Wikipedia entry for Pu-erh or P'uerh tea and other sources: old Chinese aunty and scrap of badly translated instructions from an old pack of tea bought in Singapore
, note the following:
Pu-erh became popular outside of the tradition markets of Tibet and Mongolia, where for many years it was exchanged for horses, when it became sought after in Hong Kong for it’s health benefits, and for it’s mysterious quality of slow, natural fermentation, that causes it to improve with age. During the Cultural Revolution a lot of the old cakes were destroyed increasing the rareness of aged Pu-erh. In 1973, a process was invented to create fermented Pu-erh in a short time, from 40 to 60 days. Now the popularity of Pu-erh has spread out from Hong Kong and Guangzhou, to Taiwan, Beijing, and Shanghai within China, and the popularity of Pu-erh has started to spread to the US and Europe.
The basic ingredient is called mao cha. Mao cha is harvested and allowed to dry in the sun. Yunnan is the only province that grows tea that has a lot of sunshine and blue skies in China. All tea originated in Yunnan and it is surprising that these tea plants are called Camellia Sinisis Assamica. The reason is that when the British found tea growing in India they named it Assamica and believed that it was wild, but had actually been planted along the old Silk Road that ran from Yunnan and Burma into Assam. Even thought the origin issue has been cleared up, the ancient tea trees in Yunnan still have kept the name.
A lot of Pu-erh produced is supposedly made from wild tea trees, but this is not the case. Wild tea trees are known to make people pretty sick sometimes, and what is called ‘wild’ are, in fact, old tea trees that have been cultivated, and are usually over a hundred years old, the age of the tree being determined by measuring the trunk. Of course the quality of the mao cha is an important factor in Pu-erh. The ideal mao cha is not oxidized and has two leaves and one bud. Farmers typically bring their mao cha to towns and villages where is purchased by local buyers and sorted and then purchased by Pu-erh producers. Although relatively large areas maybe favoured by manufactures, small farmers do the cultivation. Since Pu-erh has become more popular, many farmers are cutting their old trees to create bushes that have a better yield, so the number of old trees is decreased every year. Most commercial Pu-erh is a blend of mao cha from different areas and there are some producers that will reveal the areas in Yunnan where the mao cha for the blend originated. These kinds of details enhance the value of the tea over time.
There are two general types of Pu-erh, cooked and raw. The raw or shen (green) Pu-erh is made from mao cha and steamed and pressed into cakes. It is the shen Pu-erh that demonstrates the miracle of Pu-erh. It slowly changes over time through a natural fermentation process. The microbes present in the mao cha that are not destroyed by the sun drying, work their magic and over 8 to 10 year, the raw is transformed to cooked; the green to black. It is the shen that is most valuable over time and starts to reach is full maturity after around thirty years.
Pu-erh teas are mysterious dark, fermented teas, which are robust, earthy, rich and grounding. Pu-erh is often a favourite tea of the truly dedicated tea drinker. This aged tea usually begins with a variety of leaf from exceptionally broad-leaved tea trees. The more mature leaves are used to make a crude dark oolong tea. This tea is either left loose or punched into cakes, then permitted to retain barely enough moisture-content that the tea continues to ferment slowly over time. For this reason, Pu-erh is best-stored open so that oxygen can continue to refine the tea.
In understanding about grades, it is wrong to assume that the 1st grade is the best grade for Pu-erh there is only an incidental correlation between the grade of the Pu-erh and the quality of an individual cake. It is always a question of taste. Of course if a lot of expensive buds are used in a cake, it will drive the price up, even if it is not consider a good candidate for aging, so don't be strictly guided by the grade, think also about the uniformity of compression, and if it is compressed too tight.
How to store the Pu-erh?
Pu-erh should be stored in places that have airflow, are clean and cool, without direct sun light and odours.
Small quantity Pu-erh: Small quantity Pu-erh can be stored on odourless wood bookcase.
Larger quantity Pu-erh: Larger quantity Pu-erh can be stored in ceramic containers. Glazed ceramic container can be covered with a cotton cloth to allow airflow and prevent dust. Porous ceramic container can be covered with a cotton bundle to avoid other odours.
Aged Pu-erh and young Pu-erh: Aged Pu-erh and young Pu-erh can be stored together to let them influence each other.
Ready to drink Pu-erh: edges of compressed Pu-erh may be aged very well, while centres of the same Pu-erh are not aged enough. Therefore, a ready to drink compressed Pu-erh can be broken into pieces and stored in a ceramic container for half month before being consumed.
The longer - the better?
To a certain extent, yes, it does but actually it is better to understand that the green unfermented pu-erh has the capacity to withstand longer period of storage up to at least 10 to 20 years because of the slow and longer time of fermentation taste and flavour including its colour is developed much better while the regular fermented pu-erh up to at least 2 to 3 years, due to a rapid wet fermentation process subjecting this tea to longer period would also create a breakdown of all the ideal taste and flavour including aroma.
Although age is an important factor affecting the taste of a Pu-erh tea, there are two other equally important, if not more important, factors. One is the leaf that was used in producing the tea. We call that tea base. Without a good tea base, no matter how long you store a Pu-erh tea, it can never make good tea. The other one is the storage method. If stored improperly, good tea will turn bad.
Storing compressed form of pu-erh is more practical due to its requirements for space because loose leaves would require more space and is easily contaminated with odours.
There are few 'rules' that you must follow. Other than starting with fine quality tea, you only really need to ensure the following:
Different types of tea require different water temperatures - black and puer tea need boiling water, but this will 'stew' green and white teas. For the delicate green and white teas, the water should be slightly cooler at around 165-185°F (75-85°C). Japanese macha green tea is made with water at 80°C.
Tea has a delicate flavour that is ruined by 'hard' water. Any water that has a 'taste' is not recommended. Either use spring water, or simply filter the water (a filter jug is fine). In China, it is said to be best if the tea is infused using water from a spring local to where the tea was grown, or from the center of the river. The ultimate tea water, legend has it, comes from snow that has melted from plum blossoms in full bloom, and then stored in bamboo for three years...hmmmm.....
Warming the pot
Allow the tea water to circulate over the tea.
Three different steeping methods
Place the required amount of tea into the pot and then half fill it with hot water. Replace the lid and gently rock the pot in a circular motion to warm the sides and rinse the tea. Now, discard the liquid. If you are brewing fine green or white teas, just use the hot water for this first step and add the tea afterwards. Next, making sure the water is still at the right temperature, pour in approximately the right amount for the number of cups you are making, cover and infuse for the required period. Serve the tea right away, making sure you do not leave any liquid brewing in the pot, as you will want to use the leaves again later for the next infusion.
This is the method preferred by tea connoisseurs, as it is the best way to get the full flavour and varietal nuances. Only small quantities of tea are made, the origins of this method are from 'haute society' and 'tea competitions'. The Gungfu approach takes extra time and skill, so it's probably not something you will do every time you make a cup. Also, it's only worth the extra effort if you're using high quality tea - bad tea will still taste like bad tea. The correct procedure and teaware are very important.
You will need either a genuine Yixing teapot (Yixing clay is the finest for producing teapots) or a traditional Chinese lidded pot called a Gaiwan. There are also small china pots available, purely for tea tasting. You will also need some good quality glass teacups (to appreciate the colour), a tray, a towel, a pitcher for holding and discarding excess tea.
Tall Glass Method
The tall glass method is very simple for fine green, white and yellow teas so that you can watch and appreciate the beautiful leaves as they unfurl and impart their delicate flavours. Basically, all you need is a tall glass, which you fill with the appropriate temperature of water and add the leaves. As fine green and white teas should never become too bitter, one can actually drink straight from the glass (once the leaves have sunk to the bottom) without taking the leaves out. Alternatively, you can decant the tea into separate cups.
Making tea is more an art than a science, and without doubt the most important factor to consider when brewing a pot is your own personal taste - how do you like to drink tea? It's perfectly acceptable to drink your tea very strong or very weak - however you like it to taste is the best way to drink it.
The only way to find out your taste preference (and you may like to drink each variety of tea in a different way) is to experiment. This is the basic equation for all tea making:
Quantity of tea x quantity of water x steeping time
You can alter these variables and come out with similar results - use more tea and a shorter steeping time, for example. The traditional Chinese method (known as Gungfu) is to use quite a large amount of tea and just a short steeping time. This brings out the subtle nuances of each variety that can be lost when employing a more conventional (Western) method of smaller quantities and longer steeping times. Because whole leaf tea, unlike tea bags, can be infused several times, even by using a large quantity it is still extremely cost effective. By using steeping only briefly, the tea can be infused more times - up to three times for green and white tea, and as many as seven times for the oolongs.
Different times for different teas
Every fine loose leaf Chinese tea is unique. Maximizing the subtle flavors and special qualities of each tea requires knowing and using simple brewing methods
Experiment with the different steeping times to see how you prefer to take your favorite varieties.
Puer teas are earthy and strong and improve with age.
Quantity of water: 8 oz / 225ml / 1 cup
Preferred method: Teapot (preferably Yixing)
Quantity of tea for each batch: 4 grams (approx 1/8 oz)
Ideal brewing temperature: 100°C (212°F)
Ideal infusion time: 10 seconds-1 minute
Number of infusions: 3
Now wasn't that easier than all that coffee malarkey?