Pu'erh is an ancient style of tea grown exclusively in and around the city of Pu'erh in the Yunnan Province in China. Situated all around this area are old, sacred tea mountains where local people have been drinking tea, worshipping it even, for thousands of years. Known as the most coveted tea in the world, Pu'erh has developed a cult-like following in recent years due mostly to its unique health benefits, its earthy, robust and smooth flavors and its incredible energy.
As the story goes, when tea was traded along the Tea Horse Road - the trading route along which tea was taken to Tibet and horses were brought back down to China - the tea was carefully packed into saddle bags for the long journey. By the time it arrived to Tibet, the tea was fermented and full of probiotics.
The Tibetans enjoyed the benefits of the probiotics that were in the leaf when it arrived. It helped them more easily digest their protein-rich diet. They boiled it into Po Cha, the famous salted Tibetan Yaak butter tea and it became part of their daily life.
Pu'erh starts as a green tea called “mao cha.” It is steamed, fermented and then aged anywhere between a few months to several decades. Pu'erh tea is considered to be a living food with probiotics and digestive benefits similar to sauerkraut and yogurt. Some of the most highly prized Pu'erhs have been aged for over 200 years!
Today, there are 2 categories of Pu'erh tea:
1) “Sheng” or “raw” Pu'erh is made using the traditional process: fermenting naturally over time. Newly-made Sheng Pu'erh is green, fresh and astringent tasting. Until recently, it was mostly consumed after having been aged for at least 7 years. After the aging process, it becomes more mellow, easier on the stomach and more full of probiotics.
2) “Shou” or cooked Puerh is a modern style of Pu'erh tea that was developed in the 1970s. To more quickly achieve the goals of a) a smooth and mellow cup and b) beneficial bacteria, tea makers began artificially fermenting the tea. Shou Pu'erh is made by adding probiotics and heating the tea so that it is more immediately mellow and complex, with the greatest probiotic affects.
Just like it was pressed into the saddle bags along the Tea Horse Road, Pu'erh is still pressed into cakes for best storage - usually small wrapped cakes, or toucha, that weigh 357 grams apiece. A tuocha is a small pressed "dome-shaped bowl" of tea, resembling a tiny bird nest, that is intended to make one pot of tea and to be rested many times.
Tuocha are beautiful to prepare as you just drop one into a pot, add hot water, steep, decant and repeat!