he was just indicating that it was time for a tea break!"