What on earth is puerh? Most tealovers will already know this teaclass as one of the most complex teas. But truth spoken: before I started my training as teasommelier, I never heard of puerh. So what is puerh? And why is it really, but really worth to discover it?
In a nutshell: puerh (pronounced as 'pyou-arh' in English and 'puu-erh' in Dutch) is tea that after harvesting, withering
and first processing underwent a fermentation process. A bit comparable to the process of making wine: you pick the grapes, you either squeeze them or not, you let them ferment. There, first steps of wine. There are 2 main types of puerh or post-fermented tea: the ripe kind (we call this 'shu cha') and the raw kind (aka 'sheng cha').
The flavours in puerh tea are extremely diverse. And to be honest: there are lots of different qualities available, not all of them are worth drinking, in my opinion. So what makes puerh so precious? Prices on the market may vary from a few euro for 25 gram to over 1.000 euro for a cake (some of them are pressed into cake shapes). A quick tour.
Sheng cha (raw puerh)
Raw puerh is tea that is left to naturally age. The tea leaves are picked, withered, rolled, (almost) dried like a green tea, and is then either pressed to cakes or left loose and left to age. Raw puerh has an intense flavor, that can have a touch of bitter (depending on how you brew it as well). The flavours may vary from strong to floral, to green. You can easily reuse the leaves 5 to even 15 times, depending on the quality of your tea. I find it more difficult to pair with food, but I would dare combining it with dried meat or smoked fish. My personal favourites are on our menu: the Yiwu Raw from 2004 and the very young Sheng Puerh from 2019. Do give them a try!
Shu cha (ripe puerh)
Now here's a piece of magic in tealand! I've grown to love ripe puerh, but I have to admit the first time I tried it, I swore I would never drink it again... Ripe puerh needs to be brewed with craftsmanship, really, to avoid really wild and funky flavours like fungus, mushrooms, wet caves,... although these may be appreciated for their complexity in the right dose. The magic is how this tea is produced: after the same steps as mentioned above, the tealeaves are piled in a pile of about 1 meter high and kept wet. By doing this, the tea starts to ferment. The teamaster will turn the leaves every day and after 45 days you're good to go. The tea is dried and left to rest for a few years, getting rid of the most funky and undesired flavours. After that, it is either pressed into cakes, minicakes (tuo cha) or just left loose. I adore the mellow flavours, the natural sweetness, the complexity, the adventure. It reminds me of a walk in the woods in summer on a cool day after the rain. It makes me happy. And on top of that: puerh tea has a reputation of keeping you thin, burning body fat and doing miracles for your guts. I put my favorites on our menu: the 1998 Ripe Puerh with a wonderful mellowness and complexity and a nose of camphor, it pairs great with cheese (I used sweet bread with raisins and blue cheese, it was heavennnnn...), the Menghai Gong Ting Shu Puerh that will never be wasted (this tea can age for 5 to 20 years more, so no hurry, except that it is limited edition and I will be faster than you if you wait too long), and my all time favourite the Sticky Rice puerh, that gets it's flavour from a plant added to the cakes that gives this wonderful sweet and pleasant sweet rice aroma.
Puerh is not for the faint at heart, but when well prepared (that's what you have your teasommelier for), it is an adventure with unlimited combinations, flavours, discoveries and food pairing possibilities. Do give them a try!
Know more about tea? Enroll for our workshop 'Start to tea' on April 8! The workshop can be organised bilingual (English / Dutch).