Tea Aficionados Go Crazy for Pu-Erh—Here's Why

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

After water, tea is our most popular drink. Tea culture is wide and varied, steeped in highly intricate traditions with so many fascinating areas to explore. Among people who are really into teas of the world, pu-erh is seen as 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.

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. Time brings darker colors and deeper nuance. There are tea drinkers who approach aged pu-erh like wine collectors approach vintages of Bordeaux.

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.

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; older versions often smell of deep earth and lightly of raisins.

Like aged, raw and cooked pu-erh flavors range widely. Pu-erh's color when brewed also varies, from nearly white (raw type), to deeply brown-red, and even 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.

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 not hard to simplify: First, open the package and separate, from the cake, roughly one to two tablespoons of leaves per cup of tea.

next, break the clumps you've separated from the cake into small pieces, and then put them into your tea ball or teapot. For brewing, use water that rises 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.

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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