Even a novice tea drinker knows that tea—in its many varieties—can benefit the body. Need to calm down? Brew a calming cup of chamomile. Need help focusing during your fourth Zoom meeting of the day? Matcha‘s got your back. But even tea drinkers with a whole pantry full of different varieties may not be familiar with pu’er tea (also spelled Pu-erh).
While it might be less known to some American consumers, pu’er tea is a staple in China, its country of origin. “Pu’er is a region-specific tea. Similarly to how true champagne has to come from Champagne, France, true pu’er has to come from Yunnan, China,” says Kyle Stewart, co-owner of The Cultured Cup and one of only 175 certified tea specialist in the entire world. Stewart also explains that pu’er is a fermented tea, which means it’s good for your gut. It’s also been strongly linked to heart health. Curious to learn more about this gut- and heart-healthy tea? Keep reading for more information on how it’s made and how sipping it can benefit the body.
How pu’er tea is made
As Stewart explained, pu’er tea is a type of Chinese tea. “Generally, Chinese tea is classified into six major types: green, white, yellow, dark green or oolong, black tea, and pu’er, which is sometimes called dark tea,” says tea sommelier Ann Sit, the general manager at Fook Ming Tong. Sit has been studying tea for decades and dedicates her time scouring tea plantations around China.
Sit explains that there are two types of pu’er tea: raw and fermented. “With the raw tea, the process involves removing part of the water content from the tea leaves by wilting them.” She says that the leaves are steamed, which stops the fermentation process. Then, they’re rolled into the desired shape and dried in the sun. “With fermented tea, the process is the same except that it undergoes a post-fermentation,” Sit says. “It’s a wet piling method, which is a process where tea leaves are chemically broken down by yeast, bacteria, or other micro-organisms.”
Pu’er tea benefits for heart and gut health
With all the kombucha-sipping and probiotic popping going on, many people have wisened up to the fact that bacteria (at least certain types of bacteria) is good for the gut. So too is fermented pu’er tea.
“As early as ancient times, the Chinese had already discovered the medicinal value of pu’er tea,” Sit says. One scientific study found that this type of tea has a very diverse bacteria makeup, which is great news as far as gut health is concerned. “Drinking it is beneficial to the intestines and stomach, in my experience. I’ve had it daily after breakfast for many years and have seen how it can improve digestion and help with constipation,” Sit says, sharing her own personal experience.
Kyle explains that pu’er tea can be fermented for different lengths of time. “Similarly to wine, some is fermented for years and it can be quite expensive to buy,” he says. A longer fermentation process not only tastes different than one that hasn’t been fermented for very long, but according to the scientific study, it will have a wider range of different beneficial bacteria.
Whether you buy it raw or fermented pu’er tea, pu’er tea benefits your heart, too. “This is because pu’er tea has compounds called statins. These are the same compounds found in blood-pressure-lowering medications,” Stewart says. One randomized placebo-controlled trial found that consuming pu’er tea every day successfully lowered cholesterol levels even though no dietary changes were made. Another scientific paper also states that drinking pu’er tea is good for cardiovascular health, not only because of the statins, but also because of the tea’s polyphenols (plant compounds with antioxidant properties) and theabrownin, a type of tea pigment.
Sit says the heart-healthy benefits are why she started drinking pu’er tea every day, starting 30 years ago. “I have a family history of high-cholesterol causing disease. My dad has diabetes and had a stroke,” she says. “Pu’er is not medicine. It cannot cure any disease. But I do believe it is a good herbal supplement for health.”
There are other health benefits to the tea as well. It protects the nervous system and is beneficial for brain health. It’s also been shown to stop tumor growth in lab studies. (Further studies need to be done to see if it also works on humans, not in test tubes.) Simply put, this truly is a special tea.
How to buy and prepare this fermented tea
If you want to buy some, Sit has a few tips to keep in mind. First is the place of origin. It bears repeating that only pu’er tea from Yunnan, China is authentic. Some pu’er tea is labeled with its harvest year, another commonality it has with wine. “Pu’er is meant to be aged over time, preferably kept in a dry and odor-free environment to promote both oxidation and fermentation.,” Sit says. “Normally, well-aged pu’er will fetch the higher price on the market. Therefore, some tea products labels will list the year of the tea harvest year, same as tea leaf’s year of birth.”
If you’re buying it in person and not online, Sit recommends observing the shape and color of the tea leaves, checking for fungus or mold. “Some mold that can be found in tea leaves’ surface is normal, especially for the many years aging,” Sit says, adding that this harmless type of mold is white in color or looks similar to dust. But she says that if you see any green mold, that could be harmful to consume. (Stewart’s tea shop sells pu’er tea ranging from between $11 to $13).
Once you have your tea, it’s important to steep it correctly. Different teas require different water temperatures and steeping times. Sit recommends a water temperature of between 203°F to 212°F and steeping the tea for one minute, or longer if you like a stronger taste. She recommends drinking it after a meal and not on an empty stomach.
So there you have it. Kombucha clearly isn’t the only fermented tea drink that’s full of benefits. Pu’er tea is another one to add to your rotation, and your brain, gut, and heart will all thank you.
By: Emily Laurence