An Introduction to Pu-erh Teas (ft. Zhen Tea) | TEA 103

by Tea in Spoons

As a child, I was first introduced to tea through afternoon dim sum with my family. I recall the dark murky bitter pu-erh liquor and I couldn’t fathom why anyone would like tea!

Flash forward to six years ago when I visited DAVIDsTEA for the first time. The staff kindly introduced me to all the tea types. At the time, I didn’t make the connection between the over-brewed tea I had during dim sum and “poo-air,” which in hindsight may have been a good thing. It took me some to realize they were the same because I only knew how to pronounce pu-erh in Cantonese.

Learning about pu-erh is an ocean of information and it is still a type of tea I am learning about all the time! So, I wanted to have Zhen from Zhen Tea field some questions about pu-erh I know I had back then and still have. Like Momo and Soo, I also met Zhen at the Toronto Tea Festival event. Zhen was the perfect person to ask because she is a wealth of knowledge!

Like my last few posts, this will be formatted in an interview style because I feel it is the most accessible way and also makes the content more approachable. Let’s learn about pu-erh!

I see various ways to spell “pu-erh.” What is the proper way to spell it and why?

Zhen: Indeed there are many ways to spell pu’er. It all sources back to the Chinese word 普洱 and its mandarin pronunciation. Pu’er is the pinyin spelling. Puerh is the English spelling for the same pronunciation. Then there are other variants based on these two versions, with apostrophe or not, with space or not, or even a dash sometimes between the letter u and r. I mostly use Pu’er or Puerh, but it’s not like the others are terribly wrong. As long as we know which tea we are talking about, I think it all works. It’s a bit like American or English spelling of “flavor” or “flavour.”

In our previous post, you mentioned that pu-erh is a “dark tea.” What does that mean? 

Zhen: Dark tea, like green tea or black tea, refers to a category of teas. The uniqueness of dark tea is that it has a fermentation process. Pu’er tea, either Shu Pu’er or Sheng Pu’er, fits into this category of tea.

Firing Pu-erh | Credit: Zhen

Can you explain the difference between raw (sheng) and ripe (shu) pu-erh?

Zhen: The primary difference is that Shu Pu’er has one more step called pilling. During this step, heat and moisture are added strategically to encourage the fermentation of the tea. As a result, they taste quite different. While Sheng Pu’er features notes such as barnyard, hay, gentle sweet, hint of flowers with some bite, Shu Pu’er is more of a leathery, warming spices, subtle earthy elements.

How do you prepare it?

Zhen: Feel free to prepare Pu’er in any way that you are comfortable with, either it’s teapot or gaiwan, or even simply toss the tea leaves in a mug. We usually recommend starting with about 5g of tea and using boiling water. But don’t hesitate to play with these brewing parameters to find the perfect brew for yourself.

Pu-erh bamboo storage | Credit: Zhen

How do you store and age pu-erh?

Zhen: A dry, cool place without direct sunlight will be sufficient. If you’d like to be fancier, you can put the tea in a breathable container. Simple options like a veggie ziplock, others such as pottery tea storage containers. Bamboo or wooden ones are also great options.

What is a Gong Fu Tea Ceremony?

Zhen: Well, gong fu tea is a way that is traditional used in the south of China to enjoy oolong tea, Fenghuang Dan Cong to be specific. Now it is widely used in brewing various types of teas. The key difference between gongfu tea and western-style tea brewing is that gongfu tea tends to use more tea leaves, less water, and shorter brewing time. Gongfu tea ceremony is performance art of gongfu tea ritual, where every move, every step has its own “right ways” to do it. It’s very enjoyable to watch it just like other shows.

Shu Pu’er Coin

What would you recommend to people who are new to pu-erh?

Zhen: Be open-minded, and try lots of different pu’er when getting started. It’s a whole new world of flavour to explore. Don’t feel obliged that you are supposed to taste some notes, everyone is different. You are not even obliged to enjoy it (I hope you do though ;)). If purchasing a whole cake or brick is too intimidating, find some smaller quantity ones to try. For example, our Shu Pu’er coin, hand-pressed into 7-8g a coin, and it’s easily broken into halves. You won’t need a Pu’er knife.

Final Thoughts

As always, thank you to Zhen for answering all my questions! I feel these are great intro questions to pu-erh. If you would like to learn more about pu-erh teas or even Chinese teas in general, Zhen has many videos on her YouTube channel! You can also find Zhen on Instagram/Facebook/Twitter.

I also have reviews and recaps regarding teas I’ve tried from Zhen Tea and talks I’ve attended! Look out in the future for my review of Zhen Tea’s Shu Pu’er Coins!

The question of the post: What else would you like to learn about pu-erh tea?

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Tea in Spoons is where I share my love of teas through tea reviews, tea travel, tea tips, information, and more. New tea adventure every Thursday!