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As a tea that goes through multiple fermentations, pu erh tea (also known as puerh tea, puer tea, or pu-erh tea) is commonly considered the most complex of all teas. Because of this, it’s important to know how to brew pu erh tea properly.
Crafted from either black or green tea, pu erh goes through an additional bacterial fermenting process after its initial oxidation. The production process, shai qing mao cha, can take anywhere from months to years.
The sought-after flavor or pu erh is amplified when aged for longer periods of time. The highest quality pu erh can be aged for 50 or more years, with 7 years being the minimum amount of time suggested for high quality tea.
How to Brew Pu Erh Tea
You may purchase pu erh tea in either compressed or loose leaf form. Compressed tea has a higher amount of tea in a smaller physical form, so comparing measurements of the two is most accurately defined by weight.
Most teas can be prepared in either the classic Eastern brewing method, or by the more modern Western brewing. In the case of pu erh tea, we strongly advise using the classic method, especially with a gaiwan or similar brewing implement.
Yixing pots may also be used, but because of the strong flavors of pu erh be sure to ONLY brew pu erh in that unglazed pot in the future.
If you do not own a gaiwan, the same brewing style may be used with any heat-resistant cup or pot that has a lid. Simply pour the tea through a strainer when emptying into tea cups.
Here are some general measurements to start out with for brewing pu erh tea. When brewing a larger amount of tea at one time, increase the amount of tea proportionally to the amount of water.
- 3 grams of pu erh tea, leaves or compressed (approximately 1 heaping tablespoon of leaves, or a flattened tablespoon of compressed tea)
- 6 ounces of water for Eastern style brewing
- 8 ounces of water for Western style brewing
- Water temperature – 200°F – 212°F (93°C – 100°C)
Brewing Pu Erh Tea With a Gaiwan
The same directions below may be used with a Yixing teapot.
- Heat water in a kettle to the desired temperature.
- Pour a bit of heated water into the gaiwan and tea cups to heat them up, swirl around, then discard the water (optional).
- Gently place leaves in the bottom of the gaiwan.
- Pour a small amount of heated water over the leaves to rinse, swirl for a few seconds, then discard the water, making sure to not accidentally discard the leaves.
- For ripe (shou) pu erh, repeat the rinsing step one more time.
- Pour the desired amount of hot water for the final tea over the tea leaves.
- Place the cover on the gaiwan.
- Steep for about 20 seconds.
- Pour into tea cups, holding onto the lid to keep the tea leaves in the gaiwan.
Pu erh tea may be steeped multiple times (from 5-10 more times depending on the tea), but be sure to add another 10 seconds or so onto each consecutive steep. You do not need to rinse the leaves again.
Brewing Pu Erh Tea: Western Style
Although not recommended for pu erh, some people prefer the ease and larger amount of final product when brewing tea in the western style. The main differences between the two is that a larger amount of water is used in the western style, as well as a longer brew time.
- Heat water in a kettle to the desired temperature.
- Place tea leaves into an infuser. When using tea cakes, be sure that the holes of the infuser are small enough that the particles will not escape.
- Pour heated water through the leaves to rinse, then discard the rinse water. This can be done over the sink or with the infuser already in the teapot.
- Rinse twice if using shou pu erh.
- Place the infuser with leaves in the teapot if it is not there already.
- Fill the teapot with the desired amount of water.
- Steep for 3-4 minutes. Feel free to taste the tea as it is brewing to find the desired flavor.
- Remove infuser from the teapot to stop the brewing process.
- Pour tea into tea cups.
Different Types of Pu Erh Tea
There are a few different procedures performed on tea leaves that will create the final product of pu erh. Black tea leaves are normally used to make ripe, or shou pu erh. Green tea leaves form the basis of raw, or sheng pu erh.
Sheng Pu Erh
Raw pu erh tea is made from green tea leaves, where the process takes them from harvest directly to firing in order to slow down initial oxidation, then dried.
At this point they are stacked up into 1-2 foot piles, sprayed with water, covered with linen, and left to age for a longer period of time. During this time bacteria develops, altering the chemical composition and flavor of the tea leaves.
After this point the tea leaves are heated again to stop them from fermenting too much, then packaged as either compressed cakes or loose-leaf pu erh tea. Many higher quality teas will then be stored for additional aging.
The resulting tea leaves are a dark green, which is somewhat expected from their origin of green tea leaves. They can also have lighter tips and stripes through the leaves. When brewed, sheng pu erh tea has a light yellow color, gentle aroma, and a mild flavor.
Shou Pu Erh
Starting from an already higher level of oxidation, ripe pu erh made from black tea leaves will already have a strong amount of boldness and astringency.
Black tea is 90%-100% oxidized in the normal process, then instead of allowing natural bacterial fermentation to occur, an enzyme is introduced to the leaves. This speeds up the chemical reactions that create the flavors of pu erh tea.
Shou pu erh, with its accelerated fermentation process, tends to produce a darker color and stronger flavor than sheng pu erh tea. The color is generally a dark amber, and is often described as a more powerful black tea.
Pu Erh Tea Packaging
Pu erh can come in different forms, and depending on a person’s taste they may prefer one over the other. The main difference between compressed cakes and loose leaf pu erh tea comes down to the purpose behind each packaging method.
Loose Leaf Pu Erh Tea
We normally associate loose leaf tea with higher quality, and with most leaves such as green or white teas, this is generally the case. Young leaves, or leaves that have very little oxidation, keep their flavor and aroma better when transported as full leaves. Breaking of the cell walls can increase oxidation and bring different flavors to the fore.
This theory continues with pu erh tea, especially shou pu erh. With loose leaf teas it is easier to notice if the leaves are consistent in quality, their aroma is open and available to test, and steeping them is much easier.
That being said, it is very important that loose leaf pu erh is stored in an environment with little to no humidity, as this can cause unwanted extra oxidation and the possibility of mold growth as it is further aged.
Compressed Pu Erh Tea
When tea leaves are compressed, they are formed into cakes that make for exceptionally easy handling, shipping, and storage. With many tea leaves this compression process can destroy the desired flavors of fresh tea, but with pu erh’s secondary fermentation process it does not matter as much.
Another additional benefit to the compression of pu erh tea leaves is that it removes exposure from humidity and oxygen, the two main enemies of tea storage.
Since pu erh is stored for longer periods of time during their initial manufacturing, and then sometimes further after purchase, protection from undesirable outside influence adds another layer of security for the product’s integrity.
Loose Leaf or Compressed Pu Erh Tea?
For those who are new to pu erh tea, we recommend loose leaf. They will be able to purchase a smaller amount of tea to sample instead of committing to a compressed cake that can last for a long time. There is also the issue of learning to correctly break apart a compressed pu erh cake to get the desired amount to brew.
Tea drinkers who like to extend the tea experience over more than one cup may find that loose leaf pu erh will maintain its flavor longer than compressed over multiple steepings.
Aged pu erh tea can bring out new and subtle flavors that a younger version cannot always match. For those who appreciate this additional layer of complexity and wish to continue aging their pu erh at home, compressed cakes may be a better option for long term storage.
Older pu erh tea may also be only available in compressed form, so this is something to look out for when considering the different options.
When it comes down to it, the quality of the originating leaves is the most important factor in the final quality of pu erh, so do not let one packaging form or another be the main point when making purchasing decisions.
Brewing pu erh tea is a fairly straightforward process, but it is important to tailor the experience to the type of pu erh tea you are using, whether loose leaf or compressed. In the end, the enjoyment of this unique form of tea is easy to attain once you have your method in place.
Scott is the founder of TeaMinded. He enjoys tasting and discovering teas from across the globe, with green teas and ceremonial matcha from Japan being among his favorites. He’s grateful to be immersed in the tea community, always learning and sharing along the journey.