Pu-erh tea is a special tea that is often thought to be an acquired taste. This is because it tastes and smells quite different from other teas. This first part of this article will focus on the differences between pu-erh, black tea, oolong, and green tea.
All teas are divided into three categories based on their processing methods: raw/unprocessed (green or black), semi-oxidized (white/brown), and fully oxidized (black or brown). All these teas taste different from each other. The flavor of a particular tea depends on the processing method used to produce it.
What Makes Pu-erh Tea Taste Different?
There are two main differences between pu-erh tea and other teas:
- Pu-erh is usually produced from a mixture of different tea leaves, before being fermented. This allows the tea to develop a distinct taste that cannot be reproduced by any other method. In comparison, all other types of green and black teas are produced from the same base material. Therefore, they generally have the same taste as each other.
Hence, these teas can be classified as either ‘raw’ or ‘oxidized’. As we will see in this article, these two division are not always clear-cut. For example, some white/brown teas are produced using semi-oxidized methods (leaving a bit of the leaf’s natural green color).
- Pu-erh tea is not fermented using bacteria. This makes it taste different from other teas, which undergo fermentation by the same bacteria.
The Aroma and Flavor of Pu-erh Tea
- Pu-erh is produced by steaming or boiling together a mixture of different tea leaves (or sometimes other ingredients). The resulting tea is generally known as a ‘mixed loose leaf’ or ‘bulk tea’. This process is commonly used in the production of black and oolong teas, although it is also used in green tea preparation. This means that pu-erh has a more complex aroma than other teas.
- Another distinct feature of pu-erh is its faint, pungent aroma. This is partly due to the fact that it is produced by fermentation of the tea leaves. In comparison, all other types of teas are produced through steaming or boiling, which does not contribute any aroma to the tea.
- A pu-erh tea’s flavor can be described as a sweet one. This is because it usually has a high percentage of both sugars and minerals in it (compared to other teas). Green and black teas generally have much lower levels of these substances in them than oolong teas do.
The main ingredients used in the production of pu-erh are young or middle-aged leaves, which contain a large proportion of carbohydrates and acidic substances
These substances are fermented by symbiotic bacteria and yeast to produce a complex aroma. This is also the reason why pu-erh tea can be stored for years without losing its flavor.
- In addition to its unique smell, pu-erh tea has a strong, pungent taste that lingers in the mouth for some time after drinking it. This is because of the large amount of tannins in its leaves (compared to other types of tea). Tannins are polyphenolic compounds found in many types of plants, including fruits, herbs, and trees. They are known to have antioxidant properties in them; thus they can also help to prevent cell damage and promote the formation of new cells.
Tannins are extracted during the fermentation process. This is why pu-erh tea is so strong in its taste. In comparison, green and black teas have relatively low levels of these substances in them. Tannins are also responsible for the bitterness that is sometimes associated with drinking pu-erh tea.
- Another characteristic of pu-erh is that it has a very distinctive, earthy aroma. This is because pu-erh tea leaves are often mixed with other types of tea leaves that are used for traditional Chinese medicine purposes. These are generally called ‘tonic’ (or ‘tonic’ and ‘medicinal’) teas.
The main ingredient of tonic teas is the herb Ephedra sinica, or Ma Huang (known in English as ma huang). It is believed to have stimulant and astringent properties. Other herbs used in the manufacture of tonic teas include the plant Scutellaria baicalensis and the plant Coptis chinensis.
The combination of these herbs produces a very distinctive aroma. This is why pu-erh tea can sometimes be described as having a ‘medicinal’ aroma
What Does Pu-erh Taste Like?
Pu-erh tea can be stored for many years without losing its delicious taste. This is because of the unique fermentation method used to produce it. Hence, most pu-erhs have a texture that is very similar to that of old, aged teas.
However, it should also be noted that different types and grades of pu-erh will have different flavors. Therefore, it is usually difficult to describe the taste of a particular pu-erh tea by comparing it with any other type of tea or by using traditional descriptions such as ‘earthy’ or ‘medicinal’ aromas.
There are some general descriptions that can be given to pu-erhs:
Brewed in different ways, pu-erh teas can have a very strong, pungent taste. Pu-erh teas are often described as having a ‘medicinal’ aroma and strength. There is also a wide variety of flavors that pu-erhs can have. These include: bitter, astringent, earthy, fruity (mostly when using the tonic leaves), spicy, sweet and sour.
Because of their unique production method, pu-erhs usually have a texture that is quite different from other types of tea. They often have a somewhat ‘firm’ or ‘dry’ mouth feel. This is because they are not fermented by bacteria (as other teas are).
For this reason, pu-erhs usually have a rather short shelf life (usually no more than two years), although some are known to be ‘aged’ for decades. However, they are very healthy beverages and should not be confused with plain black tea or oolong.
The taste of different types of pu-erh will vary. The most common types of pu-erhs include: ‘old sheng’, ‘young sheng’, and ‘mu shan’. There are also many other grades and types of pu-erhs, such as: ‘full leaf’, ‘shou puerh’, and others.