Tea Aficionados Just Love Pu-Erh—Here's Why and How to Make It

If you haven't tried this delicious Chinese tea, what are you waiting for?

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After water, tea is our most popular beverage. Tea culture is wide and varied, steeped in highly intricate traditions with so many fascinating areas to explore. Among those who are really into teas of the world, pu-erh (pronounced PU-arn) is considered among the best.

Though it comes in standard disposable sachets, the best way to taste pu-erh tea (and other teas with this kind of nuance) is to brew loose-leaf using a tea ball or, better still, a clay or cast-iron teapot. Keep reading to learn more about its origin, taste, and how to brew it at home.

What Is Pu-erh Tea?

Pu-erh comes from Yunnan, a Chinese province nestled against the borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. This fermented tea falls into one of three types: raw, cooked (also called ripe), or aged. Raw pu-erh has a lot in common with green tea. Cooked pu-erh, a more modern innovation that emulates aging through a "piling" process, tastes more like black tea.

When making the third type, aged pu-erh, producers treat leaves to encourage fermentation to build next-level subtlety. Like wine or cheese, pu-erh can be aged for years, even decades, to develop darker colors and deeper nuance. There are tea drinkers who approach aged pu-erh the way wine collectors approach vintages of Bordeaux.

What Does It Look Like?

Aged pu-erh comes pressed into dense cakes, squares, and other shapes. You can cut into them with a knife and flake off the leaves. Pu-erhs range in character based on the tea producer's methods, aging time, and how you brew; older versions often smell of deep earth and lightly of raisins.

How Does It Taste?

Aged, raw, and cooked pu-erh flavors range widely. Its color when brewed also varies from nearly white (raw type) to deeply brown-red, to a darkness that nears the color of soy sauce (aged type). Those darker aged teas often carry a mellow, nicely rounded earthy quality with low campfire notes.

For those who've never tried Pu-erh, Kevin Borowski—cofounder and vice president of the Whistling Kettle, a purveyor of tea with several New York locations—recommends trying a flavored version first, noting that Scottish Caramel is their top seller. "Because Pu-erh is very dark, it also makes a great coffee alternative (in fact, we have one variety blended with coffee)," he continues. "I’ll typically drink it straight up later in the day."

What Does It Cost?

While aged pu-erh can be expensive, it can also be affordable. Through online providers and tea shops, you can find decade-old cakes of 3.5 or 4 ounces—enough for dozens of small cups—for $10 to $15. Raw and cooked pu-erh tend to be cheaper.

Benefits of Pu-erh Tea

We know that different types of tea offer various health benefits like soothing inflammation, aiding sleep, and boosting heart health. Pu-erh tea is no exception as it has beneficial aspects not common in other tea types. "Think of pu-erh more of a gut/digestion/heart-healthy tea," suggests Borowsky. "We also blend pu-erh in with other teas so you can get multiple benefits."

Lowers Cholesterol

The fermentation process that pu-erh undergoes causes lovastatin to develop, a naturally occurring chemical that is used in prescription drugs to lower cholesterol.

Aids in Weight Loss

Studies have indicated that the components in Pu-erh help to burn body fat and prevent the body from creating new fat.

Helps Digestion

In Chinese culture, pu-erh has been known for centuries to "cut the grease" and help improve digestion after heavy meals. Research confirms that it helps to break down fats and improve the balance of good bacteria in the gut.

Is Reusable

The best part may be that already-brewed pu-erh can be re-steeped and reused several times. Of course, it won't be the same as the first brewing or what you may have come to expect from tea. Sometimes, that can be a good thing.

What's the Downside?

"There are no downside effects from drinking Pu-erh tea in moderation," says Borowsky, "as long as it’s from a reputable dealer, and you do not consume extract version. Tea extracts in pill form are potentially toxic if misused."

And if you worried about caffeine, Borowsky says don't. But also don't expect a calming effect, either. "While it contains some caffeine, it doesn’t have the high levels of EGCG and L-theanine found in other tea types (L-theanine is the calming-awareness amino acid) such as green and oolong tea."

How to Make Pu-erh Tea

If you drink tea or enjoy a good cup of something, try brewing a batch of pu-erh. The traditional brewing method is very meticulous but you can simplify it at home. "It’s a tea you generally don’t need to add anything to," says Borowsky, "as its nature is not bitter."

What You Need:

  • Package of pu-erh tea
  • Tea cups
  • Tea ball or teapot

Step 1: Separate the Leaves

Open the package and, from the cake, separate roughly 1 to 2 tablespoons of pu-erh for each cup of tea.

Step 2: Break the Clumps

Break the clumps you've separated from the cake into smaller pieces, and then put them into your tea ball or teapot.

Step 3: Brew

Bring water to a full boil, and then steep pu-erh for 15 to 30 seconds (far shorter than your standard green or black teas). And you don't need to add milk, sugar, honey, lemon, or anything.

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