Pu-Erh

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Pu-Erh is a post-fermented black tea, which traditionally comes from Yunnan in China. Pu-erh is often served with dim sum. Chinese medicine practitioners have used pu er teas for many centuries for their digestive properties and cleansing action on the digestive system.

Pu-Erh has a very dark red colour, which is almost black when brewed. Pu-Erh smells like fish and has a challenging moist-earth taste, because it undergoes a second fermentation in cellars or traditionally caves. Pu-Erh is believed to be full of healthsome properties, with the oldest pu-erh teas favoured by the Cantonese. Pu-Erh is believed to absorb surplus cholesterol and aids digestion. Pu-Erh is often recommended for dieting by traditional medicine practitioners.

Infusion

  • Quantity: 1 teaspoon (2½ g) per cup or person
  • Water temperature: 95oC (200oF)
  • Rinse: Rinse(i) twice for 3 seconds
  • Brew time: 4 - 5 minutes

(i) Pu-erh teas benefit from being rinsed before brewing. To rinse tea leaves, pour over hot water to just cover the tea leaves, swirl for 3 - 5 seconds, then pour off.

Processing Pu-Erh Teas

Producing maocha

The first stage in producing pu-erh tea is to make maocha:

  1. Picking: different grades of tea leaves are pricked depending on the quality of tea to be produced. This grading system runs from 1 to 9 for pu-erh teas.
  2. Withering: the moisture level is lowered either by spreading the tea leaves out in the sun for a few hours or, mechanically, the leaves are spread on racks in a room and heated with radiant heat from radiators heated by hot water.
  3. Heating: small batches are heated in pans for 2 - 3 minutes, heated by wood fires.
  4. Rolling: the leaves are rolled by hand on bamboo mats until they form large balls, or the leaves are rolled in the same machines as used to roll withered leaves for green and black tea.
  5. Second Heating: sometimes the leaves are heated again in the wood-fired pans for another 2 - 3 minutes.
  6. Second Rolling: if the leaves are heated a second time, they are rolled again as before.
  7. Drying: the rolled tea leaves are dried in the sun or in a temperature- and moisture-controlled greenhouse. In industrial processing, the leaves are dried on a conveyor belt that passes through a heating machine.
  8. Sorting: all unwanted residues are removed by manual sorting.

The maocha is then either sold by small-scale producers to larger processors or the larger manufacturers continue to the next stages. Here, the two styles of pu-erh follow different routes - (i) sheng pu-erh teas or (ii) shou pu-erh teas.

Producing Sheng Pu-Erh Teas

Effectively, sheng pu-erh teas go through two stages of sorting and compression:

  1. Sorting and Grading: sorting separates the maocha leaves into different grades either by hand or machine - sorted into 9 grades from the smallest (1) to largest (9). Different origins may be grouped together.
  2. Compression: leaves from a particular grade are processed together and first are divided into the required weight of each cake to be formed. They are then sprayed with steam to hydrate them and soften them. A paper indicating the trademark of the tea (nei fei) is inserted into the leaves. The moist leaves are then placed in a cloth and pressed under a stone (the traditional way) or in an industrial press.
  3. Drying: The compressed cakes are laid out to dry in the air without ant cloths over them, so any residual moisture can escape. For industrial pu-erh cakes they may be dried in a room heated by hot water radiator pipes. At this stage, the cakes should have reverted to their original weight prior to being steam hydrated.
  4. Packaging: traditionally each pu-erh cake would be wrapped in its own identifying paper, then the cakes would be grouped in lots of seven (a tong) and placed in a bamboo basket as a lot of 6 (a jin).

Further Reading