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What Is Pu-erh Tea?

pu-erh tea

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pu-erh tea is a fermented drink made from the leaves of a Camellia sinensis plant, and it delivers a deep and earthy flavor
  • Extensive research has been done on pu-erh tea and its extracts, with positive results. Pu-erh tea is said to promote antioxidant, anti-obesity and antimicrobial benefits
  • Before consuming pu-erh tea, talk to your doctor. Drinking too much of this beverage may predispose you to multiple side effects

Did you know that tea was once considered a luxury item in China?1 For centuries, the Chinese consumed many types of tea, like the uniquely named pu-erh tea,2 not just to enjoy its earthy, rich and deep flavor3 but to possibly reap some health benefits too. If you’re interested in trying unique types of tea, this drink may be a good choice. Learn more about pu-erh tea’s potential benefits and how it is typically brewed.

What Is Pu-erh Tea?

Pu-erh tea traces its origins to China’s Yunnan province,4 where it was derived from the Camellia sinensis var. assamica plant ever since the Tang Dynasty (618 to 906 A.D.).5 This tea is named after a city in this province.6 It may also be called “puer,” “pu-er,” “po lei” and “bolay” tea, and is considered “dark tea” or “black tea” in China.7 According to authors of a 2016 PLoS One article, pu-erh tea is available “naturally fermented (raw) and purposely fermented (ripened).”8

You’ll know you’re drinking top-notch pu-erh tea if it tastes earthy, rich and deep, as opposed to having a muddy or moldy flavor, which indicates inferior quality. It is served and consumed while eating rich desserts, or heavy, greasy banquets. If this isn’t your cup of tea (no pun intended), this beverage may be consumed as a digestive after a heavy meal.9

While pu-erh tea can be sold in teabags or as loose leaves, or placed inside pomelo fruit or bamboo stalks,10 did you know that it can also come in different shapes? Pu-erh tea was initially contained inside various baskets so it can be easily shipped and exported to other countries like Tibet, Hong Kong and Myanmar.11 Pu-erh tea leaves can be shaped as tiny bowls or “tuo cha,” disc-shaped cakes called “bing cha” or as bricks.12

When it comes to the tea’s price point, loose leaf teas may be ideal if you want to try this beverage without spending too much. In an article for the Michelin Guide, tea sommelier Ann Sit notes that some tea cakes can be valued at $300, although some are sold at several thousand dollars.13

Pu-erh Tea’s Health Benefits

Pu-erh tea has been linked to various medicinal purposes. Authors of a 2016 Clinical Interventions in Aging article highlighted that this tea was able to provide relief against “common colds, flatulence, poor digestion and onset of dysentery.”14 Other studies have also touched on the many other benefits of Pu-erh tea:

Delivers strong antioxidant abilities — Results of this Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study revealed that water extracts of pu-erh tea (WEPT) “showed significant antioxidant activity,” owing to its potential in inhibiting lipid and nonlipid oxidative damage. The extracts also helped scavenge free radicals and displayed potential in binding to metals.15

Stimulates antimicrobial abilities — A LWT – Food Science and Technology study revealed that pu-erh tea extracts may combat development of bacteria strains like Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus subtilis.16

Lowers risk of cardiovascular disorders — In this Experimental Gerontology article, fermented pu-erh tea extracts had lipid-lowering effects, since it reduced triglyceride levels and serum low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol (LDL-C) in rats. The said extract was also linked to increased activity of the antioxidants superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione peroxidase (GSH-Px).17

Promotes better skin health — According to a Free Radical Biology and Medicine study, pu-erh tea’s polyphenol content (said to be higher than green tea’s) and catechin and catechin oligomer composition may deliver skin protection and help improve your body’s largest organ.18

Improves brain health — In this Molecular Neurobiology animal study, pu-erh tea assisted in shielding brain cells and protecting them from the negative effects caused by increased amounts of glutamate in the brain.19

Reduces chances of being diagnosed with metabolic syndrome — Drinking pu-erh tea has the potential to “adjust the metabolic syndrome of different clinical phenotypes to different degrees,” according to this Journal of Integrative Medicine study.

Pu-erh tea may also aid in boosting immunity, protecting the body against oxidation, addressing central obesity symptoms, reducing blood sugar levels and maintaining optimal blood lipid levels.20

Inhibits tumor growth —Researchers who spearheaded this International Journal of Molecular Sciences study noted that pu-erh tea extracts may promote antitumor abilities.21

Assists in inhibiting epileptic seizures — A Journal of Biomedical Science article revealed that the combination of pu-erh tea leaf (PETL) and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) helped protect your brain from excitotoxins via multiple ways, and potentially assisted or reduced your risk for epileptic seizure.22

Combats obesity — In another animal study, this time published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, pu-erh tea was revealed to help promote weight reduction, whether it’s for total body weight or for adipose pads.

Rats who were obese due to a high-fat diet had lower levels of plasma total cholesterol, triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol after being given some amounts of pu-erh tea.23

Multiple substances were found in pu-erh tea. Apart from caffeine, researchers discovered that this beverage contained:24

  • Epicatechin
  • Epigallocatechin
  • Epigallocatechin-3-O-gallate
  • Epicatechin-3-O-gallate
  • Epiafzelechin-3-O-gallate
  • Catechin
  • Gallocatechin
  • Quercetin
  • Quercetin-O-β-D-glucopyranoside
  • Rutin
  • Kaempferol
  • Kaempferol-3-O-β-glucopyranoside
  • Kaempferol-3-O-rutinoside
  • Strictinin
  • 1,6-O-digalloyl-β-D-glucopyranose
  • Theogallin
  • Chlorogenic acid
  • 3-α,5-α-dihydroxy-4-α-cafeoyl-quinic acid
  • Coniferin
  • Gallic acid

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How to Brew Pu-erh Tea

There are many steps involved in making pu-erh tea. Tea leaves are first withered and dried before being roasted. Afterward, they’re rolled to release moisture and left out to dry under direct sunlight. Once this initial drying process is done, the leaves are further aged and fermented at different time periods. It’s said that raw pu-erh tea’s flavor and quality are enhanced if the leaves are fermented for a long period of time.25

If you have purchased pu-erh tea that’s been shaped and want to prepare it at home, follow these instructions adapted from The Spruce Eats:26

How to Make Pu-erh Tea at Home

1. Use a pu-erh knife, which can be purchased from retailers, or a small and dull knife to scoop a teaspoon or two of tea leaves.

2. If tea leaves have been aged instead of cooked, rinse them by placing inside a brewing vessel and then pouring near-boiling water over them. Afterward, discard the water. What this process does is remove the dust that has accumulated because of the fermenting process and allows the leaves to “be ready” for infusion.

3. When brewing pu-erh tea, see to it the water’s temperature is at 205 degrees F. As for how long pu-erh tea will be brewed, it will depend on the vessel you will use.

If you plan to steep the tea in a yixing teapot (made of purple clay27) or gaiwan (a lidded cup made of porcelain, glass or clay28), do so for 15 to 30 seconds. If you’re going to use conventional Western tea ware, steep the leaves for five minutes.

Does Pu-erh Tea Cause Side Effects?

Before brewing some pu-erh tea for yourself, talk to a doctor or a health professional so you’re aware about the ideal amount of tea that’s best for your current condition. According to WebMD, frequent consumption of pu-erh tea, whether for a long period of time or in high amounts (more than four cups daily), can be unsafe.

Remember that pu-erh tea contains some amounts of caffeine, so prolonged consumption of this drink can lead to side effects such as:29

  • Headaches
  • Nervousness and irritability
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Tremors
  • Heartburn
  • Sensations of ringing in the ears
  • Convulsions
  • Instances of confusion

Increased dependence on pu-erh tea is possible too, and people may develop indicators of dependence, especially if they abruptly stop drinking this beverage. Meanwhile, too-frequent consumption of pu-erh tea may prompt you to increase your dosage significantly so you can receive the benefits linked to this drink.30

If you’re a pregnant woman interested in drinking pu-erh tea, consult your OB-GYN first. WebMD notes that women who drink too much pu-erh tea during this period may experience a higher risk for miscarriage and other pregnancy-related issues. Breastfeeding women are also advised to consume pu-erh tea in moderation because the caffeine in it may be transferred to breastmilk and trigger sleeping difficulties, increased bowel movement and instances of irritability in infants.31

People struggling with the following health problems are advised to significantly lower or avoid intake of this tea because pu-erh tea’s caffeine content may exacerbate their current conditions:32

Consume Pu-erh Tea Moderately

Given the numerous studies showing the possible health benefits of pu-erh tea, it’s quite surprising that it’s not as popular in other countries. While it can be challenging to find a highly reputable source of pu-erh tea, the efforts you make may be worth it once you try this beverage for yourself. Just remember to carefully monitor your intake of this earthy tea so you can sidestep the complications linked to it.

Frequently Asked Questions About Pu-erh Tea

Q: What type of tea is pu-erh?

A: Pu-erh is a fermented tea33 made from the Camellia sinensis var. assamica plant.34 In China, it is considered a dark or black tea.35

Q: What is pu-erh tea made out of?

A: There are many substances and compounds found in pu-erh tea. According to authors of the book “Yunnan Pu-Erh Tea,” this beverage contains some amounts of caffeine, kaempferol, gallic acid, epicatechin, epigallocatechin and quercetin.36

Q: Does pu-erh tea have caffeine?

A: Yes. As mentioned, caffeine is one of the many compounds found in pu-erh tea.37

Q: Can you drink pu-erh tea every day?

A: This will depend on your doctor’s recommendation. If you want to try pu-erh tea, it’s highly advisable to consult a doctor or health professional because there have been side effects linked to this beverage, such as headaches, diarrhea and dizziness.38

Q: Where can you buy pu-erh tea?

A: Tea sommelier Ann Sit recommends buying loose-leaf pu-erh tea from a reputable tea shop.39

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