Myths abound about pu-erh, so it’s time for a reality check here. One myth is that the outer leaves reveal the quality of the cake. Awhile back we posted on this blog about pu-erh cake quality being more than just those outer leaves (also, some think that the nicer looking outer leaves is a form of scam but is a way to make the exterior of the cake look more attractive). Time to do a bit more myth busting here.
|Raw pu-erh — far from bitter!|
Myth 1: Pu-erh is a relatively young type of tea
Very likely false. The fact that there are many ancient tea gardens in the Yunnan Province of China where much of the pu-erh comes from are over 1,000 years old, it is safe to say that the leaves were very likely being used as far back as that.
Myth 2: Pu-erh is a type of black tea
Definitely false. What Westerners call “black tea” is actually what most Asians call “red tea,” based on the liquid color as opposed to the almost black color of the dried leaves. Pu-erh is a fermented tea and has unique characteristics due to how the leaves are processed. Some pu-erhs are closer to green teas in flavor and appearance while others are more like oolongs, and still others (usually ripe or cooked pu-erhs) steep up a very dark liquid that can look like coffee. Their quality is also generally considered to be much better, since true black teas tend to be made of more inferior tea leaves.
Myth 3: Young raw (unfermented) pu-erh is exceedingly bitter
This is completely false. It pu-erh there’s countless flavors vary according to their land of origin, season and year to which they were collected, the work leaves before compression, age and type of trees they originate. Some of these teas can be particularly bitter (and appreciated as such), while the others will be very soft. Moreover also the sheet itself, which may contain substances that cause the sensation of bitterness, the bitterness of the tea can also come from a bad job of the sheet before compression, or result from an attack of pests before harvest. Finally the excessive bitterness and legendary pu-erh can also often be the result of poor preparation of tea, including herbal teas too long durations.
Myth 4: Pu-erh should be brewed in tiny teapots and sipped from tiny cups
Yes and no. Yes, you get the most from your pu-erh by using the gongfu method where you steep the leaves in a gaiwan and do several steepings until the leaves are thoroughly spent. No, you don’t have to brew the tea this way all the time, and there is no real “should” when it comes to tea. Pu-erh can be steeped in a large cast-iron pot, a porcelain teapot, a simple glass of water, etc. Which way you choose is up to you.
Myth 5: Tea leaves used to make pu-erh are larger than for most other teas
This belief, shared and endorsed notably by Nadia Becaud in his book in French comes from a misinterpretation of the origin of the sheets comprising tea puerh. A majority of puerh, particularly in the area Menghai, come from trees called “big leaf”, which grow from very ancient times in southern Yunnan. Little or no cut, these large trees do indeed produce very large leaves which the tree needs to grow. However, although according to puerh we use different sizes and ages of leaves, they are not or very rarely leaves larger, older, which are harvested, but the fresh young leaves, much smaller in size. And are usually harvested bud, or very young shoots, and the first, the first two or three times the first leaves, as such or after fermentation.
Myth 6: Pu-erhs that are not labeled “certified organic” are full of harmful pesticides
Very likely false. First, these teas are often made from the leaves from ancient trees that grow naturally, but the tea producer cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars to get certified. Second, most tea producers are following Chinese standards that from 2000 to 2005 became increasingly in line with what Europeans had set, whether there was any real justification for it or not, in order to keep trade going. So any teas made after 2005 have little or no such residues with isolated exceptions that always seem to be the ones in the headlines.
Myth 7: Pu-erh should be aged a minimum of 5 years before drinking
This is a common misperception and is found in numerous books, especially from Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, raw pu-erh (green) has been consumed for a long time in Yunnan by ethnic groups who planted the first tea gardens, but also by the Han the 17th century. Even today pu-erh is mainly consumed in Yunnan in its non-fermented form, and the fermented pu-erh is generally seen as a kind for export.
It can be tough to separate myths from reality, but we hope this has helped a little. Happy sipping!