Wild Old Tea: Musings on Pu’erh

Wild Old Tea: Musings on Pu’erh

By Brooke Hamilton-Benjestorf

Deep in the jungle of the Yunnan Province, gnarled and twisting to the top of the canopy, erupting with curls of tender green, are the Assamicas of the Camellia Sinensis genus. These are The Wild Old Trees, some said to be standing for thousands of years, and miraculously, still producing high yields of precious pu’erh tea. Along the borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, these budding Chinese tea leaves have been picked, withered, panned, rolled, and dried since as early as 25 CE.

After drying, the processing breaks off into two varieties - either the sheng (raw) variety can be produced, or the shou (cooked, or ripe). While the sheng is simply steamed and packaged loose leaf or into dense cakes, the shou goes through additional processing to bring out a more roasted flavor, and is often aged for a handful of years afterward [1]. However, it is the third, historically-stumbled-upon variety that rises from the depths of tradition and imagination. 

When I envision a cup of pu’erh, my mind conjures the ancient. My senses bring me directly to the steaming cup of the aged, fermented variety. It releases olfactory secrets of the jungle’s past:  dark, fermenting fruits; camphorous resins; deep soil and earthy wood after rain. The fermentation process that draws out the richness within the leaf originally happened by accident - so common among the origin stories of our most revered domestic and artistic traditions. As far back as the Eastern Han Dynasty, the processed Assamica tea leaves traveled from one locale to another, making their way to villages that lacked the proper growing conditions for the precious Camellia Sinensis. Throughout the journey, the product was rained on, and swallowed by air pregnant with humidity, the fermentation process blooming on its own. The aging continued after the tea was delivered as the leaves sat in storage huts, waiting to be infused into ritual and sustenance [1].

The Chinese found that the longer the tea was stored, the finer it became - sweeter, smoother, and stronger. An accident of trade, producers began to intentionally prolong fermentation and storage to produce more high quality teas. Some pu’erhs are stored for decades before attaining their desired qualities and and notes.  

Before partaking in the rich alchemical tradition of pu’erh and its unique gifts (cholesterol-lowering, fat-burning, digestion aid), consider the origins of your particular cup of tea. Did the leaves come from a sustainable, organic source? Teas are heavily influenced by their surroundings, each cup holding real imprints of the environment it came from, which makes a trusted source of the utmost importance. A final consideration, for the value of ritual and taste, is to brew your tea in a clay or cast iron pot [2]. This allows us to best sense - smell, taste, feel - each steaming note, or the ninety generations before us who have been nurtured by the tea from this same tree, deep in the jungle of happy accidents.



[1] https://medium.com/@teforia/the-story-of-pu-erh-tea-6a0cf669c938

[2] https://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/recipe-collections-favorites/popular-ingredients/pu-erh-tea

Photo by petr sidorov on Unsplash