The holidays bring us an endless array of feasts for the senses, but if you’re like me, all these seasonal specialties leave you feeling that your eyes were much bigger than your stomach (even after your stomach has stretched beyond its normal proportions). There are plenty of culinary options for soothing your stomach at the end of a luxurious meal – from dessert wines and herbal digestifs to an espresso or a mug of mint tea – but for me, this season is the perfect excuse to break out one of my most treasured beverages: 普洱茶 (pu’er tea).
I first had pu’er tea (also written “pu-erh”) back in 2008, when I was travelling through the heartland of pu’er in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. Although it is less well known in the U.S., pu’er has been a highly prized variety of tea for centuries in China, where it played a large role in the Ancient Tea Horse Road trade-route connecting parts of Southeast East Asia, India and Tibet. Unlike black, green, white, and oolong teas, pu’er falls into a fifth category, known as “dark tea,” which is allowed to gradually ferment after harvest. The brewed pu’er has a similar body to black tea, but with less caffeine and more oaky, earthy flavors.
Traditionally, these dark teas were carefully packaged and allowed to age, like wine, developing richer, bolder flavors as the fermentation progressed. In the 1970s an extra processing step was invented to accelerate fermentation and mimic the flavor profiles of those more sought-after vintages. Today, pu’er is divided into two categories to reflect which method is used to finish it: raw (生 sheng) pu’er, which has been lightly fermented and may occasionally be left to age; and ripe (熟 shou) pu’er, which has been processed using the accelerated method.
Whenever I talk with people in China about pu’er they immediately extoll its popular health benefits – “Ah, pu’er tea, it aids digestion, helps you lose weight, and is great for the skin!” Clever marketing if I ever saw it, but I have to say (at least in my experience) there really is something about this fermented tea that helps soothe the stomach more than the other teas I drink.
When I first came back from China the funkier scents of the ripe pu’er leaves I brought with me turned a few of my friends off, but I love these teas for their delicacy and depth of flavor. Pu’er is my go-to tea for sitting around with friends and family, in part because it steeps effectively in a matter of seconds and the leaves can be reused upwards of 30 times over the course of a day.
With its purported digestive benefits, rich flavor, and mild caffeine content pu’er makes a perfect after-dinner drink for the winter holidays – a great transitional beverage to bring you from your turkey on to pie!
Most pu’er outside of China is ripe pu’er, and we have two exceptional varieties from Silk Road Teas. In addition to their organic Imperial Leaf pu’er tea bags, Silk Road’s Dark River Pu’er is bursting with smoky, spicy peat and really resembles the qualities of a wine aged in barrique. I’m also thrilled that we carry a marvelous raw pu’er from Tranquil Tuesdays. Their Ancient Tree Raw Pu’er is much more delicate, with a light body and clean finish, and it still boasts those earthy undertones, just without the smokier punch. All three are great gifts for tea lovers, offering a unique taste of one of China’s most beautiful regions!
Rob Campbell is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also a Tea Buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.