Pu-ehr tea (and damn it, Word, I really do intend to type Pu-ehr tea, not Pu-her tea) is the sauerkraut of Chinese teas, having been fermented by microorganisms growing on the leaves.
Like sauerkraut, it’s supposed to be really good for you. Generations of Chinese have believed that it regulates body weight, improves digestion (particularly after eating heavy, greasy foods), lowers blood pressure, eliminates toxins and more. Some of these claims have been supported by modern science, although I’m not feeling too fussy about this. (Did I mention that it’s said to promote weight loss?)
Just now I did some reading about Pu-ehr tea, and, oh, my, is there ever a lot to read! Turns out there is nothing simple about Pu-ehr tea. There are many steps involved in its production, and many types of Pu-ehr tea. The best Pu-ehr tea, for which connoisseurs pay big Chinese bucks, commands adjectives like “rich,” “earthy” and “deep”; the worst leans more towards “fishy,” “moldy” or “sour.”
All Pu-ehr tea starts as a type of large-leaf green tea grown in the mountains of Yunnan Province in southern China—and by 2008 decree of the Chinese government, it can’t start as tea grown anywhere else. (Roquefort cheese and Champagne wine have similar deals.)
Traditionally, Pu-ehr teas were dry fermented as they aged for 10-15 years or more. In the 1970s, a process akin to composting in its use of moisture and heat was developed to accelerate the fermentation so that the tea was ready in a year. Both types are available; you can guess which one you pay more for.
Two more pluses for Pu-ehr: It has less caffeine than regular tea. And it’s said you can re-brew a really high-quality Pu-ehr tea up to 20 times.
I have been trying two types of Pu-ehr tea, and I have tried re-brewing both of them, with so-so results, i.e., both types tasted significantly weaker the second time around, although this may have had more to do with my brewing technique than the tea.
One of the types is Rishi Pu-ehr Ginger, which has loose brown leaves with bits of ginger and orange peel for a bit of tang.
The other is Jasmine Pearl Sticky Rice Mini Tuocha Pu-ehr, where the “mini tuocha” means that the tea has been compressed into little bowl-shaped buttons, and the “sticky rice” refers to the tea containing a Chinese herb that tastes like sticky rice. Each button is wrapped in a square of pink paper covered with tiny Chinese characters; unwrapping a button and watching it disintegrate under a stream of hot water is very satisfying.
I find both of the teas to be earthy-tasting and pleasant to drink but also a bit flat, maybe even somehow wan, so I’m planning a trip to a Chinese tea shop to buy some unflavored, possibly higher quality Pu-ehr tea that may be more to my liking.
However, I doubt I will find a Pu-ehr tea with the so-nicely-mellowed-by-milk bite of English Breakfast Tea, or one that has the soul-satisfying substantiality of a cup of strong, hot, fresh-brewed coffee.
And I doubt Pu-ehr tea makes a good caramel macchiato…