Recently, some friends from Ukraine made borscht for us, an enormous pot of it. We ate bowls and bowls of borscht, loaded with sour cream and paired with bread, raw garlic and salt. Afterwards, while we were sitting around the table, one friend went into the kitchen and came back with a steaming cup. Inside was a dark, mild-smelling drink. "It's called Pu-erh tea. It's supposed to help with digestion," he told us. "They say that Pu-erh tea can cure up to a thousand sicknesses."
What is Pu-erh Tea?
Pu-erh (or Pu'er) tea is produced in and named after Pu'er City in Southern China. The primary tea leaves are taken from the same shrub species that is used to make green tea, black tea, and white tea. The tea leaves are dried and rolled, after which they can be sold. But more interestingly, bundles of gently dried leaves can be pressed together into various shapes in a process called pile-fermentation. Microbes and enzymes left on the gently dried leaves can actually grow and develop inside the pressed shape, or cake. The cakes are left to age for years and even decades, depending on the type and formation of tea. This aging process transforms the tea, giving the tea a rich, delicious taste. The longer the tea ages, the better it tastes – and the more expensive the tea becomes as well.
There are roughly three types of Pu-erh tea sold: young raw, aged raw, and ripe. The young raw Pu-erh is unaged, being only up to a few years old, and has a mildly grassy and fresh taste. Aged raw Pu-erh has a dark and earthy yet mild flavor. The older it is, the more depth and body it has. Finally, ripe Pu-erh is made using a process developed in Hong Kong that expedites the aging process. Hence, ripe Pu-erh may only be a few years old but has the rich, earthy flavor of the aged raw – although most would say that the flavor is not as complex as a traditionally aged Pu-erh.
The Health Benefits of Pu-erh Tea
Pu-erh tea is regarded to be exceptionally good for you. It has health benefits that are well recognized in Western medicine. It contains high levels of antioxidants, which protect the heart and blood vessels and play a role in fighting cancer. It can promote mental alertness by stimulating the central nervous system (but lacks the jittery effect that coffee often produces). Chemicals in Pu-erh such as catechins, theanine, and caffeine have been found to be responsible for decreasing body weight and decreasing levels of triglycerides and total cholesterol by acting on the liver and its enzymes. In addition, the fermentation process of aged Pu-erh results in the production of lovastatin, a cholesterol-lowering drug which is naturally found in the tea. Lovastatin is the active ingredient in Mevacor, Altoprev, and Altocor. Aged Pu-erh tea is one of only two natural products that contain lovastatin (the other being red yeast rice).
Other benefits of drinking Pu-erh tea include removal of toxins from the bloodstream, increased growth of healthy bacterial flora in the gut for better digestion, stress reduction and improved sleep patterns, and anti-inflammatory properties for warding off infections. Although full scientific consensus has not been reached regarding these benefits according to the standards of Western medicine, in traditional Chinese medicine Pu-erh tea has been used as a potent medication for many centuries.
How to Buy, Store, and Make Pu-erh Tea
When buying Pu-erh tea, as with buying tea in general, be wary of low quality products or "fakes". This article describes four tell-tale signs for determining if a Pu-erh tea was processed well or poorly. (Most of the article is about the interesting process of pile-formation, and the tell-tale signs are at the end.) Another article found here contains two concise sections in the middle about buying and storing Pu-erh tea. This more extensive post from the same website details how to make the tea for optimal taste and efficiency.
The only thing left to do, honestly, is to try it. According to our Ukrainian friend, the flavor of Pu-erh tea is not for everybody. He couldn't say that he really enjoyed his first cup of it. What kept him coming back for more, though, is that he felt energized after drinking the tea – it invigorated him without sending him over the top. After a few cups, he became hooked on the flavor as well. Now he is constantly on the lookout for different ages and makes of Pu-erh tea both in stores and online, and he has accidentally become a conoisseur of Pu-erh. So after such a recommendation from him, we were all compelled to try some of the tea he had brought. I am not a tea drinker; what I really love and enjoy is coffee. But the mild, slightly woody flavor of the Pu-erh tea was surprisingly… very pleasant. I suggest you try it for yourself and see if it works for you.
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