The Fermentation of Pu-erh Tea Thursday, February 20 2014
Pu-erh comes from the small evergreen tree, known as Camellia sinensis. It can be cultivated around the world in sunny climates that have rich moist growing soils. It is native to the southern and eastern portions of Asia, and typically associated with China’s Yunnan province.
Over the years, many methods of drying, frying, aging, mellowing, rolling, and forming tea leaves have been tried and perfected. In the making of pu-erh, tea leaves are first withered to begin the initial break down which eliminates some of the grassy taste associated with fresh foliage. So that the leaves don’t rot, they’re shaken or turned over several times to allow air to circulate among them. Oxidation is taking place, and the amount of initial fermentation will determine the final taste of the tea.
Fermentation for tea leaves takes place in much the same way as organic compost. Microbial activity decays the leaves giving them a strong earthy taste and aroma. Microorganisms create fermentation—a process that can take years.
Originally, this was done in warm, dark, moist caves where leaves were piled and turned periodically over a period of years before they were considered fully “cooked.” Today, we age leaves by manipulating them under controlled conditions. Wet piling, or dampening and turning the leaves periodically results in pu-erh that has specific flavors and qualities. By managing the environment, we’re able to create even fermentation, thus producing ripened pu-erh of the highest quality.
This tea may take up to one year to become correctly ripened. Much like wine, it’s aged and then pressed so as to appear on the market sometimes as much as two years after fermentation begins.
Pu-erh speaks of the primordial elements of nature from the moment the water hits the leaves. Evident in its deep rich brown color and full-of-life musty scent, it can leave the faintest inoffensive hint of bitterness at the back of the mouth, reminiscent of the fermenting leaves at the back of the dimly remembered caves from which it originated.
Pu-erhs can have different characteristics. Young green raw pu-erh has a smoky character with a grassy vegetative taste that’s somewhat acrid. Aged black pu-erh which is fully ripened is more elemental and musty but with a smooth mellow flavor and complex overtones ranging from honey to dates to wine. Some varieties are very rare and expensive, depending on their age.
Spicely organic pu-erh is aged for a few years to produce a fully ripened tea. It has a distinctive woodsy aroma with light floral notes and a desirable earthy finish.