Why Puerh?

waftingbanzhangPuerh tea holds the distinction of being the king of teas. There are an awful lot of delicious teas out there hailing from all parts of Asia, and now even Africa but puerh stands alone. Not for its deliciousness, for this is a purely subjective standard; and not for its health imparting properties, for all teas have constituents that are good for health. No, puerh is the king because it is the mother. In short, all Camellia sinesis has its origins in the subtropical mountain forests of Yunnan. Puerh tea is the source, the mother of all tea and as such possesses features that cannot be found among greens, oolongs, and blacks from other regions of the world like East China, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Kenya and last but not least India.

There are two main reasons why people drink tea, for health and enjoyment. They are not mutually exclusive. There is vast data compiled from researchers around the world on the healthfulness of tea in general. There is little need to catalog these studies since your interest in availing yourself of these benefits has already led you to the Puerh Junky. Instead, perhaps a discussion on the properties of puerh from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective will provide additional insights.

cnnp_1938_neifeiPuerh tea can be divided into two types of generally opposing nature, raw and ripe or unfermented and fermented. The most recognized of these is fermented, so let’s start there. During the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) that sought to destroy all things “old”, much of the traditionally aged puerh was destroyed. Specialists from neighbouring Guangxi Province, which already had a fermented variety called Liu Bao, were brought to Yunnan to effect a similar process on puerh. They used a method called wo-dui. It is essentially a form of composting, which allows heat and naturally occurring cultures to oxidize and transform source material, accelerating a process that would otherwise take decades to occur. Fermented, also called ripe or in Chinese shou or shu, puerh consists of microbial elements that have led some to call it “probiotic,” similar to yoghurt, kombucha, and even cheese. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the properties of ripe puerh are tonifying, slightly warming, and generally beneficial for those with weak digestion. The sweet and warming nature of ripe puerh has many people intuitively drinking it more in the autumn and winter, and during cold-rainy days.

img_0932Raw or sheng puerh is unfermented. It is most popular during the spring and summer. It may be considered a puerh version of green tea. All green teas possess the same cooling properties regardless of the temperature at which they are drunk. Chinese medicine holds that most raw vegetal foods are cooling and typically draining (duretic), the exception being spices and vegetables that have been processed, as in the case of ripe puerh. Raw puerh can come aged or young. The younger it is, the more cooling its properties. Aged raw puerh is in high demand and sellers will often fudge on the year of production in order to command a higher price. Fudging and counterfeits is a subject for another discussion. Whereas the art of fermentation becomes a distinguishing characteristic among ripes, raws more generally are distinguished by the quality of source material, determined by the number of infusions it yields, and the terrior. Some regions are recognized for their bitterness. In other instances, bitterness and particularly astringency is a mark of a young plantation-grown product. The verdict on any selection is often out because raw puerhs are dynamic. What might disappoint now may age to become something most spectacular. Aging and storage is unique primarily to puerh and might be another reason why it is crowned king.

Storage of puerh generally requires care similar to cigars: moderate humidity of up to 73% and an area free from light and volatile foods, like spices and essential oils. Most dedicated puerh enthusiasts will store their raws separately from ripes and smoky raws separately from others. How quickly a puerh changes depends on temperature, humidity, and density. Densely packed puerh, particularly many bricks, will transform slowly. A way to speed the process is to break a portion for separate storage in a jar, caddy, or container. The material from which the container is made will not affect the taste but will affect the rate of transformation. The more porous, the faster the change. If you plan to have your puerh for more than a year, then storage becomes a very important factor. Dried out puerh raw or ripe will not be very pleasing.

2012goldenpeacockOne of the key unique factors of the king is tree age. In contrast to most places in the world where tea grows in bushes, many puerhs comes from trees. In fact, some trees can be conservatively dated to be over 800 years-old. These are naturally highly prized. Scads of producers will add the terms “ancient arbor” or gu shu to their packaging, though this is often a sign of marketing puffery than fact. Another designation is “shengtai,” which refers to puerh that grows unmanaged with little to no use of fertilizer. The difference between shengtai and wild (ye-sheng) is that the latter tends to be older. The leaves of wild puerh are serrated, and the leaf stem and vein are thick and pronounced. These offerings will usually be sweeter and more complex. Both shengtai and ye-sheng are organic but may not be thus-designated, particularly among small outfits. “Qiao-mu” is another category denoting that the height of the tree is at least three metres, which in itself is a sign of age, and can be used to make raw or ripe puerh. Authentic old trees will usually not be fermented because they are more valuable as is.

From the discussion above the parallels with wine are apparent. Many a puerh junky is a convert from wine. The health benefits of wine notwithstanding, there are limits and obvious risks. Puerh not only has many health benefits but it also has zero risks. To date, no one has ended up on the streets from tea drunkenness. In fact, many people note enhanced productivity and focus from its consumption. There is also the little matter of expense. It is not possible to purchase samples of your favourite Cote du Rhone, and if you could, it would only be a glass. One serving of puerh 5-8g is a session, yielding numerous cups as it were. Consider also that once you uncork a bottle, you’ve got to drink it within a reasonable period before it goes flat. No such imperative exists for puerh and even wet leaves can sit out a day or two or be placed in the fridge to be revisited shortly thereafter. For those with refined tastes who appreciate the signatures of varying terriors, Yunnan can stand toe-to-toe with France. In fact, the intrigue of fine wine can only be enhanced through food pairings, but fine puerh can not only be paired with food but also possesses an intrigue throughout the session, that is from one infusion to the next. This is particularly the case with aged raws. Similar to wine, the sky is the limit to prices but there are also countless diamonds in the rough.

Puerh Junky offers many puerhs that you won’t find on other sites. Most other sellers won’t touch politically and historically themed offerings, but these have their own obvious charm. Most companies are overshadowed by the big names, but there are many award-winning companies that have very good tea. Ultimately the idea is to provide interesting selections, so that you can find your own diamonds in the rough.