Saturday, December 24, 2011

Puerh - No Middle Ground

I will be adding reviews of several puerhs in the first few weeks of the New Year. I thought before that happens a short primer is in order.

Pronounced pooh – uhr, puerh (or pu-erh, or pu’erh, depending on who is writing the word), is almost unheard of by most people in America. It traditionally comes from Yunnan, China as is named after the town of Puer. These teas start out processed similar to green tea. Then they are steamed and compressed into cakes or bricks of various shapes and sizes. The bricks are put into storage – often for years. Puerh is the only form of tea that reportedly improves which age. Quality bricks, several decades old, can be worth a small fortune.

Earthy, rich, dark, smooth, peaty, & mushroom, are all words often associated with puerh tea by people who enjoy them. Fishy and sweet dirt by those who are less than fans. There is very little room for middle ground here, once you try puerh, you either love or hate it.

The length of time the leaf is exposed to air before being heated (fired) to stop the oxidation process is the main difference between green and black tea. Puerh is different. A bacteria similar to that in a yogurt culture works its magic in the bricks to ferment the leaf. This process does not produce alcohol but does give the tea its unique flavor.

Puerh can be divided into two broad categories – sheng and shu.

Sheng is also called raw or green and has a lighter more delicate flavor that is closer to green tea tasting (but only sort of). The brew is lighter and has a yellowish tint. Sheng can be drank immediately or can be stored for decades. The flavor grows richer and darker with age. Young sheng is a complex drink that some find astringent, sometimes slightly bitter, with grassy or hay characteristics. Sheng is my favorite form of puerh.

Shu is also known as ripe, aged, or cooked. Shu involves a process developed recently in the 1970’s to meet the demand for aged puerh. The process simulates the taste of naturally aged puerh. Shu produces a very rich and dark brew. The darkest cup of tea I have ever encountered was a shu. Be aware, poor quality shu can have a fishy odor. It can also taste and smell musty, moldy, or like compost. Shu properly processed should not have a foul odor or taste. Aging does not improve shu as dramatically as with sheng. The finest shu I personally have tasted had a leather profile to it with floral notes. The attraction of shu is that it rather inexpensively allows one to drink a tea that closely simulates much older rarer leaf.

Both sheng and shu in loose leaf form can withstand multiple infusions. I have brewed as many as ten 12oz mugs of tea from a single spoon of leaf. For the curious, puerh can occasionally be found in bagged form. Numi, Stash (Yamamotoyama), and Foojoy are three brands I have seen in the international food market. You might also look in your local Asian market.

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