Thursday, May 10, 2012

Puerh tea review

Puerh is a fermented tea from the Yunnan province of China.

I do not know what was in my head at the time, but when some family members of mine went to China it did not occur to me to ask them to bring back some tea; double my bad since they were going to the actual birthplace of tea bush and were some of the finest teas are cultivated, that is, Yunnan. Fortunately, they had more sense than me and brought me a small box with Puerh tea.

I never had this one before, but I did remember it was mentioned several times by Heinrich Harrer in his book Seven Years in Tibet. If I remember rightly, this tea is taken to Tibet in caravan and is packed in brick form for easier transportation. Once it gets there it is usually prepared with yak butter.

The tea which I received came in a nice flat square box with a magnetic closing lid. The tea itself is wrapped in thin white paper. Both the paper and the box are written with Chinese words which I cannot read. I assume they are the manufacturer's brand and probably some characteristics of the tea such as aging.

My tea was compressed in discus form. Though, technically not a black tea, its leaves are very dark and though compressed, they appear whole, not broken. To prepare yourself some tea, you have to chip  loose some leaves carefully with a knife as to make the least damage to them.

This tea can be steeped several times. I have now got it for several months, and have gotten about 2 1/2 L of great tasting tea for just 5 1/2 g of leaves. I do not think it can be stretched much more than this and still get a pleasurable beverage. I do not use a timer to measure the tea strength, but , I go mostly by feeling and by tasting small sips every minute or so. I do this for all of my teas. When I get the desired intensity, I remove the strainer with the leaves. Unlike some black teas, Puerh tea does not get bitter if you leave it too much in the water. In fact, if you're so inclined, you can get some really dark brews if you let it sit for long periods of time.

Despite stemming from green tea it tastes nothing like it. I would say it feels very close to a black one. So, what does it taste like? I guess the taste varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and according to aging, but the one I got tastes, get ready for this, like very lightly smoked mackerel. It is not unpleasant, quite the contrary. It is refreshing and gives nice sensations to the whole mouth. I would even say, that it has fine-grained wood  undertones. I have not taken a very close look , but I think it tastes even better as it cools down without, of course, letting it cool down completely. I find nothing unpleasant with the taste though I wouldn't say everybody, or even the majority of casual tea drinkes can find it appealing. It is neither easy nor difficult to get into it. For my part, by the second pot I was already hooked .  So far, I have had it with spicy foods and it mixes well. Unless, you brew it very lightly, I don't think it would go well with blander foods as I think it would overpower them.

I will not get into the health benefits of Puerh because, even if it had no health value, I would drink it for its own sake and because I don't fear comfortable making health recommendations. Besides, there are dozens of sites which tout the properties of this tea. Having said that, I will just mention two related issues that I came across. While reading For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose this caught my attention: "indeed if tea does ferment and fungus grows, a carcinogenic substance is produced". Knowing that Puerh is 'fermented' with microbes and probably funguses, it is not hard to put two and two together. So I went to the Google Scholar search page and typed in "Puerh carcinogenic". Fortunately, I found no paper that even hints to a possible connection, though   I did find many that point to the opposite direction exploring  Puerh's possible protective attributes. Whew!

I came across a big caveat. I began to notice that one  to three hours after drinking my usual full teapot I felt lightheadedness and very mild nausea. Nothing to worry about, I guess, but tea shouldn't have these kinds of aftereffects. Could be the caffeine, but this doesn't happen to me with black teas and Puerh doesn't have as much caffeine to begin with. I asked the employees at my local tea shop to see if they had experienced something like this and they told me that they had but with other teas and when they drink too much of them. One suggested it might be a blood pressure drop. Reducing the amount of leaves helps but I still get some aftereffects. Maybe not drinking as much in one sitting…

Overall, this is a tea that should be experienced, not because of any extraordinary quality of its own, but because it is so different from other teas. The taste might not be immediately pleasurable, but if you give it the chance to grow on you, you might end adding it to your regular set of teas or saving it for special occasions. If possible, shop around before committing yourself to any large quantity.


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