~ Take a tea break ~
What is it? A variety of the tea plant, grown in the Yunnan province of Southwestern China and sun dried. The "pu-erh" distinction has to do with the process - pu-erh tea is aged or fermented.
There are two types - sheng (raw) pu-erh has been aged, and shu (ripe) pu-erh has been fermented to "speed up" the aging process and results. The process of aging tea began as a way to have access to tea in the winter when fresh tea wasn't in season. Packed into bricks for convenience and aged in caves in China, the tea developed flavor in the cool, dark and stable environment. Ripe pu-erh came about in the mid 1900's in an attempt to produce a tea of similar quality to raw pu-erh without having to age it as long.
Harbinger Coffee recently hosted a tasting of two pu-erhs from The Phoenix Collection - one aged 16 years, the other aged 25. Led by Nick, our resident tea expert, we sniffed, looked and listened to the differences between the two teas. Participants had very different preferences, and here's what I came up with as we steeped, tasted, and steeped again.
Aroma: Earthy, sweet
Tasting notes - brothy, leather, rich soil - forest
1st steep - aquatic, wet tree bark - silky/soft mouthfeel
2nd steep - dark color, muted aquaticness, stronger damp leaves
Aroma: Grassy, musty, hay-like
Tasting Notes - notes of the other one, but muted - sweet, honeysuckle/maple
1st steep - smooth, maple floral, dried wheat
2nd steep - Mellow, mellow mellow - warm & sun kissed
In a nutshell, the 25 year was much more pleasant (to my taste). In the words of Nick, "young and angsty" vs. "old and mellow" is true of these two teas.
Paired with 90% ghana from Nuance Chocolate and savory coconut pecan bars from Little Bird Bakehouse, tasting these teas was a lovely experience. If you've never experienced "Kung Fu Cha" (the traditional Chinese tea ceremony), you should find a local, quality-focused tea shop and ask for it - requiring pause to sit and enjoy the tea instead of the usual to-go mug rush is a great experience, and focusing on flavor development steep by steep is very educational as well.
Rishi Tea has a little more history on pu-erh here, and a big thank you to Nick at Harbinger for answering all my questions!
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