I am a puerh freak. Puerh tea is a magical brew, thick and rich, full of chi and friend to the soul. I first discovered it in Seattle’s International District while on a culinary expedition 15 years ago. It’s odd flavor of wet dirt and fish intrigued me and yet, foreign to my flavor lexicon, it took a while to stick. Like radicchio, I knew it was good for me and waited for the ‘acquired taste’ to kick in (it took several years – I think mostly until I started drinking better quality puerh!). Somewhere along the line I became a tea stalker, obsessed and relentless in my devotion to this beautiful brew.
Puerh (“poo-errr”) is actually the name of a Chinese city that was the epicenter of the tea trade centuries ago. It was from here that the tea from seven famous Yunnan mountains were compressed into bricks and loaded into saddle bags for overland travel to Mongolia, Tibet and farther West. Traders found the longer tea travelled, the better it tasted due to natural fermentation. Thus, tea from Puerh became famous.
High quality puerh is made from the leaves of old tea trees that have grown wild in the high mountains of Yunnan Province, China – far away from the bustle of industry (and pollution) of the cities. Tended by tribal peoples over the centuries, some trees are as old as 500 years and over 60 feet tall. It is thought that the older and the wilder, the more energy or life force it imparts to the drinker.
There are two types: green (‘sheng’), and ripe (‘shou)’. While the exact means of production are kept secret, we know that puerh is made from leaves that are dried, steamed and pressed (green), or piled high and turned (almost like compost) to expedite fermentation (ripe) before being pressed into tight round cakes, bricks or bowl shapes. Over a span of time, bacteria inherent in the tea slowly work to change it’s character, making peurh a collectable item as varied and complex as fine wine- replete with terroir and ever evolving .
While I enjoy green puerh for its vibrance and vitality, I am, as of late, obsessed with ripe puerh with it’s sweet, dark, earthy goodness. The old fishy taste is less common as the industry has matured; nowadays, adept tea masters skillfully coax flavors and aromas such as jujube, camphor, dark chocolate, creamy wood, mushroom and/or honey from the leaf. Thankfully, much of the caffeine and tannins are metabolized through this process, making it a suitable beverage for drinking all day (in fact, it puerh tea is known for inducing a feeling of relaxation and happiness). The ‘yin’ quality of ripe puerh draws me into my center, fortifying my spirit with each sip, creating new earth.