Tea is unique in many ways. This uniqueness is not limited to brand name nor is it limited to flavors, smells, colors, and cultivars. In fact, the more we invest in tea, the more we learn about its properties, effects and ultimately what we can get from it. Without exploring the details of tea, this post’s focus is on a particularly historically unique tea that originates from Yunnan China: pu’er tea. I want to spend the next few moments to not only detail pu’er tea and its importance to Chinese tea tradition but also to highlight Japanese innovation and how they have arrived at their own pu’er tea.
There are two ways to answer this question, the simple way and the detailed way. The simplest answer is that pu’er tea is a rarer fermented tea that is originally from Yunnan, China. This tea is made from “wild old tree” leaves. Unfortunately, this answer leaves out many details and requires added details to fully understand what it makes it truly special.
Technically speaking, for tea to be designated ‘pu’er’ it much be grown in Yunnan Province in China (In 2008, for example, the Chinese implement strict geographical requirements for making pu’er tea) and be processed from the Camellia sinensis assmica plant. The assimica variety is one of two varieties used in making all teas around the world. This variety is generally considered more tropical verses its sister Camellia sinensis sinensis. It also has larger leaves and flourishes in warmer temperatures.
This technicality is cemented in two processes for producing the end product. As you can imagine, it is not as simple as plucking leaves from the plant and drying it out. The traditional method, also known as “raw pu’er” involves the plucking of a bud and 3 or 4 leaves. The 3rd and 4th leaves that are plucked are leaves that have stayed on the tree for a longer period of time and contain more nutrients and flavor. The leaves are then fried in a pan. This processes selectively activates and inactivates certain enzymes which help define pu’er. The leaves are then withered or rolled, and then left to dry under the sun unlike many other types of teas. One of the immediate benefits of drying the leaves in the sun is that the leaves do not overheat to the point of destroying the remaining enzymes. Another benefit is that the leaves ferment under the sun. The raw tea is overtaken by the fermentation of mold and is then compressed often into a cake-like form where it sits in a more controlled environment. Oddly enough, some raw pu’er tea ages for 50 years or more! This entire process turns it more into a black tea and helps define its uniqueness.
Ripe pu’er stands out as a separate process for creating pu’er. The leaves go through a similar process of being plucked, pan fried, rolled and dried. However, unlike raw pu’er, the leaves are piled and sprayed with water. In a hot environment, the fermentation subsequently takes hold of the leaves for up to 7 weeks. The tea is then dried and shaped. Ripe pu’er seeks to shorten the aging steps versus traditional pu’er. In fact, the aging process totals approx. 1 year for many ripe pu’er teas.
Diving deeper in pu’er teas gives us an idea of understanding quality and some of the important differences in flavors. Some of you may have already experienced pu’er tea from Yunnan. But what makes quality pu’er stand out? A few considerations will help. Part of the answer to this is understanding cultivation. Some pu’er tea is cultivated from “old growth trees” that are known for the highest of quality. Plantations, on the other hand, constituted the mass market of tea leaves and are generally of lower quality.
Another part of this question is answered by the way in which the leaves are grown. Higher altitude is a net benefit for pu’er tea in the Province of Yunnan. These leaves tend to have a richer flavor. Other valued considerations include “wild trees”, larger and older “trees”, particularly organic “trees”. Older “trees” have deeper roots and have had more time to collect important nutrients. While wild “trees” tend to have a relatively stronger taste mixed with slight bitterness.
Further, the first harvested tea leaves tend to be of a higher quality than the following year’s harvest. This may not be an obvious consideration nor noted on tea packages from various producers but the first tea of the season, even in the world of sencha, is highly noted amongst many tea enthusiasts. It is important to note that there are years where tea may be harvested multiple times and this will lower the quality of the leaves.
Pu’er tea quality is also shaped by several additional factors including soil quality, air quality, weather and ultimately the time and care required to produce the desired end product. The seriousness of these considerations are not limited to pu’er tea but help define it as a separate and loved tea.
If you were to review teas produced in a given year in Japan, Japanese pu’er would constitute a relatively small % of the overall production. So what makes it unique? First off, Japanese pu’er is not Chinese pu’er. This an important distinction not simply in historical terms but in terms of the how-tos. Second, Japanese pu’er stands out in some respects, particularly when considering the way in which it is produced.
Japanese pu’er is best outlined relative to other teas. It is, like Chinese pu’er, fermented tea and ends up in the world of black teas. It leaves you with a dark cup of tea and is often considered pu’er tea alongside Chinese pu’er tea. It is not like sencha, which is considered an unfermented tea. This difference is furthered not only by its color but its production methods. The Japanese employ their own innovation into the mix. Instead of aging the tea and differentiating between raw and ripe pu’er, Japanese pu’er is developed from another Japanese tradition.
If you are familiar with shochu chances are you may have been exposed to it’s linked to Japanese pu’er. Shochu 焼酎is a Japanese alcoholic beverage, approx. 35% or less alcohol often made from rice or barley or other bases. In Shochu is a mold that breaks down the starches of the base ingredients into fermentable sugars. While there are three types of molds, the one that concerns us and its relationship to Japanese pu’er is Shirokoji 白麹or “white mold”. With the shirokoji, unoxidized green tea is subsequently fermented for approximately four days. In a highly controlled environment that resembles more of a laboratory than a tea production site, Japanese pu’er tea is created. In fact, Japanese innovation was able to create two new polyphenols along the way!
Here is a video we made about Japanese Puerh Tea:
Yes. Japanese pu’er is a great option for pu’er lovers and those curious to try this special tea. Dark and often with a toasty-like flavor, Japanese pu’er is also incredibly healthy. It includes the probiotics you find in Chinese pu’er, in fact pu’er is the only tea that contains probiotics. Additionally, it is loaded with antioxidants and the benefits of lowering cholesterols and helping those lose weight. It’s not always easy trying out new teas but Japanese pu’er may not only teach you something about the innovation of tea but the joys of trying something new.
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