Sit down for dim sum at any Cantonese restaurant and a teapot of “bo lei” (Cantonese) or “pu’er” (Mandarin) soon follows. While table teas at yum cha (gathering for tea and dim sum) might provide an introduction to run-of-the-mill pu’er tea, the good stuff won’t come free with the meal.
In 2005, a 500-gram disc of this popular fermented black tea fetched more than $150,000 ($300 per gram) at auction, making it the second most valuable tea in China – right behind 20 grams of Da Hong Pao (a dark oolong tea), which was sold for $31,289, or $1,564 per gram.
“Only some pu’er vintages are very expensive. The very old Chinese teas on the market, from 50 to 80 years old, tend to be extremely rare,” explains Simpson Yeung, who oversees the tea service at three-Michelin-starred Lung King Heen inside the Four Seasons Hong Kong. “Most of these factories are closed, having gone out of business during the Cultural Revolution, so their scarcity is part of what makes these teas so valuable.”
Whether you’re washing down some rich dim sum with a free pot or savoring a 30-year vintage, here’s everything you need to know to appreciate this ancient tea:
The pride of Yunnan
Cultivated in the rolling terraces and lush forests of Pu’er, a village in the Yunnan province of southwestern China, the eponymous tea thrives thanks in part to its ideal terroir.
“There’s plenty of rainfall throughout the year in the region,” says Henry Ng, tea master of Jin Xuan at The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong. “The landscape is perfect – its rich, deep soil and unpolluted environment are what make this tea so famous.”
It might be well-known now, but according to legend, pu’er was actually invented by accident. During the Eastern Han Dynasty (252-220 AD), tea merchants from Yunnan attempted to transport fresh pu’er leaves to the then-emperor. During the long journey across the country, the tea was unintentionally exposed to rain and humidity, thus kickstarting the fermentation process.
Though the merchants were unsure of its quality, they took a risk and delivered the pungent tea to the emperor. It was an instant hit and came to be known as a tea for royalty. The tea’s prestige grew and was later traded for horses along the Ancient Tea Horse Road, which ran across the mountain from Yunnan to Tibet, for two millennia.
Aged to perfection
Today, there are two kinds of pu’er: cooked (ripe) or uncooked (raw). Ripe tea was invented in the 1970s, and only needs to age for five years due to an expedited fermentation process. Meanwhile the more traditional and higher quality raw tea matures over the course of 15 to 30 years.
After harvesting the extra large tea leaves, both types of pu’er are steamed, rolled and fired. From there, the paths diverge. Ripe pu’er tea is left in a mound to “cook” (or ferment), usually inside a warm room with high-humidity for about four to seven weeks.
Raw pu’er, meanwhile, is immediately packed into bricks or discs, called bings, and left to ferment naturally at a much slower pace. These paper-like packages usually carry the seal of the tea producer and, in the world of pu’er, names like Menghai Tea Factory and Xiaguan Tea Factory are as familiar as Hennessy or Dom Perignon.
For the next few years, or decades, these discs are stored in a controlled environment with specific conditions: little direct light, 50-70% humidity and a temperature of 68-85 degrees Fahrenheit. After 15-30 years, most pu’er teas will have reached their peak maturity.
Drink like a pro
While in no-frills dim sum spots, you’ll likely be drinking cooked pu’er. In a fine-dining setting, it’s more common to encounter raw discs that have been aged anywhere from five to 30 years, often costing $15 or $30 for a single serving. Younger vintages, at about five to 15 years, pair well with rich foods like pork, stir-fried beef or dumplings. But anything older than that is best savored on its own.
“The oldest pu’er that I have personally tasted was 60 years,” says Yeung. “If the tea has a good-quality grading, you can brew it many times and still taste the nuance and evolution of flavor. And with a really high-quality tea, you should be able to brew up to 15 times without diminishing the taste.”
So how do you brew it? For the best results, steep the tea at a precise 212 degrees Fahrenheit for no more than 15-20 seconds. The first and second passes of hot water are to simply wash the tea leaves.
“With pu’er, because of the age, we must wash the leaves – otherwise they will be very dusty,” explains Yeung. “Traditionally we use clay teapots for pu’er. The clay teapot is porous which can then accumulate flavors over multiple brews.”
Next comes the actual brewing. Most high-quality pu’er tea leaves can be steeped multiple times and still retain their complexity. Yeung recommends starting with five to 15 seconds for the first steeping, and slowly increase up to about 45 seconds to 1 minute for later brews.
While it’s hard to tell a good or poor quality pu’er from the leaves alone, it’s pretty evident once brewed: A high-quality pu’er will appear golden brown with a radiant, translucent quality. And if the look doesn’t give it away, a taste-test certainly will. The most beautiful pu’er teas are as complex as wines, with notes of nuts and caramel, earth, wood, and sometimes even ginseng, red dates and plums.
“Aged pu’er is an individual experience. Like wine, each tea can vary in taste from factory to factory,” says Yeung, who recalls a special 1999 raw pu’er that he serves at Lung King Heen. “Also like wine, the taste of each tea changes over time, so your experience will be different each time you taste it.”