Arguably one of the most misunderstood and yet expensive teas around, pu-erh (also spelled “puer,” “pu-er,” etc.) is well worth a try.
First of all, you can get multiple infusions out of most pu-erhs, even flavored ones. That makes them a good value. Or you can choose to do one strong infusion (lots of flexibility here) for a really strong, dark cupful. Second, there are a variety of pu-erhs, including aged, wet-stored (quickly oxidized), and dry-stored (slowly oxidized), so you have plenty of options and after a bit of sampling can find the one that is perfect for you.
Types of pu-erhs:
Green (“raw”) — A pleasure enjoyed by the Chinese for about 2,000 years, first only by the emperors and then by the general population, becoming so treasured that it is considered an investment by some. Unlike regular green teas, these are not baked to stop microbial action. They get better as they age, with the ones younger than 5 years being slightly bitter and the older ones getting smoother, sweeter and changing color from light yellow to dark amber. They can be aged up to 65 years.
Black (“ripe” or “mature”) — A relatively recent development, dating from 1973. An example is Young Pu-erh Loose Leaf Tea where the tea cake has been broken up to make your tea steeping easier — no special handling needed, just steep as you would any other black tea. A similar version is Golden Moon Loose Leaf Pu-erh Tea. Or go with a tuocha pu-erh (some shaped like a little bird’s nest, about 3/4ths of an inch across, others in squares weighing about 6 grams each) — it needs a quick rinse before steeping but is generally good for several infusions. Then, there are the big cakes that, if properly stored (up to as much as 25 years), get better tasting. The older, the more expensive, generally speaking.
Flavored — To get some reluctant tea drinkers over the hump of trying pu-erh or getting past the earthy flavor (some say it’s like dirt), tea vendors have started using pu-erh as the base for flavored blends. If they pick flavors that go well with the flavor of the pu-erh, great. In fact, some I’ve tried are so yummy that a cupful (or 2 or 3) can be better for dessert than, well, dessert! And lots fewer calories, too. With bad flavorings, it can be like masking the smell of that fish you fried for dinner last night with one of those floral-scented sprays (yeah, I saw it in a commercial, but it’s still true here). Some flavorings that seem to work well: caramel and toffee like in the Scottish Caramel Toffee Pu-erh, orange peel/raspberry/cornflower blossoms (the combo seems to bring out cocoa-ish notes in the pu-erh), and of course cinnamon and citrus for a spicy kick like you find in Golden Moon Pu-erh Chai Tea. Personally, I find a bit of milk and sweetener can add the perfect touch. Don’t overdo, though, or you’ll smother that distinctive Pu-erh taste. And then, there is my “mocha” pu-erh recipe, for what it’s worth. There are also pu-erhs aged in stuff like orange peels, absorbing flavors from the peel.
I know I keep going on about steeping teas loose and the torture those tea leaves endure in an infuser, but this one is really really better loose. If you just can’t bring yourself to deal with the leaf pieces all over or if you like to steep in a mug instead of a teapot, use the largest infuser basket (not one of those ball things) that you can fit into your mug or pot. Give the tea (and any added flavorings) a real chance to mingle with the water. This is true both of those pu-erhs in a large cake form or the tuocha pu-erhs.
Beware of imitations, though. As with any rare and pricey commodity, such as Gucci handbags, knockoffs are all around. Happy hunting!
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