What is puerh tea good for and why should we drink it every day?

Puerh tea (sometimes written as puer or puerh) is one of the best answers to the challenges of modern life. It is one of the best health drinks for the prevention and reduction of physical decline caused by the adverse effects of civilisation on human health. It relieves mental fatigue resulting from endless working hours and the need for continued performance growth. Puerh tea supports balance in all circumstances, even in the most difficult moments.

I do not know of a more effective and beneficial way to support mental and physical performance. In today’s world, people face significant mental health challenges in the workplace, for which common stimulants, intoxicating beverages or diverting the attention from the problem are no longer the solution. Puerh tea promotes a solution-oriented approach to problems and increases workload capacity by maintaining a state of concentrated attention, heightened alertness and focused awareness. In the short term, puerh tea has a double benefit by maintaining the thinking process and, at the same time, bringing about a state of quietness. In fact, this is true of all teas, but puerh tea is unique due to the long fermentation process in which tannic acids and bitter leaves are transformed making it easier for the body to digest – thus it has unlimited potentials to support a healthy gut and digestive system. Theanine, which is absorbed easily, has psychoactive properties. On the one hand, it synergistically enhances cognitive performance with caffeine, increasing alertness, improving mood, and on the other hand, it reduces stress and anxiety. These two things are the key to calm and focused performance.

In traditional Chinese medicine puerh tea is prized for its anti-inflammatory, diuretic, blood cleansing and the related sobering-up properties. It also relaxes headache, reduces fatigue, and after a meal it aids digestion (by naturally regulating but not speeding it up). In the long term, its consumption helps prevent and treat the „3-highs” of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. The healthy bacteria in puerh tea naturally protect and restore the balance of gut flora improving nutrient and vitamin absorption, such providing the best balance of nutrients needed by our body for optimal function and the balance of the immune system. 

Puerh tea has been appreciated not only for its healing properties, but also its beauty and the important role it has played in the developement of tea culture. It is the most valuable, most beautiful beverage, which can make the most positive impact on one’s quality of life. This exquisite tea owes its dark colour to fermentation, is often compressed into shapes and, thanks to the aging process, it has a unique earthy, oily flavour. Its quality and value mainly depends on the variety of plant (cultivar), the growing territory (terroir) and its age. Puerh tea has been origin protected since 2006 when its production was limited to Yunnan Province by the Yunnan Administration of Quality Supervision.  Puerh tea specifically originates from Yunnan Province and is made of local tea leaves (Camellia sinensis assamica), which go through a specific post-fermentation and aging process. This gives the tea its highly distinctive character. The age and terroir of puerh tea are listed in catalogues.

Yunnan Puerh Tea Is the World’s Oldest and Most Refined Tea

Puerh tea specifically originates from Yunnan Province and is made of local tea leaves (Camellia Sinensis Assamica), which go through a specific post-fermentation and aging process. This gives the tea its highly distinctive character. Puerh tea is regarded by traditional Chinese medicine to prevent lifestyle-related chronic diseases and reduce the associated risk factors.

Puerh tea is known by many as „aged tea”. The years of aging allow the tea to develop its unique, complex flavour; consequently its monetary value increases with age as well. In 2006, its production was limited to Yunnan Province by the Yunnan Administration of Quality Supervision, which proclaimed that Puerh tea specifically originates from Yunnan Province and is exclusively produced of local tea leaves. Aging means that puerh tea undergoes a natural fermentation process whereby the tea leaves are biologically transformed over time, causing the leaves to darken and the flavour of the tea to change as it picks up an earthy, damp basement smell. It will be more restrained in its acids and „green” flavours while becoming smoother, almost oily. The health properties of the tea change as well, enhancing bioactive compounds, which have a health promoting effect. This controlled process is the ripening of puerh tea. Puerh teas, similarly to wine, are labelled with the year and region of origin, their quality is evaluated and the finest quality brands are registered. In case of puerh teas, sophisticated tea culture is to discover and know the joy of understanding the unique character of puerh teas which is all in the famous tea producers, terroir and year of harvest. Puerh tea has a message spanning over generations, forests, mountains, villages – a message of a distinctive character that lies in each year of harvest, each terroir and each and every family grower.

The Value and Effects of Puer Tea Can Be Learned from Its Components

In the beginning, the leaves of Camellia sinensis var. assamica were harvested by the indegenous tribes from the big leaf tea trees that grew in the rainforest, their natural habitat. Later, the most valuable plants were grown from seed, and then tea groves and tea gardens were established in the Yunnan forests. Yunnan, the southeastern province of China is entirely mountainous with peaks 2,000 to 5,000 meters high. The province is drained by 6 major river systems flowing through the valleys between the mountains. Yunnan has the subtropical monsoon climate with high humidity and abundant rainfall that favours the production of high quality tea. Yunnan boasts the typical red clay soils (pH 4.5 – 5.5) rich in minerals and trace elements, which add to the character of puerh teas. On steep, rocky hillsides dotted with forests, streams and rivers feed the tea, which thrives in the loose, well-drained soil. Puerh tea has become great in its content, strength and effect due to these excellent environmental conditions.

Unique Flavour, High Sensory Quality, Significance in Culture

In recent years, tea has caught up with wine, coffee and other drinks in the consumption of quality beverages. It has been nearly 5000 years since the first trees were discovered and were found to have health benefits. Trade routes and trading centres were gradually established for the collection and transportation of puerh tea to Sichuan and Tibet. In the Eastern Himalaya, the mountain range known as Hengduan Shan (Gongga 7556m) runs generally north-south separating the Tibetan Plateau, the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau and the Sichuan Basin. More than 1,000 years ago, the peoples living here broke through the mountains to build the world’s highest trade route, the Ancient Tea Horse Road which connected the three provinces, and provided a trade link between Yunnan – India, Vietnam – Burma – Laos. Chinese tea would be exchanged for horses, yak butter, salt, fur, textiles, spices and herbs. Remnants of the passages, still in use, lead through ancient villages. In 1656, the emperor made puerh a tribute tea, from then on, its cultivation and trade began to develop tremendously.

Due to the way of processing, there are two main types of puerh tea: sheng and shou

Sheng puerh is the more traditional of the two with natural fermentation. The leaves are pan-fired, lightly rolled and kneaded, then left to dry in the sun. Immediately after processing, the tea is compressed into various shapes (brick or cake) and stored in a place conducive to fermentation.

Sheng, „Green” or „Raw”  puerh is naturally fermented, it continues to evolve over time, which we call post-fermentation. Over the 15-20 years, it becomes more and more delectable due to the physical and chemical changes which alter the tea’s properties.

In the year 1972, as a response to a growing demand, the Menghai Tea Factory developed a new method of fermentation process influenced by Guanxi Liu Bao processing techniques, which allowed the tea leaves to ferment much more quickly. The fast fermentation tea is called Shou, „Dark” or „Cooked” tea, on the one hand, because the processed tea has a dark colour, on the other hand, because during the accelerated fermentation process the temperature rises inside the piles of tea. 

In the case of Shu puerh tea the dried leaves are resoaked with moisture and covered with a sheet to accelerate fermentation, which lasts a couple of weeks before the tea is consumable.

The objective of accelerated fermentation is to decrease acidity and „green” flavours and thus make the tea consumable. This tea is cheaper and fundamentally better suited to meet the growing market demands, but its aroma, texture and aftertaste lag far behind the unique character of traditionally fermented teas aged for 10-15 years. In general, it can be said that both varieties are worth aging, because in the long term, their taste becomes smoother, fuller, richer and more complex, and their probiotic bacterial diversity rises.

The quality of puerh tea is defined by the types of the leaves, the skilled manufacturing process and the conditions under which it is stored

The quality of leaves is based on two factors: one of them is the agricultural practice, the other is the grade of leaves, with the percentage of buds being an indicator of value.

Notwithstanding that the modern agricultural method of Terrace Tea Plantation (taidi cha yuan) has some positive aspects (easy propagation of excellent varieties, new varieties and breeds), the quality of leaves is badly affected by the smaller root zones and low soil fertility. For excellent leaf quality teas, you need to penetrate deep into the forest. The humus formation in the woods improves the soil making it rich in minerals and trace elements, which are supplied to the high quality wild (never cultivated), semi-wild tea trees (planted during the ancient dynasties, then run wild) and the abandoned tea gardens of the indigenous tribes. Such teas are referred to as ‘wild tea’ or ‘old tree tea’ (gu cha yuan, gu shu cha). Their age is typically over 100 years, their size is similar to an apple tree, their roots are extensive, penetrating deep into the soil, and they have high quality leaves. In recent years, smaller companies in the puerh sector have turned to traditional farming to create ecological tea gardens (shengtai cha yuan). These are pesticide- and chemical-free gardens close to the edge of the forests, with tea trees not very densely planted from seed. These sustainable gardens are cultivated by the most modern ecological approach applying organic fertilizers and procedures supported by biological plant protection. The high-quality tea leaves are clean and rich in health beneficial compounds.

The tea leaves are graded according to their maturity vs tenderness. There is no top or bottom, the lower point means younger leaves on a 10-point grading scale. Grades 1-2 consist of young, fresh buds, grades 3-4 are buds and young leaves, grades 5-6 signify average-size (and age) leaves, grades 7-8 are older and bigger leaves, and the oldest and biggest leaves are graded 9-10. The different grades of tea can be selected and blended producing teas of different characteristics and price. The higher the proportion of buds in the tea, the higher the value, concentration and strength .

As the first buds appear in Spring and Fall, plucking of the tea can commence with a 2 or 3-week interval between the harvests. Pu-erh made from the early spring harvest is the most valued, as it usually contains more nutrients stored during the dormant period in winter. Plucking the leaves is finished in the afternoon, then the leaves are withered and pan fried to inactivate the enzymes in the tea. In the next stage they make the leaves supple, shape them by kneading and rolling and allowe them to stand during the night. The next morning the leaves are laid out under the sun to dry. In a few hours the tea is slightly fermented, slightly sweet and its taste is warmer. It is turned over several times a day until it becomes fully dried. This tea is referred to as maocha, or unfinished tea which serves as raw material (nevertheless that it is perfectly dried). Then maocha is sent directly to the factory where it undergoes several stages of selection and classification by hand or machine. It is, then loosened with steam and pressed to a specified weight and shape in a single step.

During the fermentation process, care must be taken to ensure adequate humidity and some oxygen, also uniform medium heat for the production of microbial bioactive compounds. 

The environment, that is too humid, accelerates fermentation, while low humidity slows or stops maturation. It is important to control the process and monitor storage conditions according to the season. Extreme care must be taken at this stage; otherwise, uncontrolled moisture will lead to deterioration and strange smell. Well-aged puerh tea has a bright surface, contrasting colour, intense aroma, and sensational flavour. If it matures too fast, the surface of the leaves becomes matte, there can even be some mildew spots on some parts, it smells sultry and musty and has a very unpleasant taste. Apart from the right temperature (22-25 ̊C) and humidity (50-70%), the fermentation process requires regularly ventilated environment with no other foreign odors. Even ripening needs oxygen-rich air, which should be provided by ventilation or aeration.

Puerh teas are often marketed in pressed form for easier transport, storage and better maturation

Puerh can be compressed into a round cake, a rectangular brick, or „Tuo Cha”, a mushroom-shaped cake with a weight of 100, 200, 250, 357, 500 or 1000 grams, but there are plenty of examples of larger ones.

Historically, this was probably necessary for the transportation of tea via the Tea Horse Road, and its preservation in the severe weather conditions. In the old days, fermentation under such conditions was a natural process, nowadays the maturation takes place under strictly controlled conditions (temperature, humidity, light conditions, ventilation), and great care is taken during transport to reduce the damage to the tea due to the travel between different climatic conditions.

To determine the value of puerh tea we need to know the cultural geography and the environmental conditions

Yunnan Autonomous Region has a population consisting mainly of local ethnic groups, known as tribes and nomadic clans. The Chinese state officially recognizes 25 tribes with different languages and religions. These tribes live in village communities and are still primarily involved in harvesting and processing tea. Among them, the first ethnic group to produce tea was the Bulang tribe. They initially plucked the leaves of ancient trees around their villages, later, by planting the seeds of the cu