Tea is thought to have existed for more than 5000 years. Early legends are dated 2737 B.C. when Emperor Shen Nung found tea leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water. Archaeologists uncovered green tea in the tomb of a Chinese emperor who died in 141 B.C, which is the oldest known physical evidence of tea. Many stories, poems, and songs regarding ancient tea seem to always involve the emperor.
There are written records describing tea grown and consumed in the Yunnan Province of southwest China as far back as 1700 years ago, possibly longer. At that time, and even today, this area was considered a very remote location. Tea farmers needed to produce a tea that could withstand the long transportation requirement for trade.
The main tea produced in Yunnan is a unique classification called puer (or pu-erh which is pronounced poo-err), or aged tea or dark tea. Puer tea is aged or fermented by beneficial bacteria, similar to meat, cheese, wine, beer or whiskey, producing a deeper, more complex flavor than the fresh versions. Even just a few years ago, very few people in the U.S. were aware of puer. The best selling novel "The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane" has recently brought much more understanding and interest in puer.
Green tea leaves and tea powder (Chinese invented tea powder that later was adopted by the Japanese as MatCha) are fairly fragile and did not travel well on long journeys along the Tea Horse Road. The Tea Horse Road trading route is a southern version of the Silk Road that connects Tibet and India to Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Compressed puer tea was therefore created as a way to pack and store tea for distant trade, also developing a unique flavor using a process designed for aging for decades. The aging process has been a well-guarded state secret for some time in China. Even in modern times, as we saw on our puer trip to Yunnan in 2018, some process details for puer are whispered and rarely shared with outsiders.
All real puer is grown and produced in Yunnan Province in two separate steps. The first step begins with a newly harvested "rough tea" called MaoCha. MaoCha looks and feels and smells similar to a traditional green tea at this stage of production. But unlike green tea production, which has a heating step to stop oxidation permanently, MaoCha is allowed to very slowly oxidize over time.
For the second step, two very different approaches can be taken. It depends on whether the puer tea will be aged in the slow traditional manner (termed raw or "sheng"), or in the more modern method of cooked tea (also known as ripe or "shu").
Sheng puer is aged loose for at least one year, then compressed to its final shape and carefully stored for many years with air circulation, until the tea has matured and turned a rich brown/black color. This slowly aged tea develops very complex characteristics as it ages. It is drinkable in just a few years, better after five or six, but best after 10 years or more. It gets more expensive over time, and can be completely unaffordable in 15-20 years or more.
On the other hand, a method of accelerating the aging of tea was developed in China in the early 1970’s. The "shu" puer is the accelerated puer tea. A tea factory in China invented a way to greatly speed up the aging process with a technique which added heat and humidity and air circulation. Puer produced by this method is referred to as Shu puer. This process takes only months instead of years to complete, and produces a tea similar in taste to the naturally aged, but with less complexity. However, the cost for Shu puer is usually much less.
One critical factor in both puer methods is the air circulation. It fosters the beneficial bacteria and helps prevent mold. When we visited Yunnan in 2018 we heard "greens and oolongs are grown by the sun, but puer is made by the wind". The aging and storage of both Sheng and Shu varieties is usually done in Yunnan or could be completed elsewhere, with a great example being in Hong Kong.
Puer tea can be found loose (called san) like regular tea. But more commonly it is compressed in many shapes and sizes. You'll find it most often in cakes that look like Frisbees (bings), or in small bowls that look like birds nests (tuo). Sometimes as a brick (zhuan), square (fang), mushroom (jin), or a melon (jingua). Size can vary from a single serving "mini" bing or tuo, to medium 100g/3.5oz, to large 360g/12oz or more. You just break off a piece the size of a teaspoon to make your cup.
The aroma and taste that draws people to puer can be described as dark, rich, earthy, and woodsy. If puer were a beer, it would be considered a stout. If over-brewed, it will be strong but not bitter. Puer is usually brewed ten or more times from the same leaves.
Finally, there are many health benefits to drinking puer over other tea, going beyond the antioxidants and amino acids. It is a discussion on its own, and we will follow-up in a future edition.