(IMAGE: The leathery leaves of a late 90s shou pu-erh, ready to be brewed in a relaxed style on a late summer’s day.)
Dear beloved blog readers,
As the last hot days of summer begin to shed themselves, the heat gives way to light breezes. In classical Japanese, the saying 天地始粛 (“てんちはじめてさむし”,”tenchi hajimete samushi”), literally “Earth and Sky begin to cool”, was often invoked to describe this natural phenomenon and is often met with a sense of relief. During these days, as the summer heat wanes, my tea brewing sessions tend to become more relaxed. No more is this more evident than in my approach to brewing pu-erh.
Brewing pu-erh (for most folks I’ve met in my travels) tends to be a pretty relaxed practice. Pu-erh is one of the most commonly consumed teas within China and has even become popular in Korea and, more recently, in the United States. In China, this is the tea that I will see people casually drink, paring it either with a meal (the whole act of eating dim sum in Guangdong evolved around drinking this type of tea, the meal is referred to as “yum cha” or “drink tea” in Cantonese), conversation, or just hanging out. As a result, the way I find most people drinking pu-erh tends to be quite laid back.
Today I find myself brewing a pot of pu-erh in this casual manner. For this, I’ve selected a basic “house pu-erh” that I had helped to bring in from China years ago. It is a very straight-forward medium-sized leaf shou pu-erh, picked and processed in the late 90s. The color of the dry leaves are typical of this type of tea: dark and leathery with bright orange-tan tea buds here and there, as well as the occasional stem (which helps to lend a sweet, “woody” flavor to the tea). Given its age, the tea should be very smooth.
I’ve paired the tea with a “Pearl of China” teapot, a classic shape for a yixing teapot. The spherical shape is perfect for this type of tea, allow the leaves to spin freely within the pot. Once the leaves settle, they should have enough room to open up.
(IMAGE: A “Pearl of China” zisha yixing teapot for brewing shou pu-erh. This teapot has been brewing shou pu-erh in it for the past 5-6 years.)
The key to brewing pu-erh in a relaxed manner is to keep it simple: I will use just one kettle, one teapot, and one cup. Nothing else. The kettle will come to a boil and I will brew the tea. I will not be concerned with the time it takes to brew the tea nor the temperature it is brewed at. The teapot, which has relatively thick walls, will keep the tea at a pretty even temperature. The first steeping will be short, as long as it takes for water to evaporate off of the teapot, after which I will pour only a fraction out into my teacup. The remaining tea in the teapot will remain until I top-off the teapot for a second cup. As I continue to brew, the water from the kettle will naturally become cooler and, as such, I may lengthen the time of subsequent steepings.
The result of brewing in this fashion produces a liqueur that varies in intensity. The first steeping will tend to be quite light, expressing the woody notes of the tea. As the tea continues to brew, the flavors will deepen and the dark berry, earth, and loam notes will emerge. By the fifth or sixth steeping, this tea becomes quite dark, almost as dark as ink or black coffee. In some way, there is even a heartiness to this tea that surpasses coffee, both in its complexity and punch it delivers. By the twelfth steeping, the pu-erh begins to sweeten and brighten in color, shifting from a dark ebony to a light rose. The remaining flavors are almost sugary, akin to a yellow tea.
(IMAGE: The first steeping of many of a late 90s shou pu-erh. The color of the liqueur is considerably lighter than subsequent steepings, offering notes of dry wood and fruit.)
On a late summer’s day, brewing tea in this manner just seems natural. As always, I am curious how you brew your pu-erh. Is it closely tended to? Or, is it like how I have done so today, casually steeped and enjoyed with the passing of one season into the next?