It is the pride of China’s Yunnan Province, the undisputed fermentation dynamo of the craft beverage world, a tea whose flavor profile can sometimes be measured in centuries: Pu-Erh. This gem of the tea world is where experts and aficionados inevitably find themselves.
Pu-erh tea may be one of the most unusual teas and is the only type of tea that is fermented much like wine or cheese. Pu-erh’s uniqueness is in how it’s processed. Rather than shutting down microbial activity after the tea is dried, it is encouraged, eventually yielding one of the most extraordinary, almost preternatural, products in our world. None of this is new in the East, but in the Western hemisphere, Pu-erh is still a niche market. But inexorably, its admirers, enthusiasts, and zealots are heralding its virtues.
Some basic terminology: shēng (raw) and shóu (ripe) are our two categories of Pu-erh. Shóu is technically “new” historically, the method of its creation having been developed in the 1970’s, in which dried Pu-erh leaves are placed in rooms and left to effectively compost for some months. This method’s strength is that it cuts maturation from years to months, though it is argued that shóu isn’t as deep or complex as good aged shēng. Within the shēng category are more familiar terms: young and aged. “Young,” in this case, is something of a red herring, as young Pu-erh is often still possessed of that deep, mushroom-earthiness one associates with the best of black teas, but when compared to its older brother, “young” becomes an understandable designation. Aged shēng is where the bass of the tea world sounds. Deep, dark, woodsy, this tea registers in the back of the palate and low in the body. When people talk about that “good medicine” you can gulp, this is what they’re talking about.
Studies on Pu-erh haven’t progressed much beyond the animal testing phase, though these studies show promise in Pu-erh's ability to help combat high cholesterol, improve heart health, and combat other potential health risks.
Ripened Pu-erh teas are properly steeped between 205° and 212° Fahrenheit for 3-5 minutes. Green Pu-erh teas are properly steeped between 175° and 190° Fahrenheit for 3-4 minutes.