I discovered Pu-Erh tea in 2003 when I was working at a Japanese tea house in New York’s East Village. I was a few months out of college and considering moving to Japan to teach English. The tea house, called Cha-An was owned by a successful Japanese restaurateur who owned several traditional Japanese restaurants on that block. Cha-An was no different, he spent a great deal of resources and attention into preserving Japanese culture. The space had a beautiful formal tea house inside, where customer could book a Japanese tea ceremony.
The tea supplier, Sebastian Beckwith, ended up becoming a great friend. He had started his company In Pursuit of Tea while he shortly after he was location scout for Photographer Peter Lindberg. Sebastian went to India on business and ended up bringing back some samples of 1st Flush Darjeeling for his friends.
Sebastian has been my greatest tea mentor throughout the years. While I was working at the shop (a stint that lasted maybe 4 months), he helped me understand the significance of certain brewing methods. One of those days, I was introduced to Pu-Erh.
Pu-Erh is brewed in a yixing pot. It’s a clay pot that allows flavor to encapsulate in the vessel. I like to think it’s a Chinese design similar to the wok. A wok tastes better the more you use it. There’s a beautiful patina that develops when it’s used often and cared for properly. A yixing pot is similar. I believe the Chinese have some sort of saying comparing the tea pot to a piggy bank, where you should feed it everyday. When you do that, the clay takes on a warmer richer tone. I love how these tea pots look like artifacts, but are completely functional and in fact, should be used everyday.
Pu-Erh, itself is a collector’s tea. It’s the only tea that is actually aged and fermented, so you see prices that reflect those of serious bottles of wine. It normally comes wrapped in a printed thin sheet of paper and is pressed into a circular oval. You are supposed to break off a bit the size of a quarter, well depending on how large your yixing pot is, and how strong you like your tea.
Brewing Pu-Erh is very easy. You need boiling water and the yixing tea pot. After placing the bit of tea inside the pot, fill it up with water. I usually give it 1-2 minutes. It can go longer. Typically the tea is dark with red tones once it is brewed. You can brew this tea again, but it will be less strong. Some people prefer to give it a wash first, which might help with lessening the caffeine and the strong flavor.
Pu-Erh, I describe as a dirty flavor. It takes like soil, in the best way possible. It has a very smooth finish, and is probably the closest you can come to drinking coffee without drinking coffee. I believe it has been associated with dietary ambitions in China, but for me, Pu-Erh is simply about pleasure. It’s the kind of black tea you want to drink when you are serious about reflecting, have a quiet moment in the morning, and need to feel alive. Sugar and creamer absolutely not necessary.