A Cup of Pu-Erh


Pu-Erh teaIt’s dark in the cup, but in the glass pot for brewing, it’s a deep copper. It smells of earth and age, a hint of horses and leather. A rich, slightly sweet and crisp taste.

Black, no milk. With milk, it changes to a hot-chocolate light brown, and the flavour mellows. I prefer the slightly sharper black taste. *

“For hundreds of years,” reads the Whittard’s package, “mule loads of precious Pu-Erh tea travelled the Ancient Tea Horse Road from China, risking the dangers of Tiger Leaping Gorge to reach the towering mountains of Tibet.”

It has that aroma and taste of a well-travelled tea. A tea that has sat on the tables of ship’s captains, and on the floor mats in nomad huts. This Yunnan province tea is “traditionally drunk after a meal,” but I’m breaking with tradition to sip it on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Tea is a complicated product, for all the simplicity we give it when drinking it. Wikipedia’s page on Pu-Erh is long and rambling, and a delight to read, albeit somewhat unfocused. It opens:

Pu-erh or Pu’er tea is a variety of fermented dark tea produced in Yunnan province, China.
Fermentation is a tea production style in which the tea leaves undergo microbial fermentation and oxidation after they are dried and rolled. This process is a Chinese specialty and produces tea known as Hei Cha, commonly translated as dark, or black tea (this type of tea is completely different from what in West is known as “black tea”, which in China is called “red tea” ). The most famous variety of this category of tea is Pu-erh from Yunnan Province, named after the trading post for dark tea during imperial China.

Black tea, red tea, green tea. Each one different, each with its range of flavours and aromas. All teas come from the same tea plant, but the difference is how/when the leaves are picked, processed and dried.**

The box says the production date is Sept. 1, 2011, best before early 2013. Here I am, two years later, still enjoying it. I actually brought this package home from England, from a small tea shop in Richmond. I still have a little left. I’m not concerned that it may be past its prime. It still tastes good to me. Whittard’s website says:

Pu-erh is a special type of tea grown only in the Yunnan Province in China. It develops its flavour through wet-fermentation and long maturity and is said to improve with age. It has been drunk by the people of the Yunnan and Tibet border provinces since the Tang Dynasty (620-907 AD).

My slightly-past-its-before-date cup of Pu-Erh is a quiet seque into tea’s fascinating history and culture.***

I like to think that drinking it – in fact drinking any tea – is a connection with a long historical line. It’s a drink for pausing to reflect.

Tea originally came from Yunnan province, China, in the Shang Dynasty (1500-1046 BCE),where it was a medicinal drink, although according to Wikipedia, it wasn’t recorded in Chinese writing until the 3rd century CE. It spread to Japan in the 6th century, and Korea in the seventh.

Tea didn’t reach the west until the 16th century CE when Portuguese sailors were introduced to it and brought it home.

For all the British are today associated with tea, it didn’t become popular in England until the 17th century and even then it didn’t become a craze until the early 18th century, according to the UK Tea Council.

Until the early 19th century, the Chinese had a monopoly on what we in the West call “black tea.” The British East India Company, looking to break that hold, smuggled out some seeds and planted them in India‘s Assam province in 1820. By 1840 it was in commercial production and today is the world’s largest tea producer.

But back to China. China produces my favourite teas: Lapsang Souchong, a smoked tea from Fujian; and Dragonwell (or Lung Ching or Longjing), a pan-fried green tea from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

Green teas differ from black/red teas in that they are not fermented. As Wikipedia says, fermentation in tea isn’t the same process as when making alcohol:

Like most other Chinese green tea, Longjing tea leaves are roasted early in processing (after picking) to stop the natural oxidation process, which is a part of creating black and oolong teas. In the world of tea, the term “fermentation” refers to the actions of natural enzymes, present in the leaves, on the juices and tissues of the leaf; this is not fermentation in the true sense of the term (as, for example, the action of yeast in producing beer). The actions of these enzymes is stopped by “firing” (heating in pans) or by steaming the leaves before they completely dry out. As is the case with other green teas (and white teas), Longjing tea leaves are therefore “unfermented.” When steeped, the tea produces a yellow-green color. The tea contains vitamin C, amino acids, and, like most finer Chinese green teas, has one of the highest concentrations of catechins among teas.

Another Chinese tea I like is Gunpowder tea, which has nothing to do with gunpowder, but rather its look. Wikipedia tells us,

Gunpowder tea is a form of green Chinese tea produced in Zhejiang Province of China in which each leaf has been rolled into a small round pellet. It is believed to take its English name from the fact that the tea resembles grains of black powder. This rolling method of shaping tea is most often applied either to dried green tea (the most commonly encountered variety outside China) or Oolong tea.
Gunpowder tea production dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907) but it was first introduced to Taiwan in the 19th century. Gunpowder tea leaves are withered, steamed, rolled, and then dried. Although the individual leaves were formerly rolled by hand, today most gunpowder tea is rolled by machines (though the highest grades are still rolled by hand). Rolling renders the leaves less susceptible to physical damage and breakage and allows them to retain more of their flavor and aroma. In addition, it allows certain types of oolong teas to be aged for decades if they are cared for by being occasionally roasted.

It also adds a warning,

When buying gunpowder tea it is important to look for shiny pellets, which indicate that the tea is relatively fresh. Pellet size is also associated with quality, larger pellets being considered a mark of lower quality tea. High quality gunpowder tea will have small, tightly rolled pellets.

Freshness is tough to get in tea here, except at specialty tea shops. Most tea in Canada is sold in tea bag in grocery stores, not loose leaf (and those bins of loose leaf tea may not be the freshest…). But you may be able to find something “packaged at source” in airtight wrapping that is fresher than the grocery story stuff.

You’ve also probably seen the description “orange pekoe” on a box of tea bags. This refers to the grade of tea leaf, not its colour.

The other kind of Chinese tea I like is oolong, but that’s a tricky classification, since it can refer to any of a large number of teas from different areas. I like many oolongs, but not all. Wikipedia chimes in with this:

Oolong  is a traditional Chinese tea (Camellia sinensis) produced through a unique process including withering under the strong sun and oxidation before curling and twisting. Most oolong teas, especially those of fine quality, involve unique tea plant cultivars that are exclusively used for particular varieties. The degree of oxidation can range from 8 to 85%, depending on the variety and production style. Oolong is especially popular with tea connoisseurs of south China and Chinese expatriates in Southeast Asia, as is the Fujian preparation process known as the Gongfu tea ceremony.
In Chinese tea culture, semi-oxidised oolong teas are collectively grouped as q?ngchá (literally “teal tea”). The taste of oolong ranges hugely amongst various subvarieties. It can be sweet and fruity with honey aromas, or woody and thick with roasted aromas, or green and fresh with bouquet aromas, all depending on the horticulture and style of production. Several subvarieties of oolong, including those produced in the Wuyi Mountains of northern Fujian, such as Da Hong Pao, are among the most famous Chinese teas.
Different varieties of oolong are processed differently, but the leaves are formed into one of two distinct styles. Some are rolled into long curly leaves, while others are ‘wrap-curled’ into small beads, each with a tail. The former style is the more traditional of the two in China.

I have a box of Wu-Yi tea given to me as a gift last year. This site says Wu-Yi is used for weight loss (not an issue for me), but also that it’s very healthy. Tea is generally healthy because of its antioxidants, but anyone who drinks it for some miraculous fat-burning cure is fooling themselves and wasting money.

Exercise and a healthy diet first, quit smoking and drop the junk foods if you want to lose weight. But consumers are gullible and get caught up in scams that prey on their lack of skepticism or lack of critical thinking. Whether my own Wu-Yi tea is typical of the variety, I can’t say because it’s the only type I’ve tried. If you want to try Wu-Yi, avoid the online sources and buy it from a Chinese or Asian grocer or a tea shop.

Like so many things from China, authenticity of some premium teas is a guessing game. Both Wu-Yi and Dragonwell teas have been commonly and regularly faked (sometimes simply by mislabelling a lower quality type). How can the consumer know for sure? If the tea was packaged in China, it should have a government sticker on it, identifying the type. But if not – who knows?

A tea I’ve purchased at Ten Ren’s, a tea store on Dundas Street in Toronto’s Chinatown, is labelled “An Xi Kuan Yin” – also known as Tieguanyin – another oolong from Fujian, one with a more exacting processing, that Wikipedia describes as,

…complex and requires expertise. Even if the tea leaf is of high raw quality, and is plucked at the ideal time, if it is not processed correctly its true character will not be shown. This is why the method of processing Tieguanyin Tea was kept a secret.

Ten Ren has many tea varieties, loose leaf and in bags (including Pu-Erh). Most of the bagged teas I’ve examined are whole leaf, which makes a much better cup than broken leaf, to my taste buds.

Starbuck’s Tazo Awake tea is an example of a vibrant whole-leaf black tea that has oodles more body than most run-of-the-mill coffee-shop tea bags; I like it, but it’s not to everyone’s taste and may seem too full-bodied for some. In Britain strong tea is called “builder’s tea” but I’ve always heard it referred to as BR tea – British rail tea(for the urns of tea that sit so long it becomes very strong).

I have an unopened bag of Si Ji Chun Oolong leaves; it’s a low-altitude oolong called “Four Seasons Oolong” and described as,

…a low elevation and high yield cultivar. As its name indicates, its scents are flowery and spring-like in all 4 seasons. Most of the time, this fragrant tea also smells somewhat rough and feels less elegant than Jinxuan or Jade Oolong. However, the late winter harvest is able to bring out the most refined scents and sweet tastes from Si Ji Chun Oolong!

I also have a mysterious box of tea bags labelled “High Mountain Oolong” which the Ten Ren site tells me rather generically,

Ten Ren Tea’s Supreme Chinese High Mountain Oolong consists of the finest oolong harvested during the spring season. This tea is grown in the high mountains of China. Each tea leaf is handpicked to ensure the best quality. When brewed, it produces a light yellow hue, a strong smooth floral taste, a fresh scent, and a pleasant lasting aftertaste.

Which doesn’t really say anything about where it’s from or what variety it is. They also say about oolong in general:

Oolong, also spelled as Wu-Long, is a semi-fermented tea which is known for its rich taste and pleasant lasting aftertaste. Oolongs are further classified as Dark or Green with Dark Oolongs baked longer than Green Oolongs. Green Oolongs (which are not related to Green teas in any way) tend to have a stronger fragrance while Dark Oolongs tend to have a stronger aftertaste. Special Baked Oolong is the only Oolong that is an intermediate Dark-Green Oolong.

A little digging provided more information about this tea as a product of Taiwan:

This peerless distinction belongs to a noble variety of Oolong (“Black Dragon”) tea known as High Mountain Oolong Tea (gao-shan wu-lung cha), which early Chinese settlers brought from mainland China to Taiwan during the late 17th century. Over the centuries, Chinese planters in Taiwan’s mountainous central highlands meticulously cultivated this special variety of tea to produce what sophisticated connoisseurs of Chinese tea today regard as the finest tea on earth, the ultimate masterpiece in the Chinese art of tea.

But I have not yet tried it, so I have to wait to comment on it. I wait in expectation of my pleasure in doing so.

Whenever I visit a community with a tea store, I always try to bring back something new to try. The result is a cupboard full of bags and boxes of a wild variety. Susan despairs, but I delight in them. She’s a Tetley gal and happy with a basic cuppa. Me, if I go to bagged teas, I prefer the Yorkshire Gold brand, myself, but it’s hard to find here.

I also have numerous Japanese green teas in my closet – matcha, sencha, bancha and hojicha, and some blends, but that’s something I’ll save for another post. I do try to have at least two cups of green tea every day, but I tend to fall back on bagged varieties – Ten Ren’s whole-leaf or Uncle Lee’s organic are my current choices. I’m not a big fan of green teas blended with lemon or lemon grass, but I can suffer them if nothing better is available (assuming I can also get a small dollop of honey to stir in…).

And then there’s white tea… a lightly oxidized tea which I’ve tried, but have not yet developed a taste for. Yet. perhaps it’s too delicate for my bourgeois taste buds.

And with that, it’s time to boil the water again and make another cup.

~~~~~

* Milk, according to Teasquared, was first added to tea in Europe to prevent the hot liquid from cracking the porcelain cups:

Mme de La Sabliére, a French hostess of an influential literary salon during the 17th century, is often credited with being among the first to add milk to tea. The practice began by pouring milk into the cup before filling it with the hot tea. While tempering the tea in this manner made handling more comfortable, Mme La Sabliére was actually seeking to prevent cracking or breaking the porcelain.

However, the post also notes that tea with milk was served in China in the 17th century (an oddity since in general Chinese didn’t traditionally use cow’s milk, although “milk tea” and “bubble tea” are popular today):

While milk tea was drunk by the Manchu officials that the Europeans would have encountered, and the Dutchman Johann Nieuhoff had been offered tea with milk at a banquet in Canton in 1655, the honor of introducing the custom to Europe is traditionally ascribed to Madame de la Sabliére, who in 1680 served tea with milk at her famous Paris salon.

An anonymous poster commenting below this article makes a comment that doesn’t explain the historical use:

Black tea contains oxalic acid. This acid can disrupt calcium flow in the body. Adding milk to black tea helps counter this. Lemon is added to black tea to break down tannins. English high tea features both of these practices.

Personally, I suspect milk was added (as was sugar) to mellow the taste, especially in the past when tea was often boiled for a long time, making it strong and acidic. Also consider that back then skim milk wasn’t around: it would have been richer than today’s milk.

** While the name “tea” is often applied to non-tea drinks like chamomile and rooibos, these are more properly called infusions since they contain no tea (would you call a raspberry soda a raspberry coffee? or a raspberry chocolate?  or a raspberry banana? Then why call a herbal infusion a “tea” when it contains no tea leaves?).

This is different from teas blended with other herbs or oils – like Osmanthus flowers (Ten Ren offers a green tea blend) or Earl Grey (a black tea with oil of bergamot).

*** Wikipedia tells us the name tea comes by a rather circuitous route from the Chinese:

The Chinese character for tea is … pronounced differently in the various Chinese languages. Most pronounce it along the lines of cha (Mandarin has chá), but the Min varieties along the central coast of China and in Southeast Asia pronounce it like te. These two pronunciations have made their separate ways into other languages around the world:

  • Te is from the Amoy tê of Fujian Province and Taiwan. It reached the West from the port of Xiamen (Amoy), once a major point of contact with Western European traders such as the Dutch, who spread it to Western Europe.
  • Cha is from the Cantonese chàh of Guangzhou (Canton) and the ports of Hong Kong and Macau, also major points of contact, especially with the Portuguese, who spread it to India in the 16th century. The Korean and Japanese words cha come not from Cantonese but from the Mandarin chá.

The widespread form chai comes from Persian chay. This derives from Mandarin chá,[48] which passed overland to Central Asia and Persia, where it picked up the Persian grammatical suffix -yi before passing on to Russian, Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, etc.
English has all three forms: cha or char, attested from the 16th century; tea, from the 17th; and chai, from the 20th.

I don’t know exactly when the word tea became a common word for a hot drink like a herbal infusion, but it certainly shouldn’t be used that way.