Fascinating, complex, and prized for its reputed health benefits, pu’er is quite different in taste, colour and aroma to all other teas. This is primarily because it is the only tea that undergoes true fermentation (as opposed to oxidisation), a secretive and carefully controlled aging process that can last several months or several years. Very old, well-stored classical pu’er teas are highly sought after – in 2010, two kilos were auctioned off for over £500,000!
Pu’er, often referred to as a ‘dark tea’, hails from the fertile Yunnan Province in southwestern China, the birthplace of tea itself. Here, in the legendary forests of Xishuangbanna, one can find the oldest tea trees in the world, some of them 30 metres tall and over 1,000 years old. Made from the large tea bush leaves indigenous to this mountainous region, Pu’er can be sold as loose-leaf or compressed into the traditional disc-like cakes, as well as other interesting shapes such as cubes, mushrooms and pyramids.
The fermentation process that gives pu’er its distinctive, earthy taste involves allowing the natural yeast-like micro-organisms in and on the leaves to develop and flourish. Traditionally, this fermentation process continues naturally over a period of many years, giving pu’er the unique property of increasing in quality and value as it ages. A more recent, and less time-intensive method of making pu’er has also been developed, in which the fermentation process is speeded up by exposing the leaves to optimal heat and humidity. Rather than years, this style of pu’er (known as 'shou') requires ‘only’ a few months.