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

By Chris Malloy
February 13, 2020

After water, tea is our most popular drink. Tea culture is wide and varied, with so many fascinating areas to explore. Countries and their regions have developed highly intricate traditions. Within tea culture, some teas are known to offer especially great pleasures. Among people who are really into teas of the world, pu-erh is seen as among the very 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.

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What is Pu-erh Tea? 

Pu-erh comes from Yunnan, a Chinese province nestled against the borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. It’s a fermented tea that falls into three categories: raw, cooked (also called ripe), and aged. Raw pu-erh has a lot in common with green tea. Cooked pu-erh, a more modern innovation that seeks to emulate aging through a “piling” process, tastes more like a black tea. When making pu-erh, producers treat leaves to encourage fermentation that builds next-level subtlety. This is chiefly the domain of the third category: aged.

Like wine or cheese, pu-erh can be aged for years, even decades. Time brings darker colors and deeper nuance. There are tea drinkers who approach aged pu-erh like wine collectors approach vintages of Bordeaux.

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

Raw and cooked pu-erh tend to be cheaper than aged. Like aged, their flavors can range greatly. Pu-erh’s color when brewed also varies, from nearly white (raw), to deeply brown-red, and even to a darkness that nears the color of soy sauce (aged pu-erh). Those darker aged teas often carry a mellow, nicely rounded earthy quality and low campfire notes.

How to Make Pu-erh Tea

If you drink tea or enjoy a good cup of something, try brewing a batch. The traditional brewing method is very meticulous but not all that hard to simplify.

First, open the package and separate, from the cake, roughly one to two tablespoons of leaves per cup of tea. 

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Break the clumps you’ve separated from the cake into small pieces. Put them into your tea ball or teapot. For brewing, use water that rises to a full boil. You only need to 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.

Aged pu-erh can send a calming, deep peacefulness through you. The best part might be that you can re-brew used leaves. 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 as what you may have come to expect from tea. Sometimes, that can be a good thing.

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