Complete Guide to Pu-erh Tea

pu-erh tea with wooden plate

Not every tea is created equal. Some of them may be light and breezy, and others may be richer and more mellow. Pu-erh tea belongs to the latter.

 Pu-erh tea is a special type of dark tea made in Yunnan, China. It is special because it tastes better as it ages – just like wine. Pu-erh tea undergoes a fermentation process when it ages, creating a richer taste in every cup. In China and Hong Kong, pu-erh tea is usually consumed with dim sum. In other parts of the world, pu-erh tea is more known for its good reputation of health benefits.

But what exactly is pu-erh tea? Find your answers here: the history, flavor, types, caffeine content, health benefits, brewing method, and where to find the best ones.

The history of pu-erh tea

The history of pu-erh tea can be traced back to more than a thousand years ago, during the Tang Dynasty era (618-917 CE). Back then, tea was traded all across China and its neighboring regions, including to the Tibetan plateau. Since the Tibetan plateau could not produce their own teas, they depended on Chinese traders who traveled for months to reach Tibet.

One of the tea-producing provinces was Yunnan Province, which was famous for its large-leaf tea trees (Dayeh). To make the teas last, teas from Yunnan were all pressed into cakes and bricks to make them more portable. Because of time and environmental conditions, the tea was naturally fermented during the journey. Those fermented tea bricks and cakes from Yunnan are known now as sheng (raw) pu-erh tea. The name pu-erh itself came from the town where pu-erh tea originated - Pu’er City.

Pu-erh tea became even more famous during the Ming Dynasty era, and finally was popularized in the Qing Dynasty era. The rising popularity of pu-erh tea meant more people knew about the benefits of pu-erh tea, which helped the tea become even more famous! As time went by, pu-erh became even more popular, increasing the demand for this ancient tea.

In the 1970s, pu-erh tea artisans in the Kunming Tea Factory tried to find a way to make the process of making pu-erh tea faster to meet consumer demands. They came up with a way to expedite the fermentation process through the “wet-piling” (wo dui) process, which is done by piling the pu-erh tea in thick piles, allowing controlled bacterial and fungal fermentation to happen and aging the tea artificially. This is the shou (ripe) pu-erh tea we know now.

Pu-erh tea now becomes the “wine” of Chinese tea – it is aged, highly sought after, and hence, highly prized. In tea history, there have been several “pu-erh bubbles” happening, one of them in 2007. Just like any other market bubbles, pu-erh bubbles cause the price of pu-erh to soar, which is then followed by a sudden drop. Tea connoisseurs are speculating on this and taking profit in this bubble. Some people even hoard pu-erh tea. This can not only cause pu-erh tea prices to rise, but also give rise to “fake” pu-erh teas – those who are not from Yunnan!

Now, pu-erh remains a highly prized tea. Although not priced as high as during the bubbles, pu-erh still becomes a high-end tea with a loyal following. But this does not mean that pu-erh tea is hard to find! You can find pu-erh tea in a lot of dim sum places. So, next time you want to eat your favorite dim sum, don’t forget to get a pot of pu-erh tea too!

What does pu-erh tea taste like?

The taste of pu-erh tea may differ according to age and processing type. 

Sheng (raw) pu-erh tea may initially taste bitter and astringent, but it ends in natural and cleansing sweetness. As pu-erh ages, the bitterness will start to fade away, making a smoother, more mellow tea to accompany your enjoyable time.

Shou (ripe) pu-erh tastes a little different – because of its accelerated fermentation process, ripe (shou) pu-erh tea tastes lighter than raw (sheng) pu-erh tea. It has a light and crisp body with an earthy flavor, balanced with notes of spring honey. Same as raw (sheng) pu-erh, ripe pu-erh also tastes better as it ages.

Choosing good ripe (shou) pu-erh can be tricky – the poorly produced ones may taste moldy and smell fishy. That is not what pu-erh tea should taste and smell like. However, it is true that ripe (shou) pu-erh is generally more earthy than raw (sheng) pu-erh, so choose the one you like!

The differences between raw (sheng) and ripe (shou) pu-erh tea

The differences between sheng (raw) and shou (ripe) pu-erh teas lie in the history, processing method, price, taste, and appearance.

  1. History
    Sheng (raw) pu-erh tea originated from Yunnan more than a thousand years ago, while shou (ripe) pu-erh tea has a much shorter history – it was first made back in the 1970s, still in Yunnan, in an attempt to make a cheaper and “shorter” version of sheng (raw) pu-erh tea.

  2. Processing method
    Sheng (raw) pu-erh tea’s process is similar to green tea – withering, pan-frying, rolling, drying – but is then compressed, often into cakes or discs. After compressing, it is carefully stored and aged for future consumption. This process may take years, with the rarest sheng pu-erh teas being fermented for up to 30 years for the highest quality. Meanwhile, shou pu-erh tea is fermented before compression. To accelerate the fermenting process, after drying, shou pu-erh undergoes the “wet piling” process for 1.5 months before compressed into the forms of shou (ripe) pu-erh tea we know now.

  3. Price
    Because of the accelerated fermenting process, shou (ripe) pu-erh is cheaper and can be consumed shortly after production. Meanwhile, the price of sheng (raw) pu-erh increases as the tea ages – the older the tea, the higher the price.

  4. Taste
    Raw pu-erh tea’s taste may differ as the aging process flows. Young raw pu-erh may taste grassy and bittersweet, but as it ages, it loses its bitterness and develops its complexity. The good quality raw pu-erh teas may taste smooth and earthy. Ripe pu-erh tea can also taste like aged raw pu-erh tea, as long as the production process is good – bad ripe pu-erh tea may taste fishy and mushroomy, because of the bacterial fermentation process. Overall, ripe pu-erh tea has a narrower flavor profile compared to raw pu-erh tea.

  5. Appearance
    Sheng (raw) pu-erh tea leaf looks light green, while shou (ripe) pu-erh leaf looks darker because of the fermentation process. After brewing, sheng (raw) pu-erh tea appears light and yellow – lighter than shou (ripe) pu-erh, which appears dark and clear red in the cup.

The differences between pu-erh and green tea

The differences between pu-erh and green tea lie in harvesting, processing, brewing, and flavor.

  1. Harvesting
    Pu-erh tea is harvested from a special large leaf variety of Camellia sinensis, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, exclusively found in Yunnan, China.

    In contrast, green tea is harvested from the small leaf type of Camellia sinensis, found in various parts of China, such as Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

  2. Processing method
    Raw (sheng) pu-erh and green tea undergo similar processing methods: withering, pan-frying, rolling, and drying. However, raw pu-erh tea is dried in the sunshine, while green tea is dried with hot air.

    Ripe (shou) pu-erh tea is even more different than green tea – it is fermented after drying using the “wet piling” method.

    After the process is finished (drying for raw pu-erh, and fermentation for ripe pu-erh), pu-erh teas are usually compressed into cake/disc forms, while green teas are not.

  3. Brewing method
    Pu-erh tea tastes best when brewed using boiling water, while green tea should be brewed in a lower temperature water to avoid burning the leaves, creating an unpleasant taste.

  4. Flavor
    Green tea usually has a sweet and light flavor, much lighter than the rich and earthy pu-erh tea. Also, because of the fermentation process, pu-erh tea tastes better as it ages, while for green tea, there is no need to age it.

Caffeine content of pu-erh tea

Due to the long fermentation process, pu-erh tea tends to have higher caffeine content than other tea types. One cup (240 mL) of pu-erh tea can contain 30-100 mg of caffeine – still lower than a cup of coffee (95-200 mg caffeine/cup). 

How about ripe and raw pu-erh tea? Is it true that ripe pu-erh tea contains lower caffeine? The answer is false – ripe pu-erh tea contains higher caffeine than raw pu-erh tea because of the microbial fermentation happening in the wet piling process. A study in 2011 shows that ripe pu-erh tea contains 60-70 milligrams of caffeine per 8oz, while raw pu-erh tea only contains 30-45 milligrams of caffeine per 8oz. However, both numbers are still lower than the caffeine content of coffee – 95-200 milligrams per 8oz! 

Health benefits of pu-erh tea

The fermentation process of pu-erh tea creates several important health benefits.

  1. Improving focus and alertness
    Because of its medium-to-high caffeine content, pu-erh tea can be a healthy drink to boost your energy and improve focus. So, the next time you need to stay up all night, you can choose pu-erh tea as your healthy, sugar-free “energy drink”!

  2. Inhibiting cancer growth
    Both sheng (raw) and shou (ripe) pu-erh tea are rich in antioxidants, which inhibit cancer growth. Although the research is still at an early stage, pu-erh tea shows great potential in inhibiting cancer growth!

  3. Promoting weight loss
    Thanks to the healthy probiotics – or beneficial gut bacteria – from fermentation, pu-erh tea can promote weight loss. Pu-erh tea can also help create less new fats while burning existing body fat, helping us to lose weight.

  4. Lowering blood sugar levels
    Still on the topic of probiotics, the healthy probiotics present in pu-erh tea may help improve blood sugar control, which helps us with weight management and hunger!

  5. Improving cholesterol
    Pu-erh tea helps improve our cholesterol level by decreasing fat accumulation and keeping fat from being absorbed into our bloodstream.

  6. Boosting liver health
    Because pu-erh tea can decrease fat accumulation, it can help prevent or reverse nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which happens when excess fat accumulates in our liver.

How pu-erh tea helps you lose weight

One of the benefits of drinking pu-erh tea is weight loss, thanks to its healthy probiotic components from fermentation. These healthy probiotics can help improve your blood sugar control, enabling you to control your weight and hunger. Not only that, although the evidence is still limited, there have been several studies on animals, test-tube, and humans (Asian and non-Asian participants) about how pu-erh tea helps you lose weight.

The animals and test-tube studies show that pu-erh tea helps synthesize fewer new fats while burning existing body fats, which results in weight loss for you. One study on Japanese adults shows that drinking pu-erh tea extracts (333 mg) before each of the 3 daily meals can improve body weight, BMI, waist circumference, and visceral fat values after 8 weeks.

Another study was conducted on non-Asian participants. It shows that drinking pu-erh tea extracts (3 g/day) can lead to fat loss for arms, legs, hip/belly, and the total fat mass in general. It also leads to improvements in lipid profile and cholesterol. And most importantly, the study also finds that the people who drink pu-erh tea extracts consistently see a transient reduction in appetite.

Even though the studies show the results of drinking pu-erh tea extracts, which may contain more nutrients than what you would get from drinking pu-erh tea normally, you can still get the benefits of pu-erh tea that can aid weight loss by drinking the tea normally. However, remember to combine your pu-erh tea with a healthy diet and regular exercise to make the most of pu-erh tea!


pu-erh brick

The best way to drink pu-erh tea

There are two ways to enjoy your favorite cup of pu-erh tea: cup method and gaiwan method.

  1. Cup method

    If you are in a rush or just want to drink your pu-erh tea easily, you can use the cup method.

    First, preheat your teacup with hot water, and then discard the water.

    Brew 2 teaspoons (2g) of tea with 8.8oz (250ml) hot water (210°F/ 100°C). Brew it for 3-5 minutes.

    There you go, your pu-erh tea is ready!

  2. Gaiwan method

    In the mood of going traditional? Try the gaiwan method!

    Gaiwan – which literally means “lid and bowl” – is a traditional Chinese tea brewing vessel that can elevate your Chinese tea drinking experience.

    To get your cup of pu-erh tea using the gaiwan method, you need to first preheat your gaiwan by pouring hot water into it, then discard.

    Put 4 grams of pu-erh tea in the gaiwan and pour some hot water into it, and discard the water. This process is known as “awakening the tea”, or opening up the tea leaves. You can discard the water into your teacup to preheat it.

    Pour hot water (210°F/ 100°C) into the gaiwan to brew your tea. For the first steep, you can do it for 15 seconds.

    Serve your tea using a teacup. You should not drink your tea directly from the gaiwan. Now your traditional pu-erh tea is ready!

    (You can steep your pu-erh tea for 8 times, each additional one will take a longer time to steep. From the first steep to the eighth steep, we encourage you to take 15s, 20s, 25s, 40s, 60s, 80s, 80s, and 100s)

Where to buy pu-erh tea

When you buy pu-erh tea, make sure you choose a high-quality seller to avoid drinking moldy, muddy pu-erh tea. Beware of fake pu-erh tea too, as there are some on the market!

BornTea offers authentic and sustainable pu-erh teas straight from the farmland in Yunnan, China. We source our sheng (raw) pu-erh tea from Gongfu Ren Garden in Yunnan and shou (ripe) pu-erh tea from Wan Lin House, also in Yunnan. Both farms have been around for generations, ensuring you the best quality of pu-erh tea. 

Treat yourself with the authentic sheng (raw) pu-erh tea and shou (ripe) pu-erh tea from BornTea – directly from the Yunnan farmland to your doorstep.

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