Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Reflective Moment on Puerh

The first time I was introduced to Puerh Tea was in Minneapolis, at the Hotel Ivy. I had just barely started blogging and so I was feeling a little adventurous in wanting to explore new teas. I had never even heard of Puerh, but whatever it was they served me that day, I found it dark and rich and mysterious. Looking back at my blog post, I see that it was Harney and Sons Puerh. Thank you, dear, departed John Harney, for the introduction.
My first taste of Puerh at the Hotel Ivy
May 2009
Despite the unsuccessful savories I had that day (one of the very few poor reviews I've ever given, and perhaps I was trying too hard to be a "foodie" (*sigh*)), this tea captured my attention. And yet, while I've had a cup here and there, I haven't spent much focused attention. Until now.

But let's take a step back. Puerh. An intimidating (and frankly unsavory) name as pronounced in the English language. "Pooh-air." Some people prefer to pronounce it "Pooh-urr," as though the absence of "air" from the "pooh" makes it more elegant. It's simply an unfortunate name. Once we get past that, however, we can begin to enjoy the unique and addictive nature of this beautiful beast. Interesting side note: Puerh is not actually grown or produced in the Yunnan town of Puerh. Though, this town was the official beginning of the Tea Horse Route, which was the starting point of the long journey Puerh tea made on the way to Tibet in the days of yore. Also of note, Puerh comes exclusively from the Yunnan province of China.

According to The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide, by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss, there are 2 types of Puerh: raw and cooked. Cooked Puerh is a relatively recent invention from the 1970's where demand necessity was the mother of invention. In order to get the tea to market more quickly, a new method was invented. Raw Puerh, however, is a longer process, which involves levels of controlled moisture to trigger a bacterial fermentation process, which gives it the unique flavor profile. Puerh was and is most often compressed into molded cakes of various shapes and sizes. Like some fine wines, Puerhs (if properly stored) improve with age. If aged over 10 years, the price tends to get serious. 30+ year-old Puerhs can fetch hundreds of dollars per cake or brick.

Another interesting side note. Much of Puerh tea comes from tea trees (not bushes) that are 20-30 feet tall and over 100 years old. In fact, there are trees that locals claim to be between 500 and 1000 years old! Villagers must climb these tall mammoths to carefully harvest the broad leaves.

This year, I snapped a photo of this over-sized mushroom-shaped Puerh (which apparently is sometimes called "Camel's Breath") at one of the TeaSource locations (also in the Minneapolis region, believe it or not). I've never known where to post this photo until now. You're welcome.


Here's the thing. Despite what any experts say, Puerhs are a little bit complicated and intimidating. Loose leaf Puerh is designated into 11 quality grades, and that's before even factoring in age, which adds additional complexity as well.  Where does one begin?

Where indeed? Among my current collection of teas I have 5 different Puerhs. So I decided to set up a little tea tasting for myself to see what I'd recommend on how to get a decent introduction to this type of tea.


Starting with the upper right, lightest to darkest -

Tea Setter Wild Grown Puerh - While incredibly earthy, this Puerh is pleasantly lighter than many Puerhs, even after being steeped for more than a minute. In both color and flavor, this one is a very good introduction to the genre that will not intimidate you. (I classify this: Step 2)

California Tea and Coffee Brewery Vanilla Mint Puerh - The ultimate gateway tea to true Puerh addiction. Purists might disagree with my inclusion of a Puerh blend, but when one comes across such an inviting blend that is so harmoniously balanced, AND it can introduce an entirely new genre to a palate, I say "bring it!" I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm not a fan of vanilla in tea, and yet, the subtle vanilla and mint mellows the unfamiliar fermented tea flavor that is an acquired taste for many. If you're intimidated by Puerh, begin your journey here. (I classify this: Step 1)

TeaVivre Fengqing Raw Puerh Tuocha 2006 - This Puerh packs a punch and is the most robust of this tasting. I don't know how else to say it, but you can "taste the raw!" It's edgy, it's not shy, it's powerful. And then there is this sweet finish that makes me think of honey. This 8-year-old is a force to be reckoned with and is worth the reckoning. (I classify this: Step 5)

TeaVivre Fengqing Zhuan Cha Raw Puerh 2006 - I found this one very interesting. It had a "green" quality to it, though it retained its fermented strains, and then there was this licorice finish. I would place it 3rd in line on a beginner's journey through Puerh. (I classify this: Step 3)

TeaVivre Fengqing Wild Tree Yesheng Raw Puerh 2013 - While this one also had a green, almost broccoli quality to its taste, it was the second most robust. Take no prisoners, pay attention to me, yes sir, may I have another sir, kind of charisma about it. (I classify this: Step 4)

I found it interesting that although the brewing of each tea created a rainbow of shades, the color of the liquid didn't necessarily correspond to the robustness of the flavor.

Is this the end-all, be-all of Puerh designations or journeys? Absolutely not! I explored this genre based on what I had on hand. There is an entire universe of options out there. But I will say, without hesitation, that if you don't know where to begin, any one of these will provide a positive introduction to the true, wild, beautiful nature of Puerh.