Monday, January 7, 2013

The 5 Tea Siblings: Pu-Er Tea

First of all, Happy New Year and apologies for overall lack of posting over the break; I was surprisingly busy. That being said, it was not a complete waste of two tea-weeks as I had some great tea experiences that I am saving for future posts. For the moment, I will be continuing with the Tea Family and it's eldest son: Pu-Er.

Pu-Er is a very special type of tea as it breaks away from the typical idea of tea. Unlike other tea varieties, Pu-Er is solely produced in China (south-west of the Yunnan Province to be exact). Though it only comes from one region, do not assume that Pu-Er is a limited-variety type of Tea as you would be completea wrong. One could spend a lifetime exploring and discovering the world of Pu-Er teas and still find new flavours and types among the collections of Old (Vintage) Pu-Ers, Young (New) Pu-Ers, Shou Pu-Ers (artificial fermentation), and Sheng Pu-Ers (natural fermentation). Though Pu-Er has a very wide range of varieties, it's appearance does not vary much. People new to tea are surprised to discover that Pu-Er tea is often sold in compressed disks; a very unothordox way to present tea (shown below). Though it is not uncommon to have loose leaf Pu-Er, the compressed disk is the most common shape and presentation. To mix things up a bit, other shapes such as domes, rectangles, and little coins are used as well.

Compressed Disks of Pu Er Tea
Why the disk (or equivalent compressed shape)? Pu-Er tea is often stored for long periods of time and the compressed shape allows large quantities of tea to be stored, and transported, very easily (though it can be very heavy). When it is time to be steeped, it is very easy to chip of a chunk of tea with a knife.

Storage of Pu-Er Tea courtesy of this very informative page on Pu-Ers 
Just like yogurt, cheese, and bread, Pu-Er tea exists thanks to a collection of bacteria, fungi, and molds found in it's native region. Do not be so quick to scrunch your face in disgust and put down your cup of tea, the bacteria simply help the tea leaves to ferment and give the tea it's aged earth undertones.

When one thinks of Pu-Er, 'earthy' is a common descriptor for the aroma and feelings one gets from a warm cup. Depending on it's age, method of storage, and whether or not it's a disk or loose tea, Pu-Er tea can inherit the following qualities along with 'earthy':

  • Woody
  • Musty
  • Smooth
  • Copper-Like
  • Full Bodied

 How does one unlock the many hidden qualities of Pu-Er tea? With the perfect steep. Though I mentioned that Pu-Er tea is the most forgiving type of tea when it comes to water temperature and steeping time, this is not to say that we can do whatever we want with it, it simply means that it is quite difficult to 'burn' the tea leaves, or over-steep the leaves to a bitter end. Should we wish to experience the full character that is Pu-Er, we should still pay close attention to the conditions that bring out it's full potential and many sides.

Pu-Er requires the hottest water among it's tea siblings as the water used should be just off the boil. Infusion time depends on what steep you are about to enjoy. Generally, the very first infusion is a quick rinse of the Pu-Er tea (pour water over the leaves and immediately pour the water out). As Pu-Er tea is well aged, this helps to get rid of any dust or impurities that might be present during storage. A particularly old Pu-Er tea should be rinsed twice. After the first (or second) wash, the steeping times range from 25 seconds (from the first real steep) to 60 seconds (for the eighth steep) in 5 second increments. Believe it or not, a ninth steep is possible if the tea is left to sit for 90 seconds. As you can see, Pu-Er tea has quite some milage. For those who find numbers a bit confusing, the table of times is below.
1st real infusion (After wash) - 25 Seconds
2nd infusion - 30 Seconds
3rd infusion - 35 seconds
4th infusion - 40 seconds
5th infusion - 45 seconds
6th infusion - 50 seconds
7th infusion - 55 seconds
8th infusion - 60 seconds
9th (and most likely final) infusion - 90 seconds

I am starting to realize that a single post of Pu-Er could go on for pages and pages and as such, I will stick to a basic introduction today, saving the more detailed information and anecdotes for a later expansive post. One last thing to add for tonight's post is about Pu-Er grading and quality. Like all it's siblings, Pu-Er's quality is heavily influenced by the age of the leaf.

The largest and eldest of leaves (picked late in the season) yield grades of around 9 or 10 and are the most common when buying a disked shaped Pu-Er. As the leaves get smaller and younger, the grade (and quality) rises higher and higher (as does the price). Averaged sized leaves (and not too old) will offer a grade of 5 or 6, while the early spring buds (and shoots) will give the highest grade of 1 and 2. I hope to be able to appreciate (as in taste) such a quality tea one day.

Though I could go on and on about Pu-Er, I would like to save that for a later date and first finish the basic introductions of the Tea Family. Having a basic understanding of each type of tea will give a greater appreciation of the wonderful and unique details later on. To hold you off on your Pu-Er fix till then, I recommend that you go out and buy a basic Pu-Er and try it out! A disk should cost around $35 which is not too expensive considering the large amount of tea you are getting. Be sure to only break off a small chunk at a time and enjoy!

Edit: Did you miss the other siblings? If so, check them out here

Here is a quick link to each of their pages


  1. Making a nice start there, Martin. Something I'd add is that many, if not all, of my disappointments with pu have been with aging silver bud raw cakes, and finer, bud-rich cooked cakes. Not everyone would agree, but, if I was collecting now, I would not buy young "needle" or silver bud sheng except for immediate drinking. (High grade leaf is not a prob for raw, but it is for cooked pu.)

    As for the cooked cakes, I would not buy gong ting, or golden bud or any fine or "emperor" grade teas. I find they don't stand up to the fermenting or aging like a tried and true recipe cake like 7572 or a cheap basic tuocha from Nan Jian.

    This is all very much a matter of opinion, but I've had to discard a lot of expensive teas but very few cheap ones.

    Anyway, I'm sure I've started a controversy. Hope it's an interesting one. Keep blogging the pu!


    1. Hello! Sorry for the late reply, somehow this passed by me.

      I have only had one disappointing experience with pu-er tea and that was from a local tea shop that I will be avoiding. Bland, flavourless, and completely unremarkable.

      I would be curious to know why you found your experiences disappointing... did you expect more because of the price, or simply comparing to other experiences?

      I find it interesting that in the tea world, price does not always equate to quality. In fact, many unsuspecting buyers are lured to more expensive tags without knowing what truly makes a tea great. I've had some amazing finds for lower prices contrary to some forgettable steepings of higher priced teas.

      Forgive me for not addressing each tea you mentioned separately, I am still relatively new to the tea world. That being said, I took down the names and will be hunting them down to try!

      Happy steepings

      (interesting short stories blog! I would be curious to know how you stumbled across tea!)

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