Almost Lost: The Incredible History of Puerh Tea

Almost Lost: The Incredible History of Puerh Tea

Ancient Chinese documents assert that Emperor Shennong discovered tea in 2737 BCE. Whether or not that precise date is accurate, experts tend to agree that tea is the most ancient of beverages. And puerh tea has the added distinction of being the rarest of teas. 

The history of puerh tea spans several millennia and is a story the world almost lost. At Zen & Tea, we are proud to offer this incredible gift to you. We invite you to choose the puerh that you enjoy the most for your tea rituals.

Laborious Beginnings

The Yunnan Province in China sits along the Mekong River and borders Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. It is lush and tropical and appears to be the birthplace of tea. Together with the Sichuan Province, Yunnan provided tea to other parts of China and into Tibet via trade along the Ancient Tea-Horse Trails

This ancient network of paths allowed the people to trade Tibetan ponies for tea from China, hence the trail’s name. At this time, Chinese tea was one of the most valuable commodities on the continent, and porters would make the trek with bales of dry tea. Often the loads weighed more than the people carrying them.

Puerh tea cakes from Yunnan were immensely popular during the Han Dynasty (206BCE-  220CE). But after that period, loose leaf tea became more readily available throughout the country, taking away the need for trading compressed tea cakes.

In fact, the Ming Emperor, Yuanzhang, outlawed compressed tea bricks altogether. Fortunately for us, his ruling did not reach the people of Yunnan. But by the end of the 20th century, puerh had all but disappeared. Locals deemed it inferior to other tea options, and the traditional processing came to a halt.

The tea trees, however, continued to grow.

A Rediscovery

Preceding the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, many Hong Kong residents relocated to Taiwan and brought vintage tea cakes with them to sell. Some Taiwanese tea connoisseurs suddenly were in possession of this delicacy and wanted to know more.

They traveled to Yunnan only to discover that the locals had no idea what they were talking about or what the tea cakes were. All pressing and processing had ceased generations earlier. 

Finally, coming across two older men who had worked in a puerh tea factory years before, the Taiwanese began to reconstruct the process. Thanks to that luck, we have the incredible puerh tea that we enjoy today.

An Ancient Process in Modern Times

Although puerh is in the tea family, it is different from other varieties such as green or oolong. From growing to drying to storing, the puerh process is unique among teas. 

Begin at the Source

Puerh tea leaves come from the camellia sinensis tree that can grow to be very large. Yunnan Province is home to ancient trees that still produce valuable leaves today.

There are wild arbor trees that grow untended and unpruned. Many connoisseurs believe these trees produce the best puerh. Their deep roots and lack of human interference make them highly-prized puerh producers. But this type of puerh is much more challenging to buy.

Yunnan also has cultivated and tended trees that are smaller. These so-called “terrace trees” make it easier to harvest the leaves. 

Fermentation vs. Oxidation

Many tea enthusiasts use the terms “fermentation” and “oxidation” interchangeably. However, they are two different processes. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that happens when the tea leaves are exposed to air. This occurrence develops the tea’s aroma, flavor, and color.

Fermentation, on the other hand, involves the growth of microbes such as yeast and bacteria. It is an ancient method of preserving food that exists in just about every culture. 

The fermentation process not only preserves resources, but it also introduces beneficial organisms. Foods such as yogurt, cheese, and even chocolate are available through fermentation.

Pressed and Shaped

Puerh teas are recognizable by their distinctive shape. Unlike the loose black, green, or oolong teas you see in stores, puerh leaves are compressed into various forms:

  • Cakes
  • Bricks
  • Bird’s Nests
  • Melons

The cake, or disc, is the most common form. After drying, tea makers steam the leaves and form them into a ball. Heavy stones shape the leaves to the desired mold before packing them in mulberry wrappers and leaving them to age. 

Puerh teas continue to ferment as they age, as long as conditions remain ideal. Mulberry wrappers allow this to happen.

Recipe papers are molded into the cakes to show the year of processing, the leaf grade, and the factory. Puerh receives one of ten grades that indicate how big or unbroken the tea leaves are. This can be somewhat inconsistent, however.

Raw and Ripe Puerh

Depending on the processing, puerh tea is either raw (sheng) or ripe (shou). 

Sheng Cha: Raw Puerh

Raw puerh undergoes a similar process to green tea:

  • Harvesters pick the youngest leaf shoots from the tree
  • The leaves wither indoors for some time and then further dried in a wok in the “kill green” process. This prevents oxidation.
  • Factory workers roll the leaves to shape them and bring out the oils.
  • The rolled leaves dry in the sun before workers press them into shapes.
  • The cakes or bricks remain in climate-controlled storage for years before consumption.

Sheng puerh tea carries a high value due to its long aging process. Cakes often remain in storage for ten years or more. Raw puerh typically has an earthy, light body and can be more astringent in flavor than its ripe counterpart.

Shou Cha: Ripe Puerh

Ripe puerh undergoes the same process as raw puerh until the aging component. Shou puerh ages more quickly because factory workers speed up the process through a method called “wet piling.” This method has only been around since 1973.

Before pressing, workers pile the tea leaves and add moisture to speed up the fermentation. Because of this method, ripe puerh can go to market within two to three months, rather than many years. The speed factor also makes shou cha less expensive than sheng.

Although pressing into molds is the traditional way of processing puerh tea, sometimes ripe tea is available in loose-leaf form. 

Ripe puerh has a bolder flavor and darker body than does raw puerh. Most enthusiasts prefer sheng cha and often recommend it for those who are new to drinking puerh tea.

Brew the Perfect Cup

Puerh is somewhat forgiving when it comes to infusing. It is unlikely to get bitter with a more prolonged infusion. Typically, puerh experts recommend two to four minutes. You need about three grams of tea for 200mL of water. 

The hotter the water, the stronger the brew, so you can adjust according to taste. You can use the same puerh tea leaves several times.

Ready to Try Puerh?

Through careful study, Master Wang cultivated a love for puerh tea and all of its benefits. And now his family is proud to offer you the opportunity to enjoy it, as well. Our online store has everything needed to make puerh tea part of your healthy lifestyle.