Pu-erh tea is named for the region where it’s grown, in Pu’er City in the southern Yunnan province of China. In fact, only aged tea that comes from the Yunnan province can use the name Pu-erh. It’s one of the few teas to be designated a protected origin product by the Chinese government.
Like all other green and black teas, the Pu-erh variety also comes from the Camellia sinensis bush, but it differs in how it’s processed. Also known as vintage tea, Pu-erh is unique because it’s aged like a fine wine. Exportation of this special tea dates back to the 7th century, when explorers found that fermenting and compressing tea was the best way to ensure it didn’t spoil during their travels. Upon realizing that the tea leaves only improved with age, longer fermentation and warehousing times became the norm and the tea became sought after by many.
Health Benefits of Pu-erh Tea
1. Drinking Pu-erh tea increases alertness.
Like other teas that come from the Camellia sinensis bush, Pu-erh tea contains caffeine. But it differs from other teas because it doesn’t contain high levels of the amino acid L-theanine, which is what gives tea its calming effect. Teas that undergo fermentation like Pu-erh have the lowest concentration of L-theanine.
1. Pu-erh tea is a source of antioxidants.
Pu-erh tea contains polyphenols (antioxidants that help protect our cells from DNA damage). Polyphenols are responsible for most of the health benefits of Pu-erh tea. Tea polyphenols have a number of health-giving properties, including the prevention of many diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular disease. After fermentation, the concentration of antioxidants in Pu-erh tea increases (specifically gallic acid, quercetin and kaempferol, according to one study) giving it higher levels of these antioxidants than green tea.
A Pu-erh Tea Buying Tip
There are two main types of Pu-erh tea:
- Green or “Sheng” tea, also known as raw or uncooked tea
- Black or “Shou” tea, also known as ripe or cooked tea
The difference is in how the tea leaves are processed. Both the green and black varieties begin with the first steps of withering, rolling, sun-drying, steaming and shaping. The black variety has the additional step of cooking. Both varieties are then stored so that they can age.
Specialty tea shops and Chinese markets will likely carry Pu-erh tea; it’s not found in most commercial supermarkets. You can buy both green and black varieties of Pu-erh tea in loose leaf or tea bag formats, though the loose leaf variety is much more common.
How to Make the Perfect Cup of Pu-erh Tea
Mellow and smooth with a sweet, earthy flavor, Pu-erh tea is traditionally enjoyed in tiny cups (2 tablespoon size) with small (1/2 to 3/4 cup) teapots.
Here are the steps to brewing a cup of Pu-erh tea:
1. Measure out the right amount of tea leaves.
For green (raw) Pu-erh tea, use 3 grams of leaf per 6 oz of water. For black (ripe) Pu-erh use 6 grams of leaf per 6 oz of water. Remember loose leaf teas will expand in water, so what looks like a small amount of tea is more than it seems.
2. Heat the water.
Heat water just to the boiling point. Pre-heat the teapot and teacups about halfway with hot water, then pour the water out.
3. Rinse the tea leaves.
Rinse the Pu-erh tea with boiling water. Unlike other teas, Pu-erh tea should be rinsed before it’s brewed because rinsing washes off debris and primes tea leaves for steeping. Black Pu-erh tea usually needs to be rinsed 2-3 times, while green Pu-erh tea only needs to be rinsed once. Discard the water after rinsing.
4. Steep and repeat.
Put the tea leaves in the tea pot and fill the teapot with hot water. Steep for just a few seconds, then enjoy. With each subsequent teacup, steep the tea for about 10 seconds longer.
Editor’s note: Black tea is safe for most people, but consuming too much (more than five cups a day) may cause health problems due to excess amounts of caffeine. Too much caffeine may cause rapid heartbeat, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, headache and nervousness. If you take medication(s) that interact with caffeine, speak to your pharmacist before adding Pu-erh tea to your diet.