PersonaliTEAs: The Complete Guide to Pu Erh

September 15, 2020

by Abby Morrison

There are several things that are commonly known to get better with age: cheese, fine wine, whiskey, and, sometimes, people. One you might not have heard of though, is tea. Welcome to this installment of our Personaliteas series, where we talk about aged tea: Pu Erh.

What is it?

Pu Erh tea (pronounced “poo err”) is one of the five main types of tea, alongside black, green, white, and oolong. And while we think all teas are special, what makes pu erh unique is that it is fermented, or aged. There are several varieties of it, including maocha, which is the base tea pu erh is made from; green raw pu erh, which has been pressed but not aged; ripened or “shou” pu erh, which has been fermented using an accelerated 45-60 day fermentation process; and aged raw or “sheng” pu erh, which has undergone the traditional aging process.

Similar to wine, traditional aging can take several years to decades, which accounts for the fact that pu erh can be among the most expensive teas in the world, with some bricks (the pressed form of pu-erh) costing thousands of dollars.

The two techniques for fermenting pu erh are the Wò Duī or “wet piling” method and the traditional aging method. In wet piling, tea is place in a warm, humid environment with the fermenting agents (bacteria, fungi, and/or yeast) and rolled in a tumbler similar to a composting barrel. Humidity and the fermenting elements are then closely controlled to ensure the best flavor and quality.

In traditional methods, the tea is processed similar to most teas with wilting, drying, and minimal oxidizing; however, whereas most teas are then heated fully to stop enzyme activity, pu erh teas are only mostly heated, allowing minimal enzyme activity to continue while the tea ages. The teas are then pressed into any of a number of different shapes, including disks, bricks, squares, pearls, or even mushrooms, using either a mechanical press or a heavy stone and stored to age.

Once the tea is ready to use, it can be shaved off of the pressed tea by using a pu erh knife, a tool similar to an oyster knife, or, in some cases, by simply heating the whole pressed shape until it is soft enough to remove leaves by hand.

As to origins, most pu erh tea is produced in Yunnan, a province in southern China long considered to be the birthplace of tea. In particular, there are six “Great Tea Mountains” where it is grown: Gedeng, Yiwu, Mangzhi, Manzhuan, Yibang, and Youle, with nine lesser tea mountains located on the opposite side of the Mekong River. To prevent counterfeit pu erh, teas are always labeled with information about their age, origin, and company.

All of Adagio’s pu erh teas are “shou” or “cooked” teas (though wet piling does not actually involve cooking of any kind). Our two options are Pu Erh Dante (which is part of our Roots Campaign) and Pu Erh Poe, are aged for three and five years, respectively. Our Pu Erh Pearls are aged for five.

Preparation and taste

Pu Erh teas are known most for their earthy flavor and their lack of astringency, which mellows out with age. The mouth feel on them is extremely smooth. They are also, unfortunately, known for their smell, which can be quite strong with age!

Our two options, Pu Erh Danteand Pu Erh Poe, both fall in with classical pu erh flavors. Pu Erh Dante, which trends a little darker in flavor, brings to mind a night-time scene, damp forest, mushrooms, leather, and earth. Pu Erh Poe, meanwhile, goes for a brighter, more autumnal vibe, with vegetal and floral tones.

For those who want to step a little farther outside of those flavors, we also offer our chocolate orange Pu-Erh Chorange, our strawberry hazelnut Pu Erh Hazelberry, and Pu Erh Spice.

For steeping, Pu Erh is unique in that steeping times are really up to personal taste. Pu Erh does not get bitter with oversteeping, is well suited to multiple steeps, and can even be diluted with water if the flavor gets too strong.

We do recommend rinsing the leaves first before steeping, though that is not required. For more information on how to rinse the leaves, and why it matters, please see our previous article on the matter here. Pu erh is most commonly steeped in Yixing clay teaware or in gaiwans, but can be steeped using other teaware as well.

Flavor pairings

Because of its earthy flavors, pu erh tea is well suited to use in more savory dishes, though it can provide a subtle grounding to sweeter dishes as well. It goes well with many proteins, such as chicken or fish, as well as heartier vegetables and mushrooms. Because of its earthiness, it probably would not work as well with lighter flavors such as certain fruits or sweets (though it’s not impossible), but it can pair well flavors like more savory sweets or spices.


If you’d like to get started cooking with Pu Erh tea, our TeaChef website has several recipes ready to go. A few of them include:

Pu Erh Pilaf
Grilled Pu erh Fish Fillets
Pu Erh Dante Smoked Chicken
Mushroom and Lobster Risotto
Inferno Salmon
Chewy Pu Erh Ginger Snap Cookies
Butterscotch Breakfast Buns
Tea Braised Lamb

So, there you have it. With a wealth of new knowledge, you are now ready to take on the world of pu erh tea!

If you fall in love with pu erh (or already have), or try any of the recipes above, please don’t forget to rate and review them and let us know on social @adagioteas.