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What is Puerh?

by on July 8th, 2014

Sometimes, tea aficionados can forget that certain tea terms mean nothing to the uninitiated. As recently as last July I was equally in the dark. Yet now, after a year of working at Canton, my PG Tips guzzling friends give me blank looks when I talk about the ‘mouthfeel’, the ‘growing terroir’, or the ‘hui gan’.

But the one that most baffles the dedicated drinkers of what my dad calls ‘normali-tea’ is puerh. These mystical compacted cakes, wrapped in thin paper, fermented and matured like wine – to what purpose? As someone who only heard the term myself a year ago, I thought I’d provide a little introduction to puerh for those that are perhaps not familiar with this fascinating type of tea.

Puerh tea

Puerh is fermented green tea. It is either left loose,or compressed into solid, compacted blocks, in various shapes and sizes such as tuo cha (nests), beeng cha (cakes), or bricks, which are then stored to post-ferment and mature.

You can buy raw puerh and cooked puerh. Young raw puerh can be a bit too astringent, but is designed to be ‘laid down’ for several years to mature, during which time the flavour develops and they start to taste amazing. Quality puerh will continue to change and develop in flavour for several decades. Puerh should be stored in a dry, dark place with some air moving through it. Cooked puerh indicates that the ageing process has been accelerated to imitate the taste and fragrance of a raw puerh, and as such is generally ready to drink now (though some also benefit from further ageing).

2007 Lincang Loose Puerh

2007 Lincang Loose Puerh

To infuse puerh, you tease some of the tea out from the cake using a puerh pick (genuine or makeshift). You then infuse the tea, not once, not twice, but up to dozens of times. The best thing is that with a good puerh, each subsequent infusion develops a new wave of subtle and complex flavours, making every cup a unique experience. See the Tea School for more information on brewing puerh.

The cultural significance of puerh tea is huge. The earliest puerhs crafted in China have numerous myths and legends associated with them. Tea was first pressed into blocks for ease of transportation on the Tea Horse Road. One myth states that the post-fermentation process was inadvertently discovered after the horse’s sweat leaked into the compressed tea. (It is more likely the action of the humid climate of Yunnan on the stored teas produced this effect). It became celebrated for its flavour and health properties. Puerh continues to be revered for its medicinal properties in China today. It is said to combat ageing, heart disease, toxins in the blood, cancer, heart disease, cholesterol, digestive problems and to aid weight loss, blood circulation and even cure hangovers.

Puerh tongs

Puerh tongs

Nowadays, quality aged puerh regularly sells for millions of dollars in the auction houses of Hong Kong. This is symptomatic of the values of the emerging middle class, both their drive to invest (especially due to the backlash following Mao’s Cultural Revolution), and the flashy young businessmen who spend huge amounts at auction as a mark of status. Puerhs aged for 40 or 50 years are revered like vintage wines, and viewed as investments akin to fine art. See Ed’s informative blogs about the Puerh Market Bubble and the Puerh Market Spike for more information about this contemporary phenomenon, or if you’re interested in puerh as an investment.

We’re pretty excited about our two new puerhs, and while they may not catch the interest of a million dollar investor, they’re definitely something to write home about. These are quality aged puerh cakes; one which has been maturing since 1996, and another rare and unique cake from 2006.

1996 CNNP 'Green Mark Te Ji' Cooked Beeng Cha

1996 CNNP ‘Green Mark Te Ji’ Cooked Beeng Cha

If you’re new to puerh, I’d recommend trying something from the Canton Raw Single Mountain range. They’re fantastic introductions and will keep maturing and developing. We also have zero-fuss mini single use puerh nests to brew quickly in a pot for up to eight infusions.

Canton Raw Single Mountain Range

Canton Raw Single Mountain Range

If you want to treat yourself to a special young puerh in order to put it down for aging and have your own exciting journey with it as it matures and the flavour develops, I’d go for this amazing 2013 puerh from brilliant young tea master Zhong Xin, who Jennifer and Alice met in Yunnan last year. This is certain to develop beautifully, so it’s a really good purchase to make.

If your taste buds are tingling and you’re eager to try some puerh right now, go for something cooked, like the 2011 Menghai Cooked ‘7262 101’.

If you spend £100 on the Canton website before the end of the week, we’ll throw in a free Canton Cooked Beeng Cha.