While many of my readers are as addicted to puerh as I am, I thought that I should include a bit of an introductory article in this inaugural journal. Fermented teas can be really scary when you’re first starting out. These recommendations are based on my own tastes and experiences.
Although I’ve been a serious tea drinker for a long time, puerh was my last frontier until the last two years or so. I was pretty convinced that I hated the stuff. In hindsight, I realize that many of the first samples I tried were rather bad quality and not really representative of the category. Fishy shu or musty, poorly stored sheng has incited the same reaction in many a tea drinker. I’m here to tell you that there is hope.
At the beginning of my tea journey, I brewed almost everything using an infuser basket and a teapot or teacup. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this I find that puerh will sometimes not perform well, especially if you aren’t accustomed to its unique taste. I never really enjoyed puerh until I started using gaiwans and smaller gongfu sized teapots. Here are some tips that really helped me out.
Break It Gently
Believe it or not, I have never owned a puerh knife until fairly recently. After years of bear handing it, I’ve realized that I was being a bit too rough on my leaves. Breaking them into smaller pieces makes them much less pretty but can also release more bitterness. I highly recommend using a blunt puerh knife (or a letter opener in a pinch) to break the cake apart horizontally rather than digging through it. It can take a bit of a practice to get the hang of this but it will make a difference in the taste of your tea.
I never really enjoyed puerh until I started using gaiwans and smaller sized teapots. Part of this was because it’s really hard to measure out teaspoons of a compressed tea. Gongfu preparation usually calls for weighing the tea. This is more accurate and a much easier way of measuring your tea. I use about 5g or leaves when using a gaiwan and around 8g when I’m brewing in my yixing teapot. At first, that won’t look like much at all but as you brew the leaves will break apart and expand quite a bit.
Brew It Quickly
Another problem with brewing puerh tea in a western fashion is that the brew times are way too long. In switching to the gongfu method, you’ll be amazed at how much flavor can be achieved in a30-secondd infusion. The longer the infusion, the more tannins will be released from the leaves. Tannins are polyphenols that cause an astringent, bitter feeling. It's the same substance that causes the mouth-puckering effect of red wine.
As I mentioned earlier, some of the first puerhs that I tried were very bad quality. The bing that you pick up in Chinatown for $5 just isn’t going to cut it. There are a lot of great companies out there who can help you to discover the world of fermented tea. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and shop around before making the leap. Order sample sizes to start off rather than buying expensive cakes.
As I always say, there’s no such as thing as the right way to make tea. All that matters is that you enjoy the end result. Do you have any tips or tricks for puerh beginners? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!
This post originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Tea for Me Please Quarterly. Sign up using the form below to receive informative tea articles four times a year.