Pu’er is a type of fermented tea often sold in “bricks” or “cakes” that is said to possess a wealth of health benefits and a unique taste. In this guide, we’ll look at the taste, history, and production of this tea while also seeing if those health benefits are real.
Pu’er is spelled a few different ways and is also referred to as pu-erh or bolay or simply as dark tea in English.
The History of Pu’er Tea
There is a town in China called Pu’er, but this town was named after the tea and not the other way around. The tea is said to have been first created hundreds (potentially thousands) of years ago in the Yunnan Province, and it was likely an accidental discovery. Tea was packed into bricks for easier transit and may have naturally fermented while being moved across expansive trade routes. It may have also been the result of producers simply looking for ways to store their harvest for future use.
Health Benefits of Pu’er
Pu’er tea has been labelled as a panacea, and its rising popularity in the West has resulted from a number of health claims. Unfortunately, many of these are either exaggerated or they stem from Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is based on energy lines and “warming/cooling” foods and is not exactly compatible with modern medicine.
There are some truths to some claims, though. After all, it’s still tea produced from the Camellia sinensis plant, and as such, it’s loaded with polyphenols. These can have a positive effect on the body, supporting the immune system, reducing the risk of chronic diseases, and improving circulation. It also contains more caffeine than other varieties of tea, which means it could increase energy levels and focus.
One of the longest standing beliefs concerns Pu’er’s ability to soothe the digestive tract, and some genuine evidence suggests this can be the case. It has also been suggested that Pu’er can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression and even act as a sleep aid. This seems unlikely considering it contains caffeine, but as any tea lover will tell you, drinking tea can be a very relaxing experience.
What Does Pu’er Tea Taste Like?
Pu’er tea is an acquired taste, there is no doubt about that. We recommend that all tea lovers try it at least once, but even the most experienced of black tea drinkers may find that the flavours are not quite to their taste.
It’s hard to describe the flavours of Pu’er in comparison to other teas, as it has a flavour profile all its own. However, one of the ways we like to describe it is to say that it is to black tea what matcha is to green tea—it’s more intense, more complex, and a great deal earthier.
How to Spot Fake Pu’er
The global marketplace is flooded with fake luxury products, and we’ve covered some of this before, from gum arabic masquerading as mastic, to turmeric sold as saffron. It’s a similar story with Pu’er, and some estimates suggest that 9 out of 10 Pu’er tea bricks sold outside of China are fake.
A good Pu’er is one that has been aged for years, and the age should reflect that price. We’ve seen teas selling for $10 a brick, even though they claim to have been aged over 30 years. It’s hard to spot a fake tea if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but we find that the following two rules make it easy for inexperienced buyers:
- If it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.
- If multiple sellers are selling the same type from the same region and era, they’ve probably all bought from the same mass counterfeiter. This is a small-batch, luxury product and one you wouldn’t expect to be sold en masse by every seller on the internet.
There are a couple issues with fake Pu’er. Firstly, you’re not getting a tea that has been aged for years and years and are most likely buying something relatively fresh but that has undergone a simulated ageing process. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a fake tea may not have been manufactured to meet specific standards and could be contaminated, although, in most cases, it’s the real deal and has simply not been aged.
Where to Buy Genuine Pu’er Tea?
This tea is sold by many vendors online, but it’s not always the best quality. We wouldn’t recommend purchasing from eBay, Amazon Marketplace, or Alibaba Express. We’re not discrediting all suppliers on these sites, as there are some very reputable brands operating here, but these retailers are so vast and so exposed that you’ll also find a number of inferior products and even counterfeit products.
The inexperienced tea-drinker may struggle to differentiate between the legitimate and the counterfeit, the good and the bad. Whether a seller has good feedback or not isn’t enough of an indicator. There are eBay sellers with thousands of positive reviews that sell blatantly counterfeit goods, and there are also those with only a handful of reviews that sell nothing but the best.
If you want to buy Pu’er tea, drop into a local teashop or stick with one of the big brands. In the case of the former, you’ll be able to touch it, smell it, and enquire about its origins, while the latter will ensure you always get a consistent, genuine product.
How to Brew Fermented Tea
Finally, there is just one thing left to discuss: how to actually brew a cup of Pu’er tea. It’s not like black tea; you can’t just stuff it into a teabag and steep it for a few minutes. If you have a brick or cake, break off a few grams (1 to 2 tsp) and add to a teapot or infuser (try our own thermos infuser, which is a teapot/infuser/bottle all-in-one and will keep your drink hot for hours).
Add some boiled water from the kettle, give the tea a little swirl, and then tip the water straight out. This is the traditional method of brewing most types of tea in China, as they believe that it helps remove most of the caffeine (not entirely true, but a small amount is removed) and that it improves the taste (debatable). But it’s important with Pu’er tea, as it helps take the edge off the flavour and remove any impurities.
Once the leaves are wet and primed, just add some more boiled water, leave it to steep for 3 to 5 minutes, and then serve. It can be consumed with or without milk and sugar, and you can use the leaves several more times.