Pu-erh is not just any Tea!
A lot of tea from China is from the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. Pu-erh is a bit of an exception. It is from a different tea plant varietal. But the real uniqueness of pu-erh comes from the way the leaves are processed more than from that tea plant varietal, which nevertheless still accounts for the difference in the flavors and aromas of pu-erh teas.
Camellia Sinensis var Assamica
The species of plants from which tea is made is Camellia sinensis and the two main varieties are Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. The latter is the one used for pu-erh (fermented tea also called “bannacha” by some people, even “dark tea”). The name “camellia” is said to have come from Carolus Linnaeus in honor of Georg Jeoseph Kamel, a Moravian Jesuit who studied Asian plants. Kamel’s name in Latin was “Camellus” and he was a missionary in the Philippines and died in Manilla in 1706, most likely without ever seeing the plants named after him. It is a broad-leafed plant variety also called da ye or da yi (like the brand name being used by the Menghai Tea Factory).
This broad-leafed Yunnan tea plant is used to produce most of the pu-erh teas on the market (at least the ones that can officially be labeled as “pu-erh” by the Geographical Designation put into effect by the Chinese government). Some are classified as tall, small-leafed (yes, a bit contradictory), wild, and ancient. The major growing areas include: Baoshan, Dali, Dehong, Xishuangbanna, Lancang (Mekong) River Basin, and of course Puerh county. Da ye is botanically different from other tea varieties cultivated in China. The leaves are not only larger but rather leathery in texture, and they grow on a multi-trunked tree. You see photos around showing leaves off of the assamica varietal that are longer than a man’s hand. But the leaves used for most pu-erh teas are the bud or smaller stem tip leaves.
The ancient, wild teas are the most rare, sought-after, and hard to make (in part because of the difficulty in locating the tea trees, getting to them since there are seldom good paved roads leading to them, and climbing them to harvest the leaves). This results in a lot of pu-erh teas being labeled as “ancient tea tree” or “wild tea tree” even though they aren’t (one estimate is that only about 10% of “wild ancient pu-erhs” on the market really are). The tea tree age is also an issue. Claims of them being hundreds of years old are hard to substantiate. You have to rely on the trustworthiness of the vendor. And the question is how do they tell? Plus there is the issue coming to people’s attention more and more of these tea trees being over-harvested.
These are some good things to keep in mind when shopping for pu-erh teas. Happy hunting!