The rain beat down as my wife and I wandered down the market streets of our city in Korea. We were taking my parents, visitors from the United States, around the various markets of the downtown area. This is where we decided to stop at a unique tea shop. Having never been here aside from purchasing a tea whisk about a year ago we were intrigued by the variety of both Korean and Chinese teas. There was one in particular that stood out the most. Pu’er.
Known as “보이차” (Bo-ee-cha) in Korean, Pu’er has a special and sublime character. For starters the tea originates in Southwestern China, in the Yunnan province. It is grown and produced in the city of Pu’er and the surrounding area. It is produced from the Assamica variety of the Camellia Sinensis tea plant. This variety is named for the Assam region in India and is also grown in Yunnan. The method of production is unique from other types of teas in that it is fermented. After the leaves go through a novel process of fermentation and oxidation that contribute to Pu’er’s peerless flavor, aroma and effects, it is then packed into circular bricks. The history of fermented teas like Pu’er go back centuries. This is the case with seng chaor Raw Pu’er. The raw can also be traced to that wondrous era of tea, the Tang dynasty. Where seng cha, along with other types of tea bricks, was often even used as currency. The other main type of Pu’er is cooked or ripe tea, known as shou cha.The ripe or cooked variety is much more recent and was developed to accelerate the aging process of the tea for a mass consumer market. The development of this style can be traced to the Kunming tea processing factory in the 70’s.
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Is that all for Pu’er? Not even close. The way it is prepared and brewed is something else entirely. As Pu’er is fermented it is then rolled into bricks. The fermentation process allows for lots of chemical reactions to occur in the leaves. This also lends for older Pu’er teas having a more powerful and extraordinary taste. Think more like an aged wine. The older it gets the more exquisite the taste and effects become, including some special health benefits. To prepare the leaves for consumption often square trays with a single opening at one corner are used to chip off pieces of the brick to be brewed. These square trays allow for an easier time brushing the broken off leaves into tea ware and bowls. Now for the actual art of brewing.
When brewed, Pu’er is usually served from exquisite clayware teapots such as the Yixing or from a Gaiwan style teacup. This is where Pu’er, not unlike the variety I tried in the rainy teahouse, manifests its unsurpassed character. Serving Pu’er in clayware that is used exclusively for the tea is a must. Continious usage of clayware like the Yixing style teapot allows the fragrance and taste of the Pu’er to further enhance each subsequent brewing. This is because the clay used to make the Yixing pots has a slightly porous character which absords the aroma and taste of the tea. This way a more bold and colorful character develops both within the pot and within the tea when it is brewed each time. It is said the flavor and smell evolves. Once you have placed your preferred amount of leaves into your Yixing pot, pour the contents into a separate kettle or ware. Then pour out this first rinse. The next subsequent rinses are what is desired. The color, flavor and aroma will all increase and shift and change. As is the nature of this chimerical drink. Pour the tea from the Yixing into the other tea ware pot or kettle and then into your chosen cup or mug. An alternative way to brew Pu’er includes the use of the Gaiwan. In which case, the Gaiwan will act as the main pot for the leaves. Repeat the same process as with a Yixing, including discarding the first rinse of hot water, you can pour the contents of the Gaiwan directly into your chosen cup or mug or into another piece of tea ware if so desired. Continue to brew the leaves a few more times as with the Yixing brewing technique.
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Now for the taste. It is my personal opinion that Pu’er is the emperor of teas. Matcha is superb and has a special place, but Pu’er is an experience all its own. The flavor increases in its intensity and richness the more it is steeped. It begins a bit light and soft and then reveals itself as a savory and delicious tea. The vivacious flow of the rivers, the freshness of the mountain air and the exuberant humid temperature of the land manifest virtuously in a full bodied Pu’er brew. The effects of drinking Pu’er are beyond the calm lift one feels when drinking any other green tea. Instead it is more akin to walking above clouds or traversing the seas by foot. Pu’er’s color is an almost maroon mahogany color. It is striking and rich and increases in its darkness the more leaves are steeped and brewed. The aroma has an almost umami quality. It has hints of jungle and floral plants. One can smell the nutrient rich soul of Yunnan in even a small whiff of the tea. Yunnan is a place that is out of this world, there are soaring mountains and tropical jungles near the border of Vietnam and Laos. There are limestone deposits and myriad lakes. The famous Mekong for example flows through Yunnan Province as well. Pu’er seems to absorb the attributes of all of these natural and fantastic wonders in its one of a kind taste.
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As mentioned before, the feeling from Pu’er is something all its own. Pu’er helps with blood circulation and this is the reason when one drinks Pu’er they feel like they are floating. The fermentation process allows for various blockages in circulation to be swept away when reacting to the chemical processes that are results of the fermentation process, and so not only does the body feel a soothing rush of relief but so does the mind. One cannot help but have an almost religious experience consuming a fine and well brewed tea. Whether it is their first time or their 50th. The caffeine level of the tea also begins to dissipate as the tea is aged. Older Pu’ers have almost no caffeine and so it is a perfect alternative to coffee or higher octane drinks. But one does not lose the pleasant and innervating flow from the drink either.
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The experience of Pu’er in that rainy tea house was no different. With each continuous brewing of the leaves, the smell, the taste, the color, the aura and persona of the tea developed and changed with each rinse of hot water. The rain fell harder and harder and the cold air swirled outside. But inside the Pu’er supplied a lift, like we were above the clouds. Like we were floating and there were no more worldly concerns for a while. Like the tea was alive and breathed some its life into us as well. This tea was truly one of a kind and it has earned the title of “Emperor of Teas” in my mind.