Sunday, January 18, 2015

Gift Idea for Lunar New Year: Ito En's Sweet Green Pu-Erh Tea

I admit, I never seek out Pu-erh, even though it is many a tea blogger's favorite. Complex, robust, rich, and occasionally rare and extremely expensive, it basically screams connoisseurs only. I've tried some, admittedly not the very rare or expensive kinds, and I never thought that Pu-erh trumped Japanese green tea in any respect. Until a few days ago.

We actually had a super beautiful day today (after a week of gloomy winter rain) so I brought my tea tray outside.
The next 3 paragraphs discuss a little bit about Pu-erh  (alternate spellings: Pu-er, Puerh, Pu'erh, etc) and what makes it highly prized and occasionally behind locked display cases ($8000/ kilo is all kinds of crazy). Scroll past if you already know or don't care.

Pu-erh is an "aged tea," sometimes for a few months, sometimes for several decades. Like a fine wine, the older the pu-erh, the better it tastes (or so they say, I've never had tea that was older than me). Long ago, Pu-erh was a major trading center for tea so all teas from there were called Pu-erh. What we associate with Pu-erh today is a very specific kind of tea. It is aged, fermented and (usually) compressed tea. This processing of tea was initially a method used to preserve tea for tea growers and distributors who had to travel far and wide to sell their tea. Today, many regions produce Pu-erh tea but the best Pu-erh comes out of the tea harvested from the wild ancient (centuries old) tea trees in the Yunnan province. These trees produce very distinct large leaves, called Da Ye, with the best from the mountains in Xishuangbanna.

Adorable little Pu-erh tea cakes.
There are 2 major kinds of Pu-erh; sheng (raw) and shou (cooked). They both are initially harvested and processed similarly to produce a product called maocha. Shen Pu-erh is fermented for 10-50 years (with the older cakes naturally costing more). Shou Pu-erh is fermented more quickly by exposing the leaves to high heat and humidity for 45-65 days. After processing, the teas are pressed into various shapes; cake, brick, and nest are most common. There are other custom shapes (critters and flowers, etc).

How beautiful are these carnations?
Sometimes the tea has visible signs of mold, evidence of an aged and fine product. That sounds crazy, I know. As a scientist who works with cells, I see mold and other bits of growth as signs of contamination, not vintage and valuable. Frankly, Pu-erh scares me a little bit. But, I like trying new things so I went ahead and ordered some of Ito En's sweet green Pu-erh

From Ito En:

"Origin: Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, China [according to my Tea Bible, the best region for Pu-Erh tea] This individually wrapped green Pu-erh tuocha is one of the most unique teas we’ve offered to date. Made in the centuries-old “raw” method, the tea leaves underwent only a light processing before three years of aging. Just use one piece for a medium-sized teapot to enjoy a sweet infusion reminiscent of the fragrance of freshly steamed rice. An excellent drink for health according to traditional Chinese medicine" 

Unwrapped Pu-erh tea cake. It is shaped like a nest (tuocha).

As soon as I opened the bag, I knew I was in for a treat. I had no idea the Pu-erh would be pressed into mini nests (nest shapes are called tuocha) and individually wrapped. I love it when things come in mini sizes and are pre-packaged for consumption. Apart from the adorable packaging, I was totally floored by the aroma!

Light amber color, like an oolong tea.
It was instantly recognizable to me as steamed rice cake in banana leaves. Sweets wrapped in banana leaves are essential to the Moon Festival and the upcoming Lunar New Year celebrations (February 19!!). This lovely smell brought all sorts of anticipation and happiness.

I brewed some in a small pot. It was so easy. Just plop in the cake and watch it expand and break apart. I swirled it a little to get the tea leaves evenly steeped. It is a beautiful, bright green color. The taste: I definitely pick up notes of banana leaves and rice. It is not heavily vegetal and grassy like sencha. Instead, it is crisp and full of banana leaf flavor. Banana leaves do not smell like ripe bananas. The aroma is distinct from the fruit. The tea itself has a sweet aftertaste. I re-steeped (something I almost never do) and was rewarded with a very similar brew (apparently it can be re-steeped for more than 5 times).

At the top left are candied coconut ribbons, a very common treat for Lunar New Year. My mom made these tasty treats.
I highly, highly recommend this tea. Ito En can do no wrong when it comes to green tea. This sweet green Pu-erh is no exception. If you love green tea and especially if you love the aroma of banana leaves and steam rice, please try this. As soon as I took the first sip, I placed another order. I think my parents will be happy to receive such an interesting tea for Lunar New Year.  The round cakes represent the full moon, which symbolizes gathering, harmony, and unity. Since Pu-erh is thought to have many medicinal qualities (and is often used in traditional Chinese medicine), it makes a perfect gift for everyone. 

So drink Pu-erh for a prosperous and healthy New Year! 

Eat lots of fruit full of antioxidants and vitamins to fight the flu season!
Happy sips!

P.S. If you are interested in learning more about Pu-erh tea (and all other teas), please buy Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties (2nd Ed) by Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, and Hugo Americi. This is my Tea Bible. A definite for anyone interested in all aspects of tea, from history and cultivation to enjoyment.