What Is Pu-erh?

a pu-erh brick

a pu-erh brick

Tea aficionados have been talking about pu-erh more and more lately. It goes by many names, much like a rose, such as the diet tea or the anti-aging tea. Great, right? Drink a certain kind of tea and you’ll not only stay thin but you’ll stay young forever. Could this tea be the elixir of the fountain of youth?! Let’s examine, shall we?


Processing Pu-Erh

Pu-erh is grown in the Yunnan province of China. The tea leaves are piled, dampened, and turned to ensure even fermentation (a lovely and appetizing article compared this process to composting). After about six months to a year, the tea is considered ripened and then dried, weighed, and steamed to prepare it for pressing.

The pressing and aging are the two signature processing elements in pu-erh. The tea is pressed into a brick and aged much like whiskey or Scotch. After years of aging, it is finally ready to enter the market and your teacup.


Preparing Pu-Erh for Drinking

It is possible to buy pu-erh in a loose leaf form (most tearooms that offer pu-erh have loose leaf pu-erh for ease of brewing), but if yours is still in its brick, simply flake off or cut off pieces of the cake in a vertical direction. Technically pu-erh should be brewed at 95°F for 30 seconds for a first brewing and reaching up to 10 minutes for a subsequent brewing, but I’ve brewed mine at 205° for two minutes and it has been perfect.

I treat it much like a black tea. The pu-erh I’ve been drinking is flavored with caramel and vanilla and is strong but decadent with a splash of milk and sugar.


Health Benefits

There hasn’t been any studies done in humans yet, but scientific studies with animals have shown a decrease in body weight following consistent pu-erh consumption. Liver health improved and cholesterol lowered. Overall body fat composition lowered as well, which is why pu-erh is called the slimming tea. The Chinese believe that pu-erh can also help cure a hangover by invigorating the spleen. I think we all need invigorated spleens so we should all drink pu-erh.

And the Water Was Hot, Hot, Hot

The process of brewing tea seems so simple: boil water, pour over tea, steep, pour out and enjoy. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it is so much more than that! There is practically an art form to brewing the perfect cup of tea, and everyone has his or her own methods. We’ve been over some of them like teabags or loose leaf, steep and strain or steep and remove, milk first or last, milk at all…so let’s go one step further and talk about water.

Tea kettle with boiling water; steam against a black background.

You can’t have tea without water. Try it; I dare you (okay before you fire back at me I am excluding milk teas from this dare). Water is essential to tea! Tea is basically flavored water after all. Delicious, soothing, varied, and even healthier water but water nonetheless.

However water can also ruin your tea. Yes, by steeping your chosen tea in a water bath of uncoordinatedly high temperatures, you can essentially burn the tea leaves and be left with a bitter cup of tea that you won’t discard because that would just be tragic but you certainly won’t enjoy to its fullest. It may even result in your not liking tea, which would be even more tragic than you pouring tea down the drain!


So let’s quickly go over the proper water temperature and brewing time for each type of tea. Sounds good?

Black Tea: Because black tea is so robust and is the most oxidized of the teas, you can actually brew this one in boiling water for about 3 minutes. Try not to pass 5 minutes or you will be past the bitter point of return (I’m a little punny while writing this, my sincere apologies).

Oolong Tea: Brew between 185-205°F for about 5 minutes. Basically allow the water to boil and then cool for 30ish seconds before brewing.

Green Tea: As we move further down the oxidized ladder, the teas should be brewed at lower temperatures. Green tea is optimal at 150°F for only 2-3 minutes. Green tea becomes bitter very quickly so keep an eye on it!

White Tea: Oddly, this tea can be brewed a little warmer than green tea at 180°F for about 4-6 minutes. Why odd? White tea is a gentler tea than green tea so you’d expect to coddle it a bit more, but there needs to be an exception to every rule I suppose.

Rooibos: Note that I didn’t label it rooibos tea because technically it’s a tisane and we are all about technicality today! This South African tea can handle it’s stuff; feel free to brew it with boiling water for longer than 5 minutes. It probably won’t get bitter.

Herbals and Tisanes: The rest of the not-teas can be brewed at boiling water for 5 minutes as well, but as there are no hard and fast rules about tisanes, feel free to experiment to your taste.


Now you know, now there are no excuses, and now you are going to completely disregard these guidelines because who wants to use a thermometer when preparing a kettle?

Another Story of Milk: Does Order Matter?

Turns out the debate over the order of doing adding things to afternoon tea doesn’t stop at clotted cream, jam, and scones; the proper sequence for pouring milk into a teacup is also hotly contested. It may be a relaxing pastime, but who said afternoon tea didn’t have its complexities?


Nice Tea Has Milk First

Photo Credit

Photo Credit

We already know that milk made its emergence into the tea world partly to temper the hot water so porcelain cups didn’t shatter. The Milk-In-First camp believes that adding tea to milk instead of the other way around makes for a better mixing of the fluids. Also adding cold tea to hot water can caramelize the fat in milk and possibly alter the flavor of the brew. Of course bringing the milk to room temperature or heating it up may fix that. It’s a lot like tempering your eggs before making a custard.


Second the Best

Photo Credit Mark Harris

Photo Credit Mark Harris

Tea originated as a beverage for the genteel, so it is only natural that there be considered a “proper” way to add milk to this drink. Etiquette supports adding milk to the tea as it allows better control of the color and strength of the cup. The Victorian upper circle tea parties involved the hostess or servants handing filled teacups to guests who were then directed to help themselves to milk, cream, or sugar to their taste.

Also, by adding the milk to the tea, you have the opportunity to try the drink first to determine if it even needs any milk. There is nothing worse than wasting or ruining a perfectly delightful cuppa.


No Milk Is the Best Milk

IMG_3725Now most of this debate centers around black tea. It is an understood rule of tea aficionados that you do NOT add milk to green, oolong, or white tea. Pu-erh is close to black tea so that is acceptable. Why? Because it ruins the delicate taste of the leaves and added flavorings. Black tea is the strongest type of tea and can withstand the flavor dilution of milk. Tisanes are also a big no-no when it comes to adding milk. As most tisanes have fruit in their mix, the milk can actually curdle if poured into a too tart tisane. Curdled milk is just gross.


Science Says

Science is no help here. Half the scientists point to the possibility of caramelized milk fat ruining the flavor of the tea as reason for milk first; the other half of the scientists cite the laws of thermal gradients supporting milk in last.


The verdict? Just like the arguments over clotted cream first or jam first and whether or not to even add milk at all, The Great Milk Order Debate will have to be determined by your own personal preferences!


What is your milk-order preference? I pour my milk in second because I can have the most control over the strength of my tea, and I am a little bit of a control freak. But many of my British friends insist on milk first!

Methods of Brewing Tea

Just like people develop a favorite tea, experienced tea drinkers develop a favorite way to brew their tea. Now you’re probably thinking, “Really? How different can it be? Tea leaves, boiling water, drink.”

Not quite.


Infuser Teapots

Infuser Teapot

Infuser Teapot

Some teapots are now sold with an infuser basket that submerges the tea leaves in the water and is then removed when the tea is fully brewed. The baskets are usually metal. A large infuser basket allows tea leaves to swell up from the water and move around, releasing all the flavor and color. And then as soon as the tea is brewed, bam! Remove the infuser and you have an entire pot of perfectly brewed tea.


Plunger Pots

Plunger Pot

Plunger Pot

Another type of pot has a plunger that separates the brewed tea leaves from the water once it is finished steeping. Think of it like a French press for tea instead of coffee. The most important thing with plunger pots is ensuring that the plunger fully separates the leaves from the water; any contact between the two and the tea will continue brewing towards bitterness.


Strainer Cups

Brewed loose leaf

Brewed loose leaf

Many tearooms brew their tea in this way: scoop tea leaves into a pot and add hot water (believe it or not the best temperature for brewing tea is not boiling). That’s all. When pouring the tea into a cup, a little strainer is placed on the rim of the cup to catch the leaves.

Tea Strainer

Tea Strainer

The tea does become bitter using this method since the leaves are left in the water, but places usually refill the hot water to try and make it less bitter. I don’t think it works, but this is a very traditional way to brew tea.


Tea Bags

Using a Tea Bag

Using a Tea Bag

Don’t get me started! Tea bags are obvious choices for individual cups of inferior tea 😉 To brew a large pot, use two or three tea bags instead of one and remove the bags like you would an infuser basket.


Individual Infusers

Single Infuser

Single Infuser

These little mesh or wire balls store enough tea to make single serving cups of tea quickly or larger pots of tea if you have more time. Just make sure that you do not scoop too much tea into the ball; the tea needs some room to expand and release its flavor. I’ve used one of these since my year in England and they are the perfect way to use loose leaf tea without needing to brew an entire pot.


As you drink more tea, you’ll develop a preference yourself for how you like your tea brewed. But the important thing is, never turn down a cup no matter how the brewer made it. We never waste tea here J

A Tea for Every Time

We all have our favorite kind of tea, that one type that we gravitate to above all others. Mine is lavender earl grey, my mom’s is traditional earl grey, my best friend’s is any green tea, and I have more than one coworker who swears by mate (though mate isn’t really a tea, remember?).

Officially though, we should all be basing what type of tea we order, not on flavor preference, but on the clock. Certain teas better suit the time of day that you are drinking it, much like some teas are more complementary to the palate, food being served, mood of the drinker, season, or the weather. So no drinking herbal teas with breakfast, and keep the Earl Grey to the afternoon.

Morning and Breakfast

Strong black teas are the best choice in the mornings because their caffeine content and robust flavor. A lot of cooked breakfast foods and breads need a tea that can stand up to them. Choose an English or Irish Breakfast, Assam, Kenya, or Yunnan tea for your wake-up jolt.

Photo credit

Photo credit

Mid-Morning and Lunch

Your first cup of tea is beginning to wear off, so the best choice now is one that will maintain the alertness you received from this morning. Stick once again to black teas, unless you are eating Asian food for lunch and then a strong green tea is better. Choose any of the Morning and Breakfast teas or Lapsang Souchong for a black option; choose Sencha, Chinese Chun Mee, or Gunpowder for a green tea.

Photo Credit

Photo Credit

Early Afternoon

As the day progressively gets brighter, your teas should progressively get lighter. And with the work day in full swing, a lighter or fruity tea will best calm and soothe you. Choose peachy or mango flavored teas like an oolong, a fruity Darjeeling, a light Ceylon, or a green tea.

Photo credit

Photo credit

Afternoon Tea Time

Instead of worrying about time pairing, with afternoon tea focus on pairing tea with the food. Choose Earl Grey for courses with cheese, savories, or lemon desserts; choose Darjeeling with creamy offerings like scones and clotted cream; choose Lapsang Souchong for smoked offerings; choose Ceylon for fresh fruit and vegetable based items; choose Kenya for chocolates.

Photo Credit

Photo Credit

Evening and Dinner

Yes, you’ve had a lot of tea today, but why stop now? Night is when the lighter teas and delicate flavors can shine. Teas should now be focused on calming and cleansing, both in terms of digestion and stress. Choose light oolongs, light greens, whites, and herbal infusions or tisanes.

Photo credit

Photo credit

Tea Fannings

Speaking of tea bags, did you know that tea bags don’t actually contain tea leaves? They are filled with fannings.

Doesn’t sound too appetizing or tea-like does it?

Fannings is the technical term for the leftover powders and dust from tea processing. They are essentially small broken pieces of tea leaves and tea dust.  When combined they have the consistency of a rough powder.

Green Tea Fannings. Photo credit

Green Tea Fannings. Photo credit

This is the “tea” in most tea bags! The fannings are considered by tea enthusiasts to yield an inferior tasting tea and drinking experience, partially because the fannings are exposed to more air during processing and packaging. Air exposure causes the tea to go stale faster and lose some of the flavorful oils.

But the news is not all bad, I promise! Some of the higher end tea sellers who use bags do package whole tea leaves in larger bags (always unbleached and large enough to allow the tea to expand when wet), and have moved away from bagging fannings. A good rule of thumb: the cheaper the tea, the more fannings there be!

Origins of the Tea Bag

Now, as it is probably well known but certainly well documented on this blog, I am a whole-hearted advocate of brewing only loose-leaf teas. I find this method gives better flavor, is better for the environment, and is more traditional. But tea bags are an unfortunate reality of many tea services, which then begs the question: how did they get here?

Funny story.

Old fashioned tea scales. Photo credit

Old fashioned tea scales. Photo credit

Like sticky-notes, slinkies, chewing gum, and paper clips, tea bags were an accidental invention. Thomas Sullivan was a tea importer in 1908. He packaged up the loose leaf tea he was selling in silk bags simply because it was convenient, and then his customers steeped the whole thing including the bag because they didn’t know any better. After a while, some customers started complaining that their tea was NOT in the silk bags (we loose leaf fans can blame them) and Sullivan began to ship all of his tea in bags from then on.

Silk is expensive, so Sullivan switched to gauze sacks instead of silk. And now we have tea bags instead of only loose leaf teas.

Okay, so maybe the story wasn’t that funny, but it was informative!

abaut_tea_Tea_bagsAn important thing to look for when you are buying tea bags (traitors) is for unbleached bags. Any tea bag that is white has been processed with bleach, and when you brew that bag some of the bleach will end up in your tea. That is no good. Stick with unbleached tea bags IF you are going with that method. It’s healthier for your body and you’ll have a more pure flavor of the tea.

Happy brewing this weekend!

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