the appetizer:

The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World's Best Teas by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss, includes excerpts like Pu-erh Tea; Gallery of Pu-erh Teas; and The Perfect Cup: Specifics for Steeping Pu-erh Tea.

Cookbook Profile

Pu-erh Tea

by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss

Pu-erh Tea


Perhaps the most exotic tea in China's vast repetoire of astonishing tea is Pu-erh. China is the only country that makes Pu-erh tea, and everything about Pu-erh tea is enticing, including the place where it is made: Yunnan Province in southwest China. Here, the Pu-erh tea-producing area lies in the southwest quadrant of the province and encompasses many counties in and around the tropical Xishuangbanna region.

It is safe to say that if one is looking for a lifelong obsession in the world of tea, then look no further than Pu-erh. Pu-erh offers tea enthusiasts many tastes: new Pu-erh, vintage Pu-erh, sheng Pu-erh (natural post-processing fermentation), or shou Pu-erh (artificial fermentation).

The first thing that draws visiting tea enthusiasts to Pu-erh in the tea shops in Yunnan Province is the fantastic appearance of the tea. The display in a well-stocked Pu-erh tea shop is a real head-turner. It is not unusual to see tongs (bamboo-wrapped stacks of individually compressed disks or cakes of Pu-erh tea) of Pu-erh overflowing the shelves, with one tea cake from each tong on display so that customers can see the colorful wrapper and assess the information printed on it. These enticing wrappers are printed in Chinese, but feature the name of the tea factory along with other essential pieces of information.

Over time, Pu-erh has been compressed during manufacture into a dizzying array of other intriguing shapes and sizes as well: squares, rectangles, oversized mushrooms, little coins, and domes (with a pushed-in hollow core) that range from one-ounce sizes that resemble a hummingbird's nest to melon shapes (symbolizing bounty and prosperity) that can weigh as much as sixty pounds. Some Pu-erh is made by pressing the leaf into a hollow bamboo tube and drying it over a fire.

But despite all of these attractive shapes, Pu-erh is most commonly shaped and sold as a compressed, flat disk. These tea cakes are thin and round (about eight inches in diameter) and are called a beeng chao Loose-leaf Pu-erh is also made in everal grades from the same leaf.

Pu-erh is China's famous fermented tea. Yes, fermented it is, and gloriously so. At the root of traditionally made Puerh is a host of bacteria, molds, and fungi (Penicillium chrysogenum, Rhizopus chinensis, Apergillus clovatus, to name a few) that thrive in the moist, tropical weather of Xishuangbanna and live in the air and on the fresh tea leaf throughout the forests, villages, and tea factories in Xishuangbanna. Were it not for these simple organisms and the transformative magic that they bring toyoung Pu-erh cakes, vintage Pu-erh cakes—and Pu-erh in general—would not exist. Pu-erh has finally been "discovered" by Westerners. This is ironic since Yunnan Province is considered to be (along with parts of neighboring Assam, India; Burma; Laos; Thailand; and Vietnam) the ancient birthplace of tea. Pu-erh developed from tea-making customs deeply rooted in the history of the people living in and around the tea forests located in the mountains of this region. The tradition of allowing tea bushes to grow wild and to develop into tall forest trees began here thousands of years ago because that is how nature established the first forest tea groves and how early people found them. Long before the rest of China knew of tea, people inhabiting this area made a great discovery: the leaves of a certain kind of tree gave them strength and vigor when chewed and eaten.

Soon after, the leaves of these indigenous tea trees were used to make a simple tea concoction. While this drink bore no resemblance to tea as we know it today, it did provide a basis for the tea trading that has existed between Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet and other people along China's northern border for thousands of years. Today, local tea trading is very active among people living in Yunnan and along the borders of Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.

During the Han dynasty, (206 BC-220 AD) dried leaf from Yunnan tea trees was sent to the cities in eastern China. Leftover broken bits of tea and discarded leaves were compressed into tea cakes and transported to northern border populations of Mongols, Tartars, and Tibetans, who found the hot drink a beneficial addition to their meager diets. The compressed cakes became an ideal way to load large quantities of tea onto the backs of horses and mules for the long trip over the mountain route to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

Under the Tang dynasty (618-907) a vast network of tea gardens were cultivated in southern and western China to increase tea production. As greater quantities of tea began to be sent to Tibet, the Chinese devised a trade exchange of tea for strong, healthy Tibetan horses. The horses were essential for the Chinese army to use in fending off enemy groups from the north, while increasing the tea trade with Tibet opened up a new market for China's tea.

Pu-erh Tea Regions
Major Tea-Producing Countries and Regions: Pu-erh Tea

These trade routes, collectively known as the Tea Horse Road, thread their way across a series of rugged mountain from Yunnan to Tibet. Later, several additional routes from tea-production zones in Sichuan were added, until six routes (with hundreds of local side paths) were created.

By the time of the Song dynasty (960-1179) historians estimate that close to two thousand traders and mules plied these routes with cargo each day, and that it took as long as six months for the journey to reach completion. More than seven thousand tons of tea, along with salt, sugar, cloth, and other essential goods, were carried over the Tea Horse Road each year.

Despite the perilous travel over some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, this road was consistently used until the mid-1960s. At that time, a paved road was constructed, allowing modern transport vehicles to convey tea from Yunnan up into Tibet. Today, the ancient road still connects remote villages one to another, but the caravans of goods, animals, and men have ceased. However, Pu-erh tea continues to be made.

Classic Leaf Styles (Shapes) of
Manufactured Pu-erh Tea (Dry Leaf)
Loose-leaf: Compressed or packed:  
Pu-erh Tea Flavor (Taste) Components

Pu-erh varies incredibly because of the existence of both looseleaf and compressed styles, and its great variation in age. Pu-erh's flavor components are among the most exotic in the world of tea and are well worth exploring.


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This page created September 2010