You may have recently seen those little hockey pucks of compressed tea leaves. They are Pu-erh tea, around for nearly 2,000 years. Originally packed in bamboo poles and transported by horseback, the sweat from the horses caused the tea to ferment. During the Ch’ing dynasty, virgins picked the tea to make money for their dowries.
All tea comes from the same type of plant, the Camellia sinensis, but the tea bushes in Pu-erh, in the Yunnan province of China, have grown wild for centuries. Large tea buds are picked—no longer by virgins, we hear—and left to wither in the sun on bamboo trays. The buds are covered with cloth and fermented for 90 days, which causes the tea to mellow. The buds are then steamed and shaped into nests, bricks, or left loose. Finally, the tea is aged anywhere from one to forty years.
Preparation is much like any other tea. Once you break off a piece of a brick, you rinse it, then place it in your tea pot and steep. Pu-erh can be re-steeped, and tastes mellower the second time. In Tibet, it’s served with yak butter. But milk will do fine.
Even the shapes are mysterious. Tuo Cha teas look like lovely wren nests, some of which contain rose or chrysanthemum petals. Others are packaged in their traditional bamboo poles. The Liu An Tea Cake bundle contains handwoven baskets of tea cakes, while the Golden Melon Tribute tea is named for its plentiful golden tips and melon shape symbolizing bounty and prosperity. You can keep all pu-erh teas indefinitely in a cool, dark place, but never hermetically sealed. Prices start at $5 per brick and go up from there.